Government Should Beware Of Religion

Casmir Igbokwe

A certain South African Prophet, last week, asked his congregants to remove their underwear and wave them in the air during a church service. Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng popularly known as Prophet Mboro told his members to do this in order to attract angels from heaven. The church members, who ululated in joy, acted as instructed and even held their private parts “so that angels can impregnate and bless them.”

It was in this same South Africa that a pastor, Lesego Daniel, asked his followers to eat grass so that they would be closer to God. And they gladly did that. To a rational mind, this may sound strange. But to the underwear-removing and grass-eating worshippers, it is faith at work.

Religion does not operate in the realm of rationality. It invokes a lot of emotions and blind faith. That is why people can kill in the name of God and believe they are heaven bound. And that is why government should beware of it.

If a government is not neutral, how will it handle the superiority contest among different religions? Christians, for instance, believe you can only go to heaven through Jesus Christ. Muslims believe only through Allah will one get to paradise. In the competition to outshine one another and win more converts, religious organizations establish worship centres in nooks and crannies of the country.

In the last three years in Lagos, for instance, the state government registered about 13, 000 religious institutions in the state. Some individuals even go to the extent of building worship centres on their residential or business premises. This comes with the attendant noise pollution.

The Lagos State Government has actually been showing good examples on how government should relate with religious bodies. The state, through the Ministries of Home Affairs and Physical Planning, has commenced moves to address the conversion of residential buildings to religious centres. It has also been working in concert with the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) to address noise pollution by religious bodies.

Besides, the current administration in Lagos State deserves commendation for the pragmatic steps it has taken on the issue of government sponsorship of religious pilgrimages. Before Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode emerged as the governor in 2015, the state government spent an average of N1.5 billion to sponsor people for religious pilgrimages to Israel and Saudi Arabia. But since Ambode came, the Lagos State Government said it saved a total of N4.5billion in the last three years as a result of the decision of the governor to stop the sponsorship. Commissioner for Home Affairs, Dr Abdulhakeem Abdullateef, said last month that funds saved from the development had been diverted into the construction of roads and other amenities to make life easier for residents.

“What the Governor has said and we have been doing is that the State Government will provide for the welfare of the pilgrims; support them with medical tips; support them with clerics who would guide them to ensure that they are focused on the spiritual objectives of the pilgrimage and not something else,” Abdullateef said.

This is not to say that visiting Mecca or Jerusalem to stone the devil or pray for us sinners is bad. Every true Muslim who has not gone to Mecca sees himself somehow as incomplete. He may end up answering Alhaji ba Mecca, (an Alhaji who has not visited Mecca.) For Christians, Jerusalem or Rome happens to be their own Mecca.

Part of the problem is that some of the pilgrims do not go for spiritual exercises. They see this pilgrimage thing as an opportunity to travel outside the country, or escape from Nigeria and seek asylum abroad. For some of the very old, it is also an avenue to even die in the holy land believing that dying there will catapult them to paradise. Some cheat the system and travel more than once on the account of the State.

It is not right that government at different levels should commit billions of Naira every year to sponsor these types of individuals for pilgrimages. Bauchi State Governor, Mohammed Abubakar, had boasted last year that it had continued to sponsor pilgrimages despite recession. Abubakar’s counterpart in Katsina State, Aminu Masari, said his state had been subsidizing Hajj annually with N1billion.

The question is, since we sponsor Muslim and Christian pilgrims to holy lands, why can’t we sponsor Ifa or Udo Shrine worshippers to Benin Republic or Haiti to visit voodoo sites? Sponsorship of religious pilgrimages is a discrimination against traditional religious worshippers. It is also against the spirit of Section 10, Chapter 1 of the 1999 Constitution. That section states that “the Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as a State religion.”

Hypocrisy and selfishness define most of our actions in this country. What some of these government functionaries do is to exploit the religiosity of our people for political gains. They sponsor pilgrimages so as to patronize acolytes and supporters. Sometimes, they deploy government resources for religious crusades that they may not even believe in.

Some of them claim to be strong advocates of Sharia and nearly caused national crisis when they introduced it in their states a few years ago. Today, they show no scruples in marrying 13-year-old girls and doing other things that are at variance with morality and common sense. Some of them visit shrines on Saturday night and take front pew on Sunday morning to chant Holy Ghost fire to the devil and his associates.

Religion is a private affair and should remain so. When government dabbles in religious matters, it unconsciously creates a situation that fosters abnormalities like Boko Haram and the like.

The worrisome thing about this phenomenon is that many of these states sponsoring pilgrimages are so poor that they can’t even pay workers salary. Education and health care are seriously neglected as well. In Zamfara State, with the poverty rate of about 92 per cent, the state of education is so appalling. Despite reducing the cut-off marks for entrance into the Federal Unity Colleges to as low as two out of 200, pupils from the state still find it difficult to fill their slots. Many of them are in the streets soliciting for alms and ending up in one imam’s house for some religious tutelage.

Good enough, hardship has forced some states in the North to back out of pilgrimage sponsorship. Kano and Kaduna are typical examples. In 2016 alone, Kano had reportedly spent N3billion on Hajj. That was the year it decided to put a stop to it.

The Federal Government is not helping matters. In 2015, it announced the discontinuation of state sponsorship of religious pilgrimages as a cost-cutting measure. A year after, it decided to subsidise Hajj. This was even when the Nigerian economy was in recession. At a time manufacturers were finding it difficult to access foreign exchange to import machinery, the Federal Government decided to give concessional exchange rate to pilgrims.

Recall that the Central Bank of Nigeria directed banks and authorised forex dealers to pay Personal Travelling Allowance to intending pilgrims at a concessionary exchange rate of N197 to $1 in 2016. In 2017, it gave a concessionary rate of N305 to $1 when the prevailing rate then was N360 to $1.

While we lose billions of Naira in the name of religion, Saudi Arabia and Israel smile to the banks. In 2015, Saudi Arabia earned $27.9billion from religious tourism. It has projected an increased income of $46.6billion from the same source in 2020. Last year, Israel reportedly earned 20billion shekels from tourists.

Nigeria should also begin to think of making money from religious tourism. We can’t have prominent pastors like Temitope Joshua, David Oyedepo and Enoch Adeboye and not make a lot of money from tourism. The healing/miracle crusades and Holy Ghost nights should attract not just visitors but money as well.

Fortunately, Lagos is thinking in this direction. The other day, the Lagos State Government said that the State’s Tourism Master Plan had adequately captured the potential of spiritual or religious tourism.

According to the state Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mr. Steve Ayorinde, the Master Plan, which would be ready by the end of May 2018, was geared toward showcasing the State as a major tourism destination across the world.

“Visitors, who come in for spiritual tourism, most times come for conferences, for spiritual healing and exhibition. It shouldn’t matter to the State what you have come for, what matters to the State is that visitors are coming, when they come, they see our city, they sleep in our hotels, they buy our foods, etc. So it’s all about tourism and entertainment,” Ayorinde said.

Other states should emulate Lagos. Poverty is endemic in the country currently. Rather than waste money on unnecessary expenditure, government should convert our religiosity to money-making venture and then deploy accrued proceeds to the betterment of the masses.

In all, if I choose to remove my underwear in church or even eat grass and snake to get closer to God, so be it as long as it is my personal decision. But when a government begins to pay for me to travel to Jerusalem on a sight-seeing mission otherwise called pilgrimage, then there is every cause to worry.

  • First published in the Daily Sun of Monday, May 21, 2018

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