Despite the negative impact of COVID-19 on the Nigerian government’s finances, the government is still making plans to fund the agencies responsible for Islamic and Christian pilgrimages.
Civil society groups have fiercely kicked against the proposal contained in the 2021 budget published on the website of the Budget Office of the Federation.
In the proposal, the government said it has set aside a total of N2.6 billion it plans to spend on the programmes and activities of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission for the year.
The two agencies are responsible for the religious interests of the Muslims and Christians, including the facilitation of annual pilgrimages by adherents of the two religions to Mecca and Jerusalem respectively.
Although Nigerians have repeatedly condemned the continued use of public funds by the government to finance what they consider a purely private affair, successive administrations have continued to make provisions in their annual budgets.
However, concerned civil society groups have asked the National Assembly to demonstrate patriotism and refuse to approve such proposals in the 2021 Budget, in view of the need by the government to conserve funds to finance more pressing public needs.
“With shrinking revenues to meet priority programmes and activities, the government must cut down drastically on identified areas of wastage and frivolities in the system. One area of such needless wastage is using public funds to finance strictly private religious activities,” Raphael Uchenna, an Abuja based legal practitioner, told PREMIUM TIMES on Wednesday.
The ravages of COVID-19
The initial wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has so far recorded over 37.7 million cases and claimed over 1,078,860 lives around the world, according to statistics by the Johns Hopkins University, forced most countries to close their borders, to discourage visitors coming to their countries for businesses and other interests.
The decision to lockdown has been identified by experts as one of the practical ways to check the spread of the disease.
Although most countries are struggling to come to terms with the new reality of having to be bound within their borders, others are cautiously reopening their doors, amid fears of being hit by another wave of the pandemic, which many predict, could be more horrific than the first.
Nigeria has so far recorded about 60,430 cases, out of which 1,115 victims have died, with 51,943 recoveries as of Monday, October 12, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Regardless, the Nigerian government appears to care less about any consequence of the impact of the pandemic on its citizens, as it is already planning for the post-pandemic years with plans in the 2021 budget to fund the agencies responsible for the travels by both Muslim and Christian faithful during the year.
While the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria was allocated about N1.39 billion, the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission was allocated about N1.38 billion.
Apart from overhead costs totalling over N617.4 million, the National Hajj Commission is to spend a total of N130 million on general travels and transportation, including N20 million for local travel and transport for training, in addition to N50million for other similar trips during the year.
Besides, about N10 million has been set aside for international travels and transport for training and N50 million for other overseas travels and transport during the year.
Other allocations to the hajj commission are N25 million for consulting and professional services, in addition to N15 million for financial consulting, apart from another N25.4 million for general financial charges, including insurance premium.
About N10 million has been budgeted for refreshment and meals for the Commission; N15 million for honorarium and sitting allowances; publicity and advertisements (N20 million); welfare packages N70 million; monitoring activities and follow-up (N30 million).
Although the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission does not have a provision in the budget for foreign travels and transport, about N71.3 million has been budgeted for allowances and social contributions during the year, while overhead costs, including general local travel and transport, would gulp N586.5 million.
Also, the commission plans to spend about N42.3 million on general furniture, building and residential quarters and equipment maintenance; N25.1 million for training as well as N181.6 million for other services, like consulting and general professional services.
Civil society groups kick
Civil society and accountability groups are seriously concerned that the government appears not to have come to terms with the reality of the COVID-19 times, as its officials are still indulging in frivolities that appear not to have any bearing on attempts to find solutions to the country’s problems.
With the economy seriously constrained by the challenge of low revenues to tackle acute national problems as a result of the impact of the ravaging coronavirus, the groups say the allocation of funds to programmes and activities that could best be handled as private issues shows the government was yet to learn from its past mistakes.
The allocation of funds to the two agencies, whose activities critics say should not be funded with public funds, shows our government does not learn, or ready to listen to public views on how to get out of economic quagmire the country has found itself.
“The country is currently facing many problems on several fronts as a result of lack of funds. Apart from schools that have not opened, because there is no money to pay lecturers, Nigerians are angry, because fuel price and electricity tariffs have all increased, and there is no money to fix our refineries and electricity generation and distribution infrastructure.
“Yet, the government is proposing to fund the activities of agencies that should have been scrapped long ago. Matters of religion are strictly personal affairs. If anybody wants to go to heaven, the person should bear the cost from private resources,” the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekpere, said.
“What I see is that as far as the government is concerned, COVID-19 will soon be over next year for life to continue as usual. It does not matter to them if the lecturers are not paid and schools remain closed,” he added.
For Joshua Olufemi, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Dataphyte Nigeria Limited, an Abuja-based media research and data analytics firm that specialises in deploying data tools and technology towards socio-economic development and social impact, with the low revenue challenge the government is currently grappling with, the allocation of N2.6billion in the 2021 Budget could have solved better problems in the economy than personal religious tourism.
How N2.6 billion could best be utilised
With the country still struggling with the dearth of basic infrastructures in all areas of our national economy, Mr Olufemi said if the government were to have decided to focus on infrastructural development, the allocation of N2.6 billion in the 2021 Budget could construct and equip at least 260 classroom blocks to secondary schools across the country with N10 million shared to each of the benefitting schools.
If the government’s priority were to shift to poverty alleviation through social intervention schemes like soft loans to micro, small and medium-scale enterprises to impact the businesses of the less privileged Nigerians, the economies of no fewer than 2,600 Nigerians would be positively impacted and enhanced a grant of N1million as interest-free loans to some qualified Nigerians.
With such intervention, he said, the huge population of Nigerians currently without jobs would have been reduced by about 2,600.
Again, with the government in dire need of adequate healthcare services due to lack of primary health centres in the rural areas, the allocation of N30 million in the 2021 Budget for the construction of health centres would have fetched a total of 87 such facilities, with two distributed to each of the 36 States of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory, and 13 left to spare for the most vulnerable.
Similarly, if the government interest was on the provision of boreholes for the provision of a source of potable water supply in locations in each of the 774 Local Government Areas of the country, an allocation of N600,000 from the money would provide a total of 4,333 boreholes, or five boreholes each, with about 463 others left to spare.
Besides, if the target is to provide low-cost housing or mortgage to the people, with an average of N15 million allocated in the budget for that purpose, at least 173 decent and affordable houses would be constructed for the benefit of some Nigerians next year.
“Sadly, these are not our governments’ priorities. Their priorities are how to provide funding for activities that are clear may not be realised, in the face of the damning reality posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited the chances of people traveling out of the country for any meaningful activity, least alone religious tourism,” Mr Olufemi lamented.