Stop the pilgrimage sponsorship

Stop the pilgrimage sponsorship

A few weeks ago, I received my tax clearance certificate from the tax authorities. It showed details of the personal income taxes I have paid in the last three years. Rather than excite me that I got a certificate for my contribution to financing public funds, it made me angrier at some of the things I complain about the country, top of which are corruption and mismanagement of public finance. As we joked about it in the office, someone drew my attention to the fact that my one year tax was about the sum used in clothing a member of the National Assembly in the name of ‘wardrobe allowance’. Now, who wouldn’t be mad about that? So next time you see any of those federal legislators move about with swagger in dapper suit, just know that they are in borrowed robes, paid for by citizens like me who pay the right taxes.

The pain of paying taxes and the government carrying on as if it owes you no duty or responsibility and the feeling that government is not using your contribution judiciously led me to write a few years ago that I needed amnesty for my tax burdens. Today, even with a new government that got into office on the wings of ‘change’, I still need to be convinced that my interest and those of majority of citizens are always reflected in the decisions of government.

Just this past week, I began feeling that way again after I heard this piece of news concerning government’s planned subsidy for pilgrimage. According to media report, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved a special exchange rate of N160 to a dollar for those who plan to go for ‘Christian pilgrimage’. The information was given by the Executive Secretary of the Christian Pilgrims Commission, John Kennedy Opara. He spoke to State House correspondents after he held a meeting with the President, so he couldn’t possibly be speaking out of ignorance and, to the best of my knowledge, the presidency has not denied that report.

Just so that we understand where my anger is welling from, the official exchange rate of the dollar to naira is one dollar to about N200. In the parallel market (that is the open and more patronised market) the street value of the dollar is at least N225. What that means is that for every dollar a potential Christian pilgrim would buy in prosecution of his/her trip, the Nigerian state would officially spend at least N40 to subsidise that. So we are in for another regime of subsidy. No doubt this obnoxious support by the state has been with us for a long time (so technically it is not just a Buhari problem) and similar subsidy is also provided for Muslims when they go on pilgrimage. So the enormity of our financial losses should be well understood here.

Here we are in a country whose Constitution is against state religion, but we routinely squander public resources on religious causes, even if in the process we promote Christianity and Islam and discriminate against other religions. And I keep wondering what government’s business is with citizen’s private lives on which realm religion sits. For the avoidance of doubt, government should stop spending our dwindling public funds on sponsoring pilgrims of any faith or appointing heads of delegation for any pilgrimage with cost to the state. And there are enough reasons for this position.

The resources of Nigeria ought to be managed in a manner that is equitable to all Nigerians. To the extent that our citizens are not only Christians and Muslims, there is no justification in splashing state resources on followers of just those two faiths. There are many more Nigerians who do not adhere to these two faiths and therefore may have their own religious or spiritual equivalent of pilgrimage which the state could be called upon to also support.

Even among the adherents of Christianity and Islam, there are many who do not consider these kinds of pilgrimages as mandatory or necessary. I know some Christians whose equivalent of pilgrimage would be visit to the headquarters, prayer ground or some other ‘camp site’ of their church denominations, and many of their members from across the world troop down there annually for the event. So why is the state not sponsoring or supporting such gatherings? Besides, there is nowhere in the Christian Biblical teachings where there is a suggestion that the faithful should go on pilgrimage and that to any particular location. So, the bare truth (which some Christians would rather not accept for political-economic reasons) is that these so-called ‘Christian pilgrimage’ is nothing but religious tourism and a creation of Nigerian Christian elite.

Granted but not admitting that there is justification for state sponsorship of pilgrimages, how equitable is the selection process of the beneficiaries? What are the tangible gains of all the funds Nigeria has expended on pilgrimage since it started funding such? Even at the spiritual level, would we say ours is a country where morality, honesty and love have risen higher as a result of this window of squandering of resources? Truth is, corruption and lack of integrity have grown even geometrically over the years and the level of religious bigotry is even higher now than before.

There is even the question of how the access to these cheap dollars in the name of government largesse would be managed. I speak of a truth that I do not have confidence in the leadership of even the religious groups to manage this access and sharing of the largesse honestly, fairly and equitably. And unless we want to pretend, most Nigerians would agree with this. And for me, a Christian and certified payer of huge and appropriate personal income tax, I feel thoroughly cheated for my resources to be used to support people going on their personal enhancement projects at the expense of the public.

The Buhari administration would do well to put an end to this inanity. And if it does so, it would save the country huge sums of the much needed resources to invest in critical sectors like education and health. We cannot be shouting change and be stuck in our old ways and expect better results.

First published in The Niche newspaper of July 19, 2015.

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