The pilgrim’s progress

plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose! While surfing local news sites on Tuesday July 14, 2015, I came across a story in which the introduction of a subsidy (a special foreign exchange rate for Muslim and Christian pilgrims) was announced. I am struck by how often we return to the locus in quo. Yet again, we revisit and rejuggle issues long settled and, in the process, begin the journey of crafting rods for our own back. 

On Tuesday July 14, 1992, 23 years ago to the day and the date – during the fag end years of the IBB era – ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ was published in The Guardian newspaper. On the morning of Tuesday July 14, 2015, I read of President Buhari’s exchange rate waiver cum subsidy. I recommend you step back in time and see how time has stood still.Tuesday July 14, 1992.

imagesTHE coach and horses driven through exchange rate policy some few months ago are a timely reminder if one is needed of this administration’s record of fiscal indiscipline. The preferential treatment of pilgrims hints either at an unwillingness or an inability to grasp the responsibilities of office, particularly in a secular state.

All listed pilgrims were granted a travel allowance of US$1,500:00 each at a rate of US$1:00 = N10:50 (a discount of some 75 per cent on market rates.).

To outflank mischievous interpretation, a corrective addendum was released bestowing this not inconsiderable largesse on Christian and Moslem pilgrims alike. Followers of other revealed truths and non-pilgrims were left out in the cold. In championing the virtues of pilgrimage, the state exceeded the bounds of secularism.

It was all done with such dispatch that one cannot but wonder how well thought out it was. Did those who set this unfortunate precedent fully consider its temporal ramifications? Do they appreciate the nature of a secular state? Do they understand that special exemptions of this sort reduce the general tendency towards upholding the rule of law?

The attempt to appear even-handed is to be commended. But the matters arising from this injudicious exercise of authority are more weighty however than the usual serving of Moslem-Christian red herrings. What we have here is government acting in the immediate interests of religious groupings in a manner deleterious to the broader interests of society at large.

One of this government’s most repeated assertions is of its commitment to the reduction of government interference in the affairs of the marketplace, as a principle. Whether it be commodity markets or money markets, the clarion call has been: the less government interference the better. It is against that backdrop that last April’s special dispensation should be viewed.

No one can object to the adherents of different faiths visiting their holy places, whether scripturally required to do so or not. But this is clearly an individual’s affair counting for or against the individual, not the state. And certainly not the secular state. For those so disposed, all normal travel facilities should be granted. Such facilities however do not extend to the granting of special and favoured status in the foreign exchange market.

It is a major misdirection for government to favour pilgrims in this way; it is neither pious nor in the best interest of the idea of pilgrimage. One can hazard a guess that this year, the number of phantom pilgrims will increase substantially as a percentage of total pilgrims.

This will be as a direct consequence of government’s inability to distinguish between its obligation to properly manage the nation’s economy and its willingness to defer to pressure groups with narrower objectives. It may presage yet another crisis of confidence amongst our creditors who will see in this further evidence of our inability to manage our affairs prudently.

A secular state spending more on debt servicing than it should and daily asking of its people sacrifices for the greater good is not the ideal candidate for providing large scale subsidies to thousands on their foreign pastoral travels.

pilgrims Closer to home, there will be understandable dismay at this decision among a people slowly getting to grips with living in a one-track currency economy. The sacrifices which Nigerians are called upon to make (and by and large do make) are poignantly set against the spectacle of dutiful followers of the two leading faiths being heftily subsidised. It is these types of cuts to the body that have left the government’s economic programme in dire need of moral weight and with a diminishing number of protagonists.

There is damage of another sort wrought by this type of fiat. A secular state is one which has no official state religion and which does not view the active promotion of any religious belief as part of its raison d’etre. That being the case, it would not regard itself as able to offer to religious pilgrims substantial discounts for the purchase of foreign exchange.

Be that as it may, the secular state is not charged to act on behalf of any religious groupings. If it were, how would it choose which? Those who follow the teachings of Abd ru Shin via The Grail Message find essence in their visits to Austria where the mortal remains of Abd ru Shin are situated. That would seem to me a pilgrimage and they would seem to be pilgrims. Are they rightly excluded?

We have a growing number of Buddhists in this country and though I do not know for certain, I would hazard a guess that there is somewhere to which their faithful go to commune. Are their trips to be subsidised too? If so, why? If not, why not?

•This article, written by Phillips and first published in The Guardian on Tuesday July 14, 1992, is reproduced for its relevance with the times.



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