By Chijioke Okoronkwo,
Unarguably, one of the most contentious recommendations of the ongoing National Conference is stoppage of government’s funding of pilgrimage to the holy lands of Jerusalem and Mecca.
The Committee on Religion had recommended establishment of Religious Equity Commission (RECOM) and stoppage of government’s sponsorship of pilgrims to the holy lands.
After an intensive horse-trading that lasted for about two weeks, the issue was put to vote and the conference resolved that government should stop funding pilgrimage.
If the recommendation is given legal backing, the pilgrim welfare boards and commissions will cease to exist.
Delegates that supported the stoppage, said sponsorship of pilgrims violated Section 10 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution.
The recommendation provides inter alia: “In consonance to Section 10 of 1999 Nigerian Constitution, government at all levels shall not utilise public funds to sponsor any religious pilgrimage for any category of citizens and government functionaries.
“Government shall discontinue the sponsorship of official government delegations on any pilgrimage, for the same reasons as stated above.
“Government in the exercise of its oversight responsibility to the citizens of Nigeria, shall provide normal consular services for the pilgrims through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the established foreign missions in the relevant destinations”.
The Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC), established in 2007, has the mandate to provide accommodation and coordinate the movement of persons from Nigeria to Jerusalem and other Holy Sites.
It also has the responsibility to liaise and co-ordinate with the appropriate government’s organs of Nigeria and Israel on the rules and regulations governing entry into and staying in Israel for the purposes of pilgrimage.
Similarly, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), established in 2006, has the mandate of licensing bodies engaged in organising and coordinating the movement of persons from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj or Umra.
NAHCON also has the mandate to provide accommodation, transportation and other services related to the performance of the Hajj and Umra to pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, among others.
Rev. Father Festus Nwadike, the Parish Priest of Saint Luke’s Catholic Church, Kubwa, FCT who commented on the recommendation, said no satisfactory reason was adduced to support the scrapping of the boards and commissions.
“What cogent reasons do they have to recommend the scrapping of pilgrim’s board?
“They keep talking about government sponsoring pilgrims with public funds, what are public funds if not for the public?
“There is nothing wrong in government sponsorship of poor people who cannot afford to go on pilgrimage; it is a way of taking care of the citizens’ spiritual life.
“As for those who are rich and comfortable, they should be made to sponsor themselves; but there should be a mechanism of determining who actually genuinely needs sponsorship.’’
Nwadike regretted that most of the people contending against such sponsorship had previously benefitted from it and could afford to visit Jerusalem or Mecca twice a year.
Meanwhile, NAHCON, in a statement signed by its Head of Information, Uba Mana, explained that the act setting up the commission only mandated it to regulate the conduct of Hajj and Umra and oversee the activities of service providers.
It said that government only funded pilgrimage for consular officials and others whose services were needed for a smooth Hajj operation.
“These service providers include the 36 states of the federation, the FCT and the Armed Forces, who own all the pilgrims that travel through the flight arrangements made by NAHCON, while the tour operators cater for pilgrims who prefer to travel through international scheduled flights.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Federal Government which is represented by the Commission in this set up, does not own a single pilgrim from the two categories stated above and therefore has no provision under the act to sponsor any pilgrim.
“But of course, as rightly noted and acknowledged by the CONFAB, the Federal Government through NAHCON, provides medical and other essential services to the 100,000 Nigerians that perform hajj annually.
“Consular services are also provided by staff of Nigerian diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Federal Government also funds a delegation which is usually appointed annually to supervise and ensure the smooth conduct of the exercise.’’
It should be recalled that the Executive Secretary of NCPC, Mr John-Kennedy Opara, had previously kicked against scrapping of faith-based agencies, saying they played crucial role in the moral and spiritual rebirth of the faithful.
He said that it was worrisome that people should make such calls to scrap the only faith-based agencies out of over 100,000 Federal Government agencies.
“The Hajj Commission or the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission is a faith-based agency of government. These are agencies of government that help people morally and spiritually.
“Every responsible government will tell you that if you neglect religion, if you neglect spirituality, people will be doing whatever they want to do; they will be reckless.
“And I tell you, for Nigerians I know, if the state governments or federal government say no, we do not want to be part of it, Nigerian Christians and Nigerian Muslims will still be going on pilgrimage because it is part of their lives and they believe in it.
“Most of them have been touched. So, telling them to scrap it, I do not know for what purpose. I think it is a misplacement of priorities,’’ he said.
Whatever happens at the end of the day, it should be recalled that President Goodluck Jonathan recently affirmed that the Federal Government would continue to sponsor pilgrims to the holy lands.
Jonathan added that pilgrim camps would be built inside international airports across the country to facilitate the transportation of pilgrims.
He noted that Nigerians are religious and majority of them were in support of government assistance to citizens desirous of visiting the holy lands.
“As long as we believe that is the best thing for our people, we have no hesitation to do what the people believe is right,” he said.
“States funds are general funds and the country is a secular society.
“Whether you are a Christian governor or a Muslim governor, you are spending money that belongs to all Nigerians.’’
Perceptive observers hold that assisting the less privileged Nigerians to assuage their spiritual taste, at least, once in a life time, should not be viewed as a waste of public funds. (NAN)