Who Should Pay the Pilgrim’s Passage to Paradise? By Ogaga Ifowodo

Had Nigeria, like Britain, an unwritten constitution, no one would know ours is officially a secular country. Every politician not only wears his or her righteousness like the mark of Cain on the forehead but is also a lay pastor or imam.  Imagine, then, my delight at seeing in the 23 May 2013 issue of Premium Times the headline, “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Mecca is a Luxury that Edo Will not Subsidise – Oshiomhole.” Nigeria—going by its sheer church-and-mosque density—is quite possibly the holiest patch of earth under God’s infinite sky. Don’t take my word for it.

On a bright morning, count the number of churches in your street, preferably in the Lagos metropolitan area. (Churches, since a rabid Pentecostalism peculiar to Nigeria best represents the phoney idea of piety as the multiplication of houses of worship.) Or take a ride along that stretch of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway just outside Lagos now taken over by the holy tabernacles of a thousand and one faiths, the many mansions of God’s physical dwelling place on earth. Particularly at the time of an All-night Vigil, Deliverance Service, Breaking the Yoke of Satan, Possessing Your Possessions, etc. At the end of the exercise, you will wonder why God has yet to appear in a burning bush and command us to never wear sandals or shod our feet in any way on his holiest plot of earth.

So holy is our country that its current president regularly goes to prostrate himself before a Daddy Overseer, who, to him, is the personal representative of God and whose chief mission is to “win” elections for him. So holy that every politician, rigged elections and stolen billions notwithstanding, assures us that he or she was specially anointed into office by God and promptly donates a church to him in thanksgiving. So holy that God’s warriors up north have no compunction spilling the blood of infidel and faithful alike, child or adult, to establish his beneficent rule. So holy . . . but you get the point; you live in the country!

Yet the irony is striking: the more pious we are, the more profane and decadent our actions. Even when, for instance, the faithful perform the supposedly solemn act of a pilgrimage.  As I understand it, the Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is obligatory only upon those Muslims able to afford it in physical and financial terms. Moreover, it need only be performed at least once in the able faithful’s lifetime. But not so for the pious Nigerian who turns pilgrimage to tourism in order to boast the appellation of Double—and I suppose, Triple, Quadruple, etc.—Al-Haji and two or more gold teeth upon return home.

Speaking of spiritual tourism, it would seem that is now part and parcel of the Christian pilgrimage. No surprise, since there is no biblical justification for it. Consequently, the municipal authorities of Jerusalem treat the whole affair as a business. We have it on the authority of a pilgrim, Pastor Mathew Obaze, who, according to another report in Premium Times (22 December 2012), bewailed the commercialisation of the ritual. ‘’The Israelis,” he claimed, take “advantage of people coming into their country.” They see the pilgrims’ mission not from the lofty height of spiritual uplift but from a lowly “tourist perspective.” As for the Nigerian pilgrims, too many of them tend to be “carried away” by the things they see, “things that we don’t have in our country.”

And it is precisely in order to provide those material things that make our pilgrims gape, gawk and shop in the holy lands, rather than devote themselves to praise and prayer, that Governor Adam Oshiomhole announced to officials of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission his decision to stop subsidising pilgrimages.  Displaying a clear understanding of what the separation of state and religion truly means in practice, Oshiomhole preached, as it were, a secular sermon to his righteous guests.

A pilgrimage, he told them, is “a luxury” and he would not spend taxpayers’ money on it. A poor man “who has no roof over his head,” he said, “cannot be spiritually uplifted if he goes to Israel and returns to a state of homelessness.”  Besides, “only [a] clean heart,” and not a pilgrimage, will decide the believer’s place in the after-life. He would much rather subsidise education, healthcare, productive ventures “central to the survival of the people.”

But Oshiomhole is not alone in separating state and religion, even if only economically. Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso has reportedly saved the God-fearing people of Kano State one billion naira by not sponsoring pilgrims. Not to be outdone by his brother governor in invoking the poor, he announced this act of fiscal responsibility at an event in memory of Mallam Aminu Kano, the avowed champion of the talakawa.  Kwankwaso will not spend “monies meant for developing the state . . . on few individuals” when education, transportation and health are crying needs. For which sinful reason, the faithful “prayed against” him. How God hates the poor who cannot go on luxurious pilgrimages!

Allah’s mercies on Oshiomhole and Kwankwaso on this score, I say. In a country that has lost all sense of reason to a virulent, poverty-driven and politically-manipulated concept of religion, the two governors deserve commendation. “There is nowhere Islam allows for the removing of public funds to sponsor individuals on pilgrimages,” says Kwankwaso. Admission to heaven or hell, if the scriptures are right, is strictly on personal merit. The state, a collective entity, has no business paying the pilgrim’s passage to paradise.

Professor Ogaga Ifowodo, poet and layer, currently teaches literature at the Central Texas State University, in the United States. Respond to him via email on: omoliho@gmail.com


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