Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, recently assured intending pilgrims of his administration’s readiness to improve on their welfare during their spiritual exercise to the Holy Land. On the other hand, Ebonyi State government said it will no longer take the responsibilities of sponsoring pilgrims to the Holy Land. Governor Dave Umahi made this known when the Executive Secretary Nigeria Christian Pilgrim Commission (NCPC), Dr Kennedy Okpara paid him courtesy visit at Government House, Abakaliki. Umahi, however, promised that they should be coming together as a private people to contribute into the purse of the Pilgrims’ Boards so that the Boards can always identify and assist those who are rich in spirit and willing to undertake the journey and sponsor them. President Muhammadu Buhari, according to Dr Okpara, is also planning to end the federal government sponsorship of pilgrims to Israel and Saudi Arabia, stating that individuals will have to sponsor themselves on the sacred journey.
The huge allocation for pilgrimages every year needs to be looked into. We understand religion to be a common human experience, happening within a socio-cultural milieu, but it is ultimately an individual matter. In Islam, it is of essence that a person making the pilgrimage to Mecca ought to have the requisite wherewithal and must be healthy to boot. It ought not to be an all-comers affair as has since been promoted by the Christians.
Government involvement in pilgrimages has turned the matter into a blatant racket. This way, the essence of the pilgrimage has been defeated. If the pilgrims actually want to worship God then government should stay out of it. A pilgrimage that requires personal sacrifice at least once in one’s life has been turned into a jamboree.
Constitutionally, Nigeria is a secular state to all intents and purposes; definitely not a theocratic state. The Constitution clearly states that the government should not be involved in religious matters. If Nigeria as a country is truly following the spirit of the Constitution a quango such as the Pilgrims Welfare Board ought not to exist. We have seen a situation where the existence of the board has led to the construction of mosques and churches in State Houses.
Whole States now take the laws into their hands by actually promoting the Sharia law as state policy. It should not be lost on Nigerians that religion is a very emotive matter, especially with the recall of how the country was nearly thrown into a religious war when it was revealed back in 1986 that then military president General Ibrahim Babangida had surreptitiously made the country a member of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC).
The pity is that the Pilgrims Welfare Board was not initiated in the first instance with religious motives. Many Nigerians do not know that the Pilgrims Welfare Board was set up at first in the old Western Region in the 1950s when there was fierce contestation of power between the Action Group (AG) and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). The AG felt that the way to counter the estimated 70 percent of the Muslim votes then going to the NCNC was to appease the Muslims through the setting-up of the Pilgrims Welfare Board. There were actually five Christians in the seven-man committee that set up the board.
Contrary to what many Nigerians would have thought, the Pilgrims Welfare Board was not set up by the Sardauna of Sokoto and his party, the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). The sponsorship of party men and women has since grown in leaps and bounds in the league of the political patronage system. It therefore has to be understood that the promotion of the pilgrimage did not emanate through altruistic reasons.
The true adherents are hardly ever sponsored to the pilgrimages. Party hacks and sundry privileged persons happen to be the so-called pilgrims. It is akin to state-sponsored tourism. These people are actually tourists, and there affairs should be transferred from the Pilgrims Welfare Board to the Nigerian Tourism Board.
There have been cases where persons from a different state had been sponsored to impersonate persons from different states entirely. It is akin to lying to God. Must we bastardize everything in this country? There is deceit everywhere.
Since religion is a very private matter, we call for the scrapping of the Pilgrims Welfare Board. The coming on board of the Christian Pilgrims Welfare Board is merely a balancing act. The fact remains that Israel happens not to be a Christian country. The true Catholics, for instance, should make their private pilgrimages to the Vatican.
If we should take the promotion of pilgrimages much further, then allowance ought to be made for practitioners of traditional religion to make their own pilgrimages to, say, the Osun-Oshogbo Grove and Okija Shrine. It is indeed a great pity that we can’t develop our tourism, yet every year the country pays huge sums of money in transportation, air fares, hotel accommodation etc to Saudi Arabia and Israel in the name of Muslim and Christian pilgrimages that are actually tourist jamborees. It’s by putting a stop to the deceit that the country can set itself free and liberate funds for true development.