IT is disheartening that the Buhari Administration is so soon dabbling in matters that would not by any means improve the well-being of the citizens and which could cast it in the mould of a regime without priorities.
A disturbing example is the approval of a concessionary exchange rate of N160 to $1 for Christian and Muslim pilgrims. This is one matter that ought to have gone with the inglorious past of official profligacy and lack of direction. Indeed, such a concession should not have been given by Buhari’s government if he really wants Nigerians to take him seriously on his much-touted promise of change.
Christians going to Israel this year on holy pilgrimage would enjoy a lower exchange rate because of the president’s concession. Of course, the same concession is bound to be extended to the Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. The official exchange of the naira has hovered between N196 and N200 while at the parallel market it is between N225 and N240. Buhari’s intervention in religious matters in this manner is highly unacceptable as it overtly negates the secularity of the nation. The president’s decision betrays his failure to understand the national issues on which he should urgently expend his energy. At a time the nation is faced with an economic crisis and efforts are being made to conserve foreign exchange, the Buhari government has set out to sabotage itself by making foreign exchange available through the backdoor to some privileged people.
If there are sectors that urgently need such presidential intervention, these must include the manufacturing sector and education. Many industries are groaning under the non-availability of foreign exchange and there is the grim prospect of mass job loss as they may shut down. Recently, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had to stop the importation of 41 non-essential items in order to protect the naira and conserve foreign exchange. If the government could stop these importers whose businesses employ Nigerians, it has no justification for funding pilgrims. In the educational sector, many Nigerian students are stranded overseas because their sponsors back at home cannot remit funds to them due to the scarcity of foreign exchange.
The administration’s action is an affront to the secularity of the country as Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution declares that “the government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.”
Past governments treated Christianity and Islam as though they were the only religions in the country. But this should not be so. Religion has always been a sore point in Nigeria, and for the purpose of national stability, the government must reckon at all times with the religious plurality of the society. By funding pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims, is the government saying that it is ready to sponsor the adherents of other religions? And where would the funds for these religious jamborees come from? The nation can only enjoy religious tolerance and peace when religion is appreciated and treated strictly as a personal affair. Anybody who wants to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Mecca or any other place should do so on his or her own. After all, the religiosity of Nigerians and pilgrimages to foreign lands hardly reflects in their character and public conduct. In some respects, these trips that have become a form of jamboree neither uplifts the person, nor assists the nation. It hardly deepens their religious faith.
Instead of the president’s patronising approach to pilgrims, he should be thinking seriously of how to stop the nation’s involvement in religious affairs by scrapping the Christian and Muslim pilgrims’ boards. The government must not involve itself in encouraging religious tourism that boosts the economies of other countries at the expense of Nigeria’s economy. The whole world is dismayed at Nigerians’ dubious religiosity which was why at a time, the Saudi authorities tried to reduce the influx of Nigerian citizens to Mecca by proposing that a Nigerian who had been to Mecca for pilgrimage five times should not be allowed again. But because of lack of cooperation from the Nigerian government, this proposal did not succeed.
This lack of priorities at the federal level as shown is often replicated at the state level. Like the Federal Government, states spend billions of naira to fund religious activities that add no value to the welfare of the citizens. As one way of making good the change promised by the Buhari government, such billions should be used to fund appropriate sectors of the economy like roads, energy and education. This would redound to good governance for which Buhari was elected into office, and stop the state from the funding of religion which is strictly a personal affair.