Opinion

Nigeria Government’s N90 Billion Hajj Politics

By Lasisi Olagunju 

FROM Lagos, one Ayinde Salihu wrote to the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, on 19 January, 1964, describing the premier as the “Prophet of Nigeria.” The man wanted the Sardauna to take him to Mecca for Hajj. Buliyaminu Oladiti Fadairo wrote from Ibadan on 21 January, 1964, saluting the Sardauna as “Nigerian Holiest Father.” It was his way of massaging the big man’s ego so that he would make him a pilgrim in that year’s Hajj. Same day from Kabba, Aruna Agbana wrote begging the Sardauna to sponsor his pilgrimage to Mecca “in the name of Allah and Annabi Muhammadu, the Holy Prophet…and in the name of Usman Dan Fodio…” The Sardauna had a standard response for all of them: “Pilgrimage is not obligatory if one has no means…” American professor of history, Mathew M. Heaton, has all the above in his ‘Ahmadu Bello and the Politics of Pilgrimage’. It is a chapter in his book on ‘Decolonising the Hajj’ published in 2023.

What the Sardauna said about pilgrimage not being “obligatory if one has no means” is the correct injunction prescribed in Islam. But, the injunction might be canonically true in 1964, it is no longer so today. Never mind that John Bunyan in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ says “what God says is best, is best though all the men in the world are against it.” The poet just wasted words. There are egregious carts everywhere today for the pilgrim to ride in short-circuiting faith and its precepts. They say the times determine what law to keep. They say that at every point in time, what the world carries is the child the times birth for it.

The way we fart while pricing irú (locust beans) is not the way we should fart while buying salt. But now, there are no limits to misbehaviour. Everywhere stinks. We shit in holy places and receive effusive thank you from the guardian priests. If he were alive, the powerful Sardauna would not have resisted the pressure to pay today – and remain relevant. A multitude of Nigerians (Muslim and Christian) desire the bliss of paradise which may be in holy pilgrimages but everyone wants someone else to pay for it. And they get it. ‘FG bows to pressure, approves N90 billion subsidy for Hajj fares’ was how The Guardian headlined its report on a payment of subsidy for Hajj. I read it in other papers also. The payment is unprecedented in the hugeness of the figure. And the government has not said the media lied. Hajj is an obligation which applies under clearly stated conditions – these include financial and physical capability. But now, every year, pressure, threats, and blackmail are rained on presidents and governors to sponsor pilgrims. And they cave in to do what is wrong. They forget that they were elected to say no to irregularities; that sometimes, resistance may be politically inexpedient and tough, but in resisting wrong lies victory. “Dark clouds bring waters, when bright bring none” – Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress again. Robbing the Peter of millions of Nigerians to foot the bill of elitist Paul is a mark of the beast. But it is the new normal. Governments sponsor thousands to Mecca and Jerusalem in exchange for political support.

I call the Nigerian elite culture which allowed this payment an ‘Aj’ìfà’ culture. Aj’ìfà is that person who grows fat reaping big where he sows little – or reaps without sowing at all. Someone else said elsewhere that Nigeria is an “Aj’òfé society.” That somebody is Ladun Anise, late professor of political science, who explains in a 1979 journal article that “the word Aj’òfé is a Yoruba word meaning ‘free-loader’ or ‘parasite.'” I nodded as I read his further explanation that “an aj’òfe society carries a parasitic culture; builds its expectations on what the government can and must do (for them) with no sense of individual or group responsibility…It is a culture in which people are determined to turn constrained privileges into fundamental constitutional rights or even the precepts of natural law.” I understand that some of the intending pilgrims are threatening to pull out of this year’s hajj unless the government pays the balance of N1.9 million for them. The country is a fallen elephant before a pack of cleavers.

We married a wife in the month of famine and in that same month of lack, she decided to use pounded yam to build a house. What name would you give that kind of wife? What baby would the woman birth, and what will the name be? The question is elegantly answered in the original Yoruba version of that proverb: Ìyàwó tí a fé l’ósù agà tí n fi’yán mo’lé, yóò-báa-ní’bè l’orúko omo rè yóo máa jé. ‘Yo-ba-nibe’ (e go meet am there), the reserved name for the expected product of the conjugal error, forebodes tragic delivery. I thought our husbands said the country was broke and all subsidies should go -and was gone. Now we know they lied. The Federal Government that said no to what benefitted 200 million Nigerians last May has released N90 billion to subsidise the purse of about 50,000 persons (or of their rich sponsors) so that they could make a personal religious journey to Saudi Arabia. It is a subsidy for politics.

What you value is what you invest your riches in. A wealthy man with a million slaves dies, but in his wardrobe is found one lone dress (Oun tó ndun ni níí pò l’órò eni. Ológún erú kú, aso o rè kù ìkan soso). That is my people’s proverb for otherwise wise men with deliberately misplaced priorities. We’ve always known that politics pays better than education in Nigeria. The N90 billion Hajj subsidy is higher than the combined 2024 budgets of the University of Ibadan (N23.4billion), Obafemi Awolowo University (N17.1 billion), Ahmadu Bello University (N29.2 billion) and the University of Lagos (N19.4billion). So, what is the matter prioritized here? The government did not spend that money for religion. It was for politics and the need to avoid the political consequences of hurting Nigeria’s powerful entrepreneurs of pilgrimage.

The Obafemi Awolowo government of the old Western Region set up Nigeria’s first Pilgrims Welfare Board vide Western Regional Gazette No. 39, vol. 7 of 5th June, 1958. The board’s existence was dictated by the need to attend to issues of welfare of hajj pilgrims from Western Nigeria. The northern region followed that example seven years later in 1965. Both boards were restricted by law to collecting Hajj fares from intending pilgrims, arranging passports for them, helping intending pilgrims to get visas and other consular interventions, assisting them with flight tickets and with vaccination, getting them comfortable accommodation and transportation in Saudi Arabia – all at their own expense. The limit of the responsibilities of the boards was the limit of government involvement in Hajj operations. Apart from one VIP Hajj flight per year involving the Sardauna and selected members of the northern elite, there are no records of any government-sponsored Hajj trip for anybody in any of the regions.

Nigeria Government's N90 Billion Hajj Politics

Nigerian Muslim faithful leaving for Hajj

What is the official explanation (reason) for the Federal Government’s release of that subsidy for the Hajj? Each of the 48,414 intending pilgrims was initially supposed to pay N3.5 million, then it was jacked up to N4.9 million when the dollar raced past the strength of our sense. N4.9 million is a huge amount in this season of want. There was an outcry which the anti-subsidy government in Abuja heard and doused with a subsidy coolant which translated to N1.6 million per pilgrim. This N90 billion pilgrimage subsidy paid by this government I could not find anywhere in the 2024 budget of the Federal Government. Even in the pads and paddings, it is absent. So, where did the president conjure that humongous sum from?

Even after that intervention, there are further subsidies to pay. Because the forex crisis has set every plan ablaze, the total hajj fees payable is no longer N4.9 million per pilgrim. The hajj commission last week raised the fare by a further N1,918,032.91 blaming forex volatility. The amount is now N6.8 million per pilgrim. The arithmetic is well explained in a report by the Daily Trust some days ago which quoted a Hajj commission source: “By the previous calculation, the N90 billion given by the Federal Government can only subsidise 19,000 intending pilgrims by ₦3.5 million. But by spreading it on 50,000 pilgrims, it (the subsidy) reduced it (the shortfall) to N1.9 million. This means that the federal government has subsidised each pilgrim by ₦1.6 million…” There is still a shortfall of N1.9 million which each of the pilgrims has to pay. But they may not pay anything. Some state governments are paying it for them.

A friend asked when this culture of using public funds to fund private religious acts started. It is difficult to know but it didn’t start with this regime. When a head would go bad, it starts its descent gradually, unnoticed. What I know is that there used to be pride in people using their hard-earned money to go to Mecca. O.E. Tangban in his ‘The Hajj and the Nigerian Economy’ (1991) traces this tradition of going to Mecca and notes that at the very beginning “ordinary people went on Hajj by land routes across Chad to Sudan and then by boat to Jeddah” – with their hard-earned money. Even big men did. Dunama, the second Muslim Mai (king) of Kanemi – what we know today as Borno – followed that route. History says he was the first around here to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. He went the first time and came back. He went the second time and returned in peace. He went the third time and perished in an accident in the Red Sea. There is no record that he stole from the poor to fund his Hajj.

Nigerians are a very religious people. You would think being this religious coheres with piety. Some of those whose Hajj fees we’ve just paid have gone to Mecca in many and repeated times – like Abiku. Indeed, for some, it is business – legit and illegit. A lot goes with pilgrimages – to Saudi Arabia and to Israel – which mocks the reason and essence of pilgrimage. On the current Hajj list will be mistresses, paramours and concubines of some ‘pious’ persons of influence. I witnessed a case some years ago. We are using scarce funds to sponsor the good and the bad and the very ugly. Some of the officials particularly hate the smell of roses. It is a chain. The known faces are mere masks of the very big men of religion who preach fiery sermons of godliness. To them, pilgrimage is their soup pot, their business, and they always find one verse somewhere to validate what they do. It didn’t start today.

A big businessman from a wealthy family in Kano was arrested, tried, convicted and fined £7,000 in Sudan in April 1957 for currency trafficking. He was the sole agent in charge of the welfare and wellbeing of all Hajj pilgrims from Northern Nigeria. For that year’s Hajj – which many from the north did by road, the big man collected money from poor intending pilgrims and decided to do brisk business with it. He was arrested in Sudan “for illegally smuggling over 21,000 Egyptian pounds into the country.” Quoting several 1957 and 1958 editions of ‘The Nigerian Citizen’ newspaper, Heaton, in another chapter of his book referenced above (page 160), wrote that apparently the man “had been taking the deposits made by his Nigerian clients (pilgrims) and trading them for profit rather than forwarding them to the next location for dispersal. Deposits made in Nigeria in British sterling were traded in Beirut for Egyptian pounds” netting the man “a 50 percent profit on the original deposits that he could then pocket before delivering the funds to Sudan for distribution to pilgrims and his contracted agents…” His victims, the pilgrims, suffered and got stranded; two of them died of meningitis while waiting to be sorted out. The big man absconded to Nigeria and soon got into bigger trouble: His home was searched and found with “printing presses, currency moulds and £5,000 worth of forged £1 and £5 notes.” He was tried and, on 22 November, 1957, jailed for eight years. But if you are big here, no net will be big enough to restrain your fish. The man came out of prison earlier than ordered; he joined the ruling party and was elected into the House of Representatives in 1965. End of story.

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 01 April, 2024)

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