Resolving Nigeria’s pilgrimages sponsorship conundrum
By Okofu Ubaka
As an undergraduate student in the Department of Literary Studies, The Pilgrim’s Progress, (1678), by John Bunyan did not appeal to me beyond the mere academic exercise of committing the biblical allegory to memory and ‘offloading’ same at the end of the semester. Over the years, however, life time experiences and academic sagacity have coalesced, and the outcome is that one is now more adequately informed to discuss religious practices differently.
The Pilgrim’s Progress might be fictional yet, it touches on a fundamental issue about a world that is sempiternal. Further, it portrays man as been spiritually bankrupt, and urgently in need of redemption. Bunyan tells a story of pains and pursuit of life. From birth, through the windy maze of existence, man must strive to make peace with his maker. Also, on this peregrination of spiritual devotion, the ability to surmount the spiritual conundrum of the trilogy of piety, charity and love places one on the right stead to access penance, and then redemption. From Buddhism to Hinduism, from Islam to Christianity, from Krishna to African traditional worship, the core purpose of existence is to make peace with our maker. Christian, the protagonist in Bunyan’s bible prose is the everyman that must coast through the valley of the shadow of death if he must dock at his destination.
The thin line between politics and religion does not guarantee the latter the robust attention of the former. Sadly, managers of the Nigerian state and several other African nations have been hypocritical and self-serving in this regard. If it was once fashionable, the present tragic run of events, particularly the dearth of infrastructural facilities have made it unwise for government to continue to sponsor pilgrimages, whether to the Saudi heartland, Jerusalem or Corinth. It beats the imagination to know that government’ sponsorship of pilgrimage predated the political contraception known today as Nigeria. The first Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia was sponsored by the colonial administration in 1954. It went on in piece-meals until the twilight of the 1970s when Gen. Gowon established the Muslim Pilgrim Board. Following public opprobrium the action was replicated with the establishment of a Christian Pilgrim Board by the Shehu Shagari led civilian government. Essentially, flight tickets, accommodation and Basic Traveling Allowances (BTA) of pilgrims were to be fully borne by both boards that enjoyed sumptuous allocations from the federal government of Nigeria.
Many Nigerian governments have since taken steps to legitimize their huge spending on pilgrimages. The National Hajj Commission Act (2006) and the Christian Pilgrim Commission Act (2007) are cases at hand. Surprisingly, both extant laws on pilgrimages did not define who a pilgrim is, or what journey can be classified as a pilgrimage. It may be presumed that any religious-based trip to any of the holy lands should be subsumed as pilgrimage. Little wonder, Christians from the Southern part of Nigeria have expanded the scope of Christian pilgrimage to include Italy and Greece. Meanwhile, the sanctums in Islam remain Medina and Mecca. Like their Christian counterparts, adherents of Islam see the pilgrimage as one of the five divine instructions handed down by Prophet Muhammad to Islamic faithfuls. Christians have also argued that visits to sacred biblical landmarks have scriptural backing. It remains to be seen why Shiloh is not among such sanctums still being visited by Christian pilgrims today. Some Christians have also cited Zachariah 8: 22, 14:16-17 to back up their claim that pilgrim is a divine instruction from God Almighty.
The question is not whether God himself had instructed pilgrimages to Medina, Corinth or Jerusalem or not. But, whether it is appropriate for religious foci to come within the purview or direct sponsorship of government. The Nigerian government has not been sincere with plans to whittle down the huge amount spent on pilgrimages. The nation is stunned annually at the opulence of a religious exercise that ordinarily ought to be private and personal. Between 2011 and 2015 alone, over N136.5 billion was spent annually on pilgrimages. No doubt, there have been polemic and public tantrum against the drain of the peoples’ collective resources, but government has equally rebuffed such calls. Superior argument holds that government continuous sponsorship of pilgrimages in the face of dwindling resources amounts to tossing our collective future into the sea of hopelessness. A perusal of the 2019 budget of the federal government of Nigeria shows that the federal Ministry of Science and Technology which has over 17 agencies was among the least in allocation. Allocating N66 billion and about 0.757% of the entire 2019 budget to science and technology while pilgrimage takes over N170 billion clearly shows that we may be doomed to fail as a nation. It further racked up the execrable claim that Nigeria is one of the countries in the world with very low Human Development Index (HDI).