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Hajj:A misplaced priority?
Every year, various governments of Nigeria at the national, state and local government levels claim to spend colossal amounts of money on sponsoring pilgrims on Muslim and Christian pilgrimages. These governments claim this spending represents an example of people-oriented policies toward the religions and care for the religious needs of the citizens. Pilgrim sponsorship by governments and these claims follow in the old tradition of government sponsorship of pilgrims that date back to earlier periods. At face value, this idea seems laudable: what could seem better than a government seeking the spiritual health of the country through direct pilgrim sponsorship of citizens that will return to be better human beings in terms of their spiritual growth or rebirth. The idea seems lofty until one looks beneath the surface into the rot that the scheme has become in the hands of unscrupulous officials.
In the case of hajj, individual Muslims become duty-bound to go on this quintessential journey only when certain specified conditions have been fully met- one of which is the financial capacity to fund the journey (being ‘debt-free' and having provided for the financial needs of his/her dependants). It is surprising to find that a nation which cannot feed, educate or provide for the most basic needs of majority of her citizens is so quick to spend huge amounts of money to send such people on pilgrimage?
The truth is that the scheme in most cases is being misused as an avenue to reward and recruit political loyalists and as a conduit for politicians to make claims of spending unverifiable sums. As the hajj season has now come to an end, various governments will once again start announcing quite substantial figures spent to sponsor pilgrims, but not necessarily the poor and practicing Muslims, rather in most cases people who in their private capacity can afford to fund their own pilgrimage and even sponsor others. Highly placed government officials, political loyalists and a few disempowered citizens, who are mostly unemployed, are sent on the journey. When these new pilgrims return, the various miseries in their lives imposed by bad governance continue.
These people are then banded together and crunched into an intricate database to represent the number of people that have benefitted from the scheme. For instance, the Special Adviser to the Governor of Plateau State on Media and Public Affairs, Mr. Daniel Manjang, disclosed to Weekly Trust in Jos on the 26 April 2009 that the state government had spent over N1billion on both the Christian and Muslim pilgrimages in 2008. Shortly after he made this announcement, an orgy of muderous violence erupted in Plateau State erupte, with Muslims and Christians killing each other in teh most barbarous manner.
Can you imagine what difference to the lives of the rural dwellers of Plateau State N1billion would make if it was spent on non-existent, or at best lethargic, social welfare services? Or what multiplying effects the judicious investment of this collosal sum will mean in quality education or health sector of the state could have in their present and future. This misapplication of scarce national wealth is typical of almost all the states in Nigeria where the ‘dividends of democracy' are measured in spurious indices such as the number of pilgrims the states have sponsored or claimed to have sponsored for that matter; states that claim they cannot afford to pay an indecent minimum wage for their workforces.
For a number of years now, many prominent Muslims and Muslim organizations have advocated that the time has come for the era of flagrant wstage and government sponsorship of pilgrims to come to an end. In a 2009 paper entitled, "Challenges of Hajj Operation in Nigeria", the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, Prof. Oloyede said that it was wrong for the government to sponsor pilgrims to the holy land "because individual pilgrims should be responsible for the entire cost of the trip and not rely on anybody's benevolence which in most cases does not cater for the entire needs of the journey". On October 14, 2011, Dr. Yakubu Imam Aliagan of University of Ilorin on his Friday programme on Harmony FM, Idofian, Kwara State called on the government of Dr Goodluck Jonathan to stop spending money that is meant for common goods, such as water, roads, electricity, affordable health facilities and educational institutions to send people on pilgrimages.
These are courageous voices, calling on the government to stop putting scarce money into what has been turned into a punzi scheme. In 2009, the Special Adviser to the Governor of Plateau State, Jonah Jang, on Media and Public Affairs, Mr Daniel Manjang, disclosed to Weekly Trust in Jos that the state government had spent over N1billion on both the Christian and Muslim pilgrimages in 2008. This claim was made in a country which static shows that no university in the country made the top 500 ranking of World Universities; a country where 2,300 under-fives die daily in the same year and 56,000 Nigerian women die yearly from complications related to pregnancy and child birth.
If government wishes to be honest about caring for the religious needs of its citizens, they must institute and drive policies that will economically empower as many Nigerians as possible so that such individuals can on their own afford to cater for the entire needs of the journey. Additionally, government can lend its support through consular and support infrastructures to enable hitch free pilgrimmage operations. The way and manner of wasting scarce public fund on sponsoring religiously obligated pilgrimmage to Makkah and sight-seeing trips to Jerusalem is one more example of misdirected goverment policy. Crucially, education and heal care being offered to Nigerians are largely specious. This obvious fact should by itself compel a responsive government to be prudent in spending public fund. Ending the legacy of outrageous spending on sponsoring pilgrims will also contribute to stopping the continued plundering of our nation's treasury in various guises. This would not only be right, it would be wise.
Kamor is a director, communication, Muslim Public Advance Centre (MPAC).