Pilgrimage Subsidy Blues: Their Words Against Ours | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Pilgrimage Subsidy Blues: Their Words Against Ours

Posted: Aug 11, 2016 at 2:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

By Kingsley Oghomwenghian

 It was the closing press briefing of Nigeria’s delegation to the Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group in Washington in 2013 led by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy.

Mallam Lamido Sanusi, then Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), who attended, accompanied by one of his deputies, among others, had lamented the continued involvement of government in sponsorship of religious activities using state funds.

His argument and the case in point was the continued state funding of the annual hajj by Muslims to Saudi Arabia, expressing angst that many of those who buy US$ from CBN at official rates sell to fellow pilgrims from other nations at black market rates in Mecca, thereby earning arbitrage premium or what is called round-tripping.

Sanusi, now Emir Muhammadu Sanusi III of Kano, may have been referring to the tenets of Islam that requires a Muslim to go on pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his/her life time, depending, however, on having the wherewithal to undertake it.

So, one was naturally worried last week about a CBN circular: TED/FEM/FPC/GEN/01/005 of August 4, 2016, offering 65,197 pilgrims to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia up to $1,000 each at N197/$ instead, which, in the face value, could translate to government offering to waste N11.92 billion of tax payers’ money (at the market rate of about N380/$) subsisting a private religious obligation.

The worry is more as it is coming at a time when there is so much poverty in the land (about 70%) and 12.1% unemployment rate, with many Nigerians daily unable to afford one good meal (square or circle), a situation that was once again confirmed by NOI Poll of July 25, 2016, showing that 83% of 1,000 respondents, say “they have been affected by new economic realities,” forced to cut down on expenses, adjust feeding patterns and resort to God in prayers, as the economic situation worsens. Add this to the latest ‘Household Economy Survey’ by Philips Consulting showing that the prevailing economic situation in the country has resulted in detrimental effect on the economic security of most citizens and households.

More painful is when such is coming from a government that promised to check all manners of economic wastes, especially at a time when there is unarguably no more money for what my friends call “feferity (frivolities),”and government begins to go the old way of pretending that “the money is there, the problem is how to spend it.”

If for nothing else, I know that local government workers in my own Edo State governed by Adams Oshiomhole, a former President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), are owed as much as 42-month salary arrears, just like in many of the oil producing states.

The subsidy reminded one of the public outcry that greeted the two-day visit of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in July 2014, accompanied by the then Akwa Ibom governor, Godswill Akpabio; former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor; Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State as well as ex-governors Gabriel Suswam (Benue) and Jonah Jang (Plateau).

On the train were Rev. Nicholas Okoh, Primate, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion); Bishop David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church Worldwide; Ven. Obioma Onwuzurumba, Chaplain of the Presidential Villa; and John-Kennedy Opara, Executive Secretary, Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission. The delegation also included cabinet members – Chief Olajumoke Akinjide (Minister of State for FCT); Prof. Chinedu Neboh (Power); Mrs. Sarah Ochekpe (Water Resources).

Sen. Smart Adeyemi, former Chairman, Senate Committee on FCT was there, likewise Sen. Philip Aduda; Ndudi Elumelu, then a member of the House of Representatives; and Brig-Gen. Jones Arogbofa (Rtd), then Chief of Staff to the President.

With such a crowd, two airplanes from the Presidential fleet could have been deployed, fueled from government treasury, just as each member of the team would have earned millions of US$ in juicy estacodes.

So, you see why the spirit and the letters of the Nigerian constitution from the earliest ones affirm the secularity of the Nigerian state as noted in Section 10 of the 1999 version that: “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State religion.”

However, CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, offered some measure of comfort on Tuesday, when he said, just like Aso Rock the previous day, that neither the bank nor the Federal Government subsidised forex for 2016 hajj pilgrims.

It is important for me to go back. In 2015 when the market rate was 197, the pilgrim’s commission, Christians and Muslims, actually came to the Central Bank and agreed at N160 to the dollar, even when the market was 197. That was an agreement and a contract reached.

“For 2016, the pilgrims commission came to the (CBN), and we agreed that it had to be done at the market rate, which at that time was N197.The contract was reached sometime around March and April this year. I would think it would be inappropriate at this time, because the exchange rate has adjusted, that we should go back to the pilgrims and pay the difference.”

While we acknowledge the clarifications, it must also give everyone a measure of comfort that government and the CBN have come to bare what they know to be facts of the case as part of engaging public officers to ensure that perceived excesses are checked.

 Last Line: We are watching the current budget padding ping-pong. Jibrin says there was padding, FG says there was none, Dogara said padding is no crime (In Fela’s voice) E no finish, e no finish, e no finish….