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Should Nigerian government pay for Hajj trips

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Rep. Umar Ajilo, while moving the motion, described the fees set by the National Hajj Commission (NAHCON) as exorbitant and emphasised the need for the government to make the 2024 Hajj more affordable.

In adopting the resolution, the House mandated the Committee on Muslim Pilgrimage to engage the NAHCON in reviewing and reassessing processes to make the pilgrimage more affordable.

Recently, the media space was awash with reports that the Federal Government has approved ₦90 billion to subsidise the 2024 Hajj pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

A national daily reported that a top government functionary confirmed the report saying they “actually provided some financial support for the hajj exercise. But that was not the first time religious pilgrimage subsidies would capture media attention.

In 2021 despite the then prevailing COVID-19, the Federal Government budgeted ₦2.6 billion as a subsidy for those undertaking pilgrimage from the two dominant religions in the country, Islam and Christianity.

Civil society organisations kicked as the budget was published on the verified website of the Budget Office of the Federation. Many Nigerians perform multiple pilgrimages to Israel and Saudi Arabia annually, with governments picking portions of their bills.

However, amid the rising cost of living in recent times, many Nigerians frown at the idea of the government subsidising religious pilgrimages. This section of Nigerians urged the administration of President Bola Tinubu not to approve such spending as it does not portray a country in an economic reform mode.

Speaking with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Abuja on Monday, a civil servant who gave his name as Mordi, questioned the rationale behind subsidising religious events.

“The present administration removed subsidy on petrol and merged the exchange rates of the naira. We were told to swallow the bitter pill for future comfort.

“Those economic decisions have made life difficult for ordinary Nigerians. Yet, we have a Minister of Power bent on removing subsidies on electricity.

“But then, we are paying billions of naira to subsidise religious pilgrimage? Please make it make sense to me,” he said.

On his part, Dotun Olowookere, another civil servant, said by the time subsidies paid by state governors for the same purpose are added to the equation, it would run into hundreds of billions.

“State governments are even more guilty. We see protests in states by ordinary people who cannot afford food, yet just wait and hear how much governors pay to subsidise religious pilgrimages.

“Don’t forget that the practice was also to give intending pilgrims a special exchange rate which was ridiculously low. With the merger of rates, I don’t know if that still exists. The bottom line is that the practice is a misplacement of priorities,” he said.

Indeed, some states have already concluded plans to subsidise fares for intending pilgrims in their states. States such as Kano, Kebbi and Kogi have already directed and approved payment to offset the balance of the Hajj fee for intending pilgrims following an increment by NAHCON.

The fare was initially pegged at ₦4.5 million before it was increased to ₦4.6 million for northern pilgrims and ₦4.8 million for pilgrims from the south. NAHCON explained that the increment in Hajj fares was due to a high forex exchange rate. In a recent report, a national newspaper said five states have subsidised Hajj fares for 10,260 intending pilgrims for the 2024 exercise.

It said Kogi, Kebbi, Jigawa, Bauchi and Kano have spent a combined sum of ₦9,120,997,990 on pilgrimage. Farouk, a trader in Karu, a suburb of Abuja, said although performing a pilgrimage is a religious obligation, those who can already afford it should not be supported.

“If you already have ₦4 million, you should be able to find the difference. What about those who cannot afford it at all?

“For me, it does not make sense, because many people are not even thinking about performing pilgrimage but what to eat and how to pay their bills,” he stated.

Following the removal of subsidy on petrol, the government promised measures to cushion the effect. Many Nigerians say that it is insensitive to pay billions in religious pilgrimage subsidies when that promise has not been met.

Some financial experts also say that in a country where the minimum wage is ₦30,000 and a new one has not been determined, spending such money does not make economic sense.

However, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) said subsidising pilgrimage was in order especially at periods like this when the cost of undertaking such endeavour was skyrocketing.

“No responsible government anywhere in the world will ignore the plight of such a large number of its citizens under such a vulnerable and unpredictable condition. Tinubu’s intervention is therefore in order.

“It had somehow become a frustrating experience, particularly for those who could not raise any additional money,” Prof. Ishaq Akintola, Executive Director, MURIC said in a statement.

The subsidy has also been justified on the grounds of its spiritual benefits to the State. In validating Imo State subsidising pilgrimages to Israel and Jordan for Christians in 2023, Rev. Olaribeoleafo Gilbert, Chairman, Imo State Christian Pilgrims Welfare Board and Chaplain of the Government House, Owerri, said the sponsorship was also part of the government’s responsibilities to the people.

The state government had subsidised the exercise to the tune of ₦1.5 billion at the rate of ₦1.5 million for each of the 1000 pilgrims.

“The spiritual benefits are important, and far outweigh criticisms. I ask those who criticise it, what is the benefit of prayer to you?

“It (going on pilgrimage) is a fundamental right of pilgrims and the statutory right of government to fund or sponsor it, he added.

Written by Kayode Adebiyi.

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