THE directive by the Central Bank of Nigeria,CBN, that the Pilgrims Travelling Allowance, PTA, be sold to intending pilgrims at concessionary rate of N197 to $1, yesterday left most Nigerians furious, with many saying that such an action by the Federal Government at time of economic recession, was indifferent to the plight of Nigerians
Both the core supporters and critiques of the present administration were unanimous in disapproving the development, which they described as a low point for a government that was struggling to meet its financial obligations.

The anger was also hinged on the ground that the concession for pilgrims was coming at a period when the dollar officially traded at N310 and N400 at the parallel and interbank markets respectively.

In expressing anger many pointed to the fact that importers in Nigeria’s import dependent economy, find it difficult to access foreign exchange resulting in the excruciating suffering across the country. Manufactures and importers also find it difficult to access foreign exchange.

This came as findings by Vanguard revealed that the policy would be funded by the government with a maximum of N7.9 billion as against N2. 4 billion spent the previous year, representing a growth of 225.3 per cent.

It was gathered that with the total number of pilgrims pegged at  65,167 and a maximum of $1000.00  per  pilgrim, the total foreign exchange entitled to the pilgrims amounted to sixty-five million, one hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars ($65,167,000).

The CBN had in its circular authorising the concession, said the federal government was making a concession for Nigeria’s 65,167 pilgrims. The statement which was signed by the bank’s Director Trade and Exchange Department, Mr. W.D Gotring, said: “Each pilgrim is entitled to purchase a minimum of $750.00 and a maximum of US$1,000.00 as PTA.

“The Federal Government has approved that intending pilgrims are to be sold the PTA at a concessionary exchange rate of N197.00 to the US dollar. “No commission shall be charged by the banks for the sale of the PTA to the intending pilgrims. The Central Bank of Nigeria shall sell the PTA to the designated banks in Lagos and Abuja and the accounts of the respective banks shall be debited as soon as the funds are disbursed.”

Further checks by Vanguard showed that the matter had been trending on the various Social Media platforms since the CBN circular was released on Thursday night, with famed supporters and critiques of the administration berating the government over what they described as a clueless policy.

Surprisingly, it afforded a rare opportunity for the Wailers as opponents of the administration are known online and Buharists (sympathisers of the government), to find a common ground. There was also unanimity in the demand for the reversal of the policy, which was said to be a betrayal of trust by a government that had earlier pledged to stop the sponsorship of pilgrimages.

When Vanguard took the pulse of the political class, manufacturers, Organised Labour, importers and artisans among others, they also expressed shock and disappointment at such a policy when businesses are down in the country.

Those, who specifically spoke were Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association, NECA, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC, Nigeria Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, NACCIMA and Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA.

Others were a former Minister of Transport and member of Peoples Democratic Party,PDP, Board of Trustees,BoT, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, former National Secretary of the party, Chief Aniete Okon and ex-Special Adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan on New Media, Mr. Reno Omkiri, who spoke on his Twitter handle.

While the professional associations and trade unions fumed that the policy was wrong, unhealthy and aimed at enriching a few individuals in government to the detriment of the ailing economy and less privileged Nigerians, the leading PDP members, warned against having a preferential position on religious issues.

In his remarks, Babatope said: ‘’ Nigerians must be very careful about religious issues because it is very sensitive. That was why Karl Max described religion as the opium of the masses. Whatever they want to do for the Muslims they should also extend it to the Christians and when they are doing that, they should be mindful of the fact that the economy is down and people are suffering. While Nigerians are suffering and some think the best thing to do is to reduce the forex rate for pilgrims. That means that something is wrong. They should be very cautious not to ruin the economy the more.”

Corroborating, Okon, said:”It is an indirect way of subsidising pilgrimage through another means. it does not make sense when the business environment is suffering, why can’t he do same for businessmen, it raises a lot of questions. Who is going to provide the money, is it the CBN governor? “On his part, Omkiri said: “I am against preferential treatment to any religion.”

We don’t understand how economy is being managed—NECA

According to the Director General of NECA, Mr. Segun Oshinowo, “There are quite a lot of things that one would continue to find difficult to understand in the way the economy and the scarce resources of this country are being managed. And this, of course, is one of them. The religious obligation is a personal thing and individuals that believe in such obligations should be allowed to fund their religious rights and obligations.

It should not be at the expense of the state. It is high time the government put a stop to a situation where state resources are being used to aid individuals to meet their religious obligations and rights. It is not just right. Which is far more important? Assisting individuals to meet their religious rights and obligations or creating an environment where the creator of wealth and creator of jobs are able to access foreign exchange at a reasonable rate? I think the second one takes precedence over the first one.

“Our take on this is that we should stop the practice where a special arrangement is being made for people to source foreign exchange at less than the amount of what other stakeholders in the economy are paying.”

It has exposed the weakness of FG’s economic team—NACCIMA

In the same vein, president of NACCIMA, Chief Bassey Edem, said: “It is crazy and a misplaced priority by the CBN and this government to grant pilgrims exchange rate of N197 to a dollar while the economic sectors get theirs at interbank and BDC rates. This shows how the government’s economic team works and that is why they do not want the private sector to be represented in economic team.”

The President of MAN, Mr. Frank Jacobs, said:”It was a very wrong decision. The concession should have been given to manufacturers in key economic sectors that are adding value to the economy instead of the over N320 to a dollar they are being sold for importation of raw materials. There is no justification for that.”

On his part, factional leader of NLC, Mr. Joe Ajaero, who spoke through the group’s acting General-Secretary, Mr. Chris Onyeka said: “This has once again shown that the Federal Government does not have the right priority, it does not take the revival of the economy and the resuscitation of the economy serious and that it places more emphasis on religious activity which is a personal thing. As a Christian, if I decide to go to Jerusalem for religious pilgrimage, what concerns government about it? It is essentially my problem.

The arrangements and funding should be my concern, not the government. How will my going for pilgrimage impact positively on the nation’s economy? I do not expect the government to subsidise my expenses. Now, if the government prioritises manufacturing, if government prioritises employment generation and other things that would improve the wellbeing of the citizens, things will be better.

The government should not give priority to religious obligations of rights of individuals over the economy. “For us, we believe it is another sign that the government has lost its focus and the government should retrace its steps and show Nigerians that it is interested in getting the nation out of  recession. We believe that rather than giving such priority to individuals’ religious obligations and rights, it should give such priority to the real sector, the manufacturing sector and other areas that can bring life back to the economy and bring Nigeria out of this recession.”

Indication of indifference to the plight of manufacturers—TUC, Ajero-led NLC

Also, the TUC acting Secretary General, Mr. Simeso Amachree, said the development was not encouraging.

It said: “It is very sad because some state governments have even cancelled the sponsorship of religious pilgrimages to holy lands because of the economic situation in the country. I stand to be corrected. I think the Federal government also said it was stopping the sponsorship of pilgrims to holy lands earlier.

But this is another form of sponsorship. Like everybody knows, the economy is suffering and what is the rationale for giving some few individuals money to go and spend on religious duties in another country at such discounted rate while the economy is in bad shape. Somehow the balance of the money will be paid by the state and the economy and this would also increase the burden on the national currency.

“The government should have a second thought about this because religious duties are personal things and subsidising pilgrims has no implication of affecting everybody positively and economically. While everybody suffers the harsh economic situation, only the very few rich benefit from this largesse. Those few that would benefit from this are already very rich and connected, not the ordinary Nigerians. It is not good for the economy that in recession.”

In the opinion of the Vice President of Association of Nigeria Tyre Marketers, ANTM, Mr. Okechuku Eze-Ifeoma the policy is questionable and inimical to national interest.

The policy is inimical to national interest—Tyre Importers, ANCLA

He said: “Somebody, somewhere is using it to pull out money because if they have this dollar to give out at N190-N197 why are they suffering Nigerians? In the name of Hajj or pilgrimage they are now giving dollar at a subsidised rate and we the businessmen are getting our own at N400, how can you reconcile it? If you go back and do your survey very well, the amount that will be pulled out at this rate will be surprising. Where are they getting the money from? So, they have the money and they kept it somewhere? I do not know why they should do a thing like this because it does not make economic sense.”

Similarly, the President of ANLCA, Mr.  Olayiwola Shittu, said : “My take on this is that the discriminatory allocation should have favoured the importing public because a lot of goods are littered in the port because the people cannot pay. And that is why we called on the federal government to make a conscious effort at giving a concessionary rate to those who opened their Form “M” at N197 so that they will be able to clear their goods.

“People opened Form “M” at N197 and they are being asked to come and make payment at N313 or N315, it does not make sense because whoever is importing that consignment had already made his circulation and know how much he is going to pay.

“So you are punishing them rather than protecting their interest. That is why ANLCA is considering that in our next National Executive Council, NEC meeting we may have to withdraw our services because we are already withdrawn from service when we cannot get any work to do. The volume of cargo has gone down and the ones there now cannot even be cleared because of this exchange rate.

This is a mitigated disaster—Jimi Disu

Meanwhile, Veteran journalist and social commentator, Jimi Disu was outraged over the decision of the Mohammadu Buhari government to approve a concessionary exchange rate of N197 per dollar for religious Pilgrims at a time manufacturers and other businessmen were denied such assistance.

Speaking yesterday on Front Page News & Analysis, a daily newspaper review programme on Classic FM, Mr. Disu declared that the decision was a mitigated disaster.

Numerous callers also bashed the government for their poor policies. Said Disu:”I’ve lost complete confidence in the economic policy of this government. What we are doing is completely irresponsible. You talk about change. You talk about the need to have austerity measures and so on and so forth. Now you find that with our hard-earned, scarce foreign exchange, you’re subsidising a group of people who’re going on pilgrimage. It is completely irresponsible of any government to do that. And I am  totally disappointed that this is happening.”

Quoting a national newspaper that put the present dollar exchange rate at N310, Mr. Disu continued: “So, it is part of our hard-earned scarce resources that we are going to subsidise this N197. It is irresponsible.”

Calling for a collective opposition to the decision, he said: “And I expect the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria ((MAN) and the Labour Congress to immediately, this morning, write a protest letter to the Minister.  You don’t subsidise education; you don’t subsidise healthcare, you are not saying that you are going to allow school fees at N197 that would contribute to general development. All the pilgrims are going there in their individual capacities. It is personal. And whatever benefits they get are going to them.

“Before anybody says anything, this has nothing to do with religion. It just has to do with common sense. Apologies to my good friend, Ben Murray Bruce. And this is why you need a virile National Assembly. For this alone, the National Assembly should have convened on Monday, because it is a dangerous signal. It is a very, very dangerous signal. It shows that this country is not ready, this government is not ready to take on the economic measures that we actually need to bail us out from the problem we are in.

I am highly, highly disappointed at President Buhari for doing this. “Pilgrimage is a private thing. We have always been advocating, strongly too, that let people sort out their personal religious matters. How can you explain this to the world? That with all the difficulties that Nigerians are going through, high cost in prices and so on and so forth, you are not even subsidising people’s health bills, you are not subsidising education, you are subsidising pilgrimage.

It is a shame and a stain on the so-called economic policy of this government. I am amazed that the Minister of Finance would allow this happen. If I were a minister, on this, I would just resign because it’s a bad signal. Whether for Muslims or Christians, it is not just right.

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