Barely three weeks after I wrote on the Needless Subsidy Buhari Shouldn’t Give, the Presidency has harkened to the voice of reason, by refraining from sending an official delegation for hajj in Saudi Arabia this year. The President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mallam Garba Shehu, disclosed this on Monday.
I commend this courageous stand. It shows on the one hand that President Muhammadu Buhari is a man who listens and can be persuaded by reasonable arguments. It also shows that his vaunted abhorrence for waste and profligacy is a policy he is determined to pursue. By his own admission, sending a Federal Government delegation to the hajj this year is unconstitutional and unfair and would have cost the tax payers more than a million dollars and another N30m for ‘logistics’. It is gladdening that the Presidency realized that such an amount could be put to better use.
But he should do more than this, in order to properly remove any veil of ambiguity over this laudable move. Shehu says the FG will not be sending delegation “this year.” That presupposes that the government may consider returning to the era of sponsoring pilgrims on hajj in the coming years, particularly if the economy improves. That will be a faulty premise on which to peg the argument for belt tightening.
If the current austere times are the reason why the FG is withdrawing from hajj sponsorship this year, it is good enough. But it is not sufficient, for there are several other things the government can remove its hands from if it is really keen to cut cost. A more genuine reason, however, will simply be to accept that Nigeria being a secular state, the government has no business in picking the bills of those who wish to commune with their Creator in climes other than theirs.
One way to justify Buhari’s commendable action will be to ratify the Stephen Orosanye Committee report, which recommended to the past administration the scrapping of Pilgrims Commissions because they contribute nothing to the nation other than drain it of resources. Orosanye, the troubled former Head of Service, may have been accused of alleged greed, for which he is currently trying to clear his name with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. However, the report from his committee to former President Goodluck Jonathan on duplication of federal agencies and the need to reduce cost of governance is a timely admonition on cost efficiency.
Indeed, the recommendations are in sync with the Theophilus Danjuma-led committee’s in 2011, which, just after Jonathan’s victory at the polls, had canvassed a comprehensive reduction in the cost of running government if Nigeria must survive. But the effects of the wasteful years under Jonathan are still fresh. The former President of course ignored the warning and instead indulged in an unsustainable binge that ended four years later with federal government borrowing to pay salaries, an almost drawn-down foreign reserves and varied disjointed accounts. That Jonathan had a knack for ignoring valuable reports that promoted probity is now legendary, which now serves as an abysmal low point that no President worth the title should ever descend to.
And this precisely is the reason why Buhari’s stance on the cessation of religious subsidy should not be ambiguous at all. Shehu did clarify that government would still play its traditional role of providing consular, medical and security services to pilgrims. That’s fair enough if that infers that such responsibility is extended to individual Nigerians going on excursion to the Himalayas or Sarajevo for example; or to students studying abroad, or those seeking medical attention in India.
What the Presidency ought not to do is to be tacitly indifferent about state governments’ disposition on the same issue. Shehu had said that states were at liberty to sponsor pilgrims, if they chose. I do not see the point of such caveat.
Granted that the FG could not really give a directive to states on this score, it can still encourage them to emulate its own prudential style of governance. And frankly, which state can really afford to subsidize religious pilgrimages now? Is it the states that owe salaries and now seek fresh ideas on how to return from the brink? Or is it those few rich ones which either depend on federal allocation and Internationally Generated Revenues, which when combined can still not make them debt-free in three or four years?
What then is the incentive to continue in such costly jamboree other than to keep up with the Joneses? Some states budget almost half a billion naira in a year for sponsoring pilgrims. But how many truly poor people benefit from such sponsorships compared to the number of political jobbers who have perfected the art of getting the government to pick their bills? In any case, it won’t be wrong of a President who deemed it expedient to grant a form of bail-out to states to give them a few lessons in moderation and prudence.
Part of the reason why the Obasanjo administration was able to keep the debt profile in check was because he got directly involved in ensuring that states didn’t over-step their bounds by borrowing in a manner that would jeopardize the economy of their respective states. He must have thought that why should governors who didn’t campaign on the strength of running government on loans and bonds should be left unchecked in their debt indulgence. Was it not Jonathan’s inability to offer caution and stern leadership that got us to this level of debt-ridden states? And, really, Jonathan was one President who was not satisfied with going on his knees before pastors of different hues at home. He had to go, with pump and ceremony, to the birthplace of his Messiah who requested no other pilgrimage than a child-like heart.
Nasir el Rufai has said that Kaduna under his watch would not dabble into religious matters let alone fund it. Lagos State under Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has also clarified that it will spend no dime of the state in sponsoring pilgrims. Like the FG, it will only coordinate their operations. If the FG and a few states had not pulled out, about N70bn would have been committed into sponsoring pilgrims on hajj this year, according to media reports.
If it is not good enough for the FG, it should not be acceptable to the states either. And the reason why the President’s unambiguous position has to be reiterated is to also stress that this is not just about hajj but also about the Christian pilgrimages. This clarification is even more necessary considering the curious announcement last month by the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Welfare Board, John Kennedy-Opara, to the effect that government had pegged the exchange of a dollar to N160 for intending pilgrims.
That was the kernel of my article three weeks ago, which the Presidency is yet to clarify. If such subsidy has been granted or suggested at all, it should be reversed without delay so that those who want JP after their names can be told politely that religion is a private affair.
Buhari’s body language should be unmistakably clear in these times that courageous leadership is keenly needed. History will be kind to him if he succeeds in ending this waste at both the federal and state levels.