I am ever reluctant to take time off treating international issues to address national issues on this page. It was for that reason this piece had been noted and filed away for some time. But something happened lately that made me turn to it. The governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano, on August 15, 2015, hosted Christian leaders who asked him to emulate his colleagues and sponsor tourists to Israel. In the team were members of the National Christian Pilgrim Commission. The governor’s response was that his government had limited resources, so it had no funds to freely give those who wanted to tour another country. That was a bold response from the governor of a Christian-dominated state. I didn’t realise we had a politician who could say no to those who could publicise it that a governor was anti-Christian because he didn’t give free money to people to tour other countries. Obiano obviously realised this matter was turning into a blackmail and was bold enough to resist it.
I had followed Obiano’s effort as he persuaded his people to contribute to funds needed to develop the state as soon as he assumed office. He had also appealed to them to come home from places like the US (where it was unheard of that government gave free money to people to go on tourism) and invest. How would it sound to such people that their governor was giving public funds to some tourists? But how does this country get to a point that Christians, who don’t have being a tourist to Israel as a condition for making heaven, are now being pushed hard to play lottery in order to get money to purchase ticket for a tour? My view here is that Christian leaders and politicians are using this excuse of a spiritual revival, that’s only possible by going somewhere abroad, to lead Christians in the wrong direction, and that the country is harmed in the process.
First, by setting up a government agency to encourage people to travel as tourists to another country, Nigeria is expending public resources to engage in marketing for Israel’s tourism industry? Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once stated while in office that the practice of government expending resources to send Christians on a trip that their religion did not make a necessary requirement had only Israel’s tourism industry as the beneficiary. Those behind this are Christian leaders, who want to emulate Muslims by enjoying same government patronage, and in the process they have turned the matter into a fight in the flesh, something they won’t find recommended for them to do in their Bible. Of course politicians oblige them by setting aside public funds to sponsor tourists to Israel because they need votes, and they want the prayers of Christian leaders. Politicians don’t do only that, they also part with huge public resources to have Christian leaders organise meetings for the purpose of praying for victory during election, as well as to mobilise their followers. The allegation of billions of naira allegedly given to some Christian leaders during the last 2015 election is yet to be fully probed.
Who benefits most from the resources expended on tours to Israel? A few Christian leaders and the faces they like to see. Christians in the North of Nigeria narrated to me the show of shame that had accompanied how funds released by state governments were used by their leaders to send themselves to Israel year in year out. They sent their relatives too and other acquaintances, and in the end, one state governor, a Muslim, was so frustrated that he had to seize the list of would-be tourists and rewrote it by himself, adding names of leaders of denominations that had never for once been considered.
How does having a government agency to canvass for people to travel as tourists to another country harm Nigeria? What private travel agencies should handle and thereby create jobs for Nigerians has been taken up by government. The pilgrim commission has been sending canvassers to churches. Sometimes, I wonder if the commission considers taking a poll of what convicted Christians (not churchgoers) feel about its strategy of telling worshipers to engage in playing lottery to get money to go to Israel. I also wonder if the commission ever thought of finding out how convicted Christians feel about using public fund to sponsor people on a purely private spiritual matter, when millions of poor school children need government’s attention. I’m sure such Christians would have responded that they preferred that their state governments sent such funds to cater for helpless Nigerians fleeing from Boko Haram insurgents, rather than use it to send them to Israel. Many Christians aren’t overly impressed by what the commission is doing, except those who have perennial access to the free funds that government gives for the exercise every year. Before the commission began this marketing, several churches had been organising trips to Israel for their members. Many Christians prefer the trips their churches organise, which their leaders solemnly lead, and which they personally pay for rather than the politically-tainted tours that are beamed on TV. I know denominations that have been taking their members to Israel for almost two decades; not once did they make noise about it. Now, why take what the private sector already does so well and give it to a government agency?
As part of the richness, it says it has added, the commission makes it known that learning a skill has been mixed into the trip to Israel. It was said that 1,000 youths were part of the tour to Israel this year, mostly sponsored by their churches. I state that rather than transporting a thousand youths to Israel, 10 resource persons could have been brought from Israel to conduct the skill acquisition programme in Nigeria, and the churches would still have funds left to establish businesses for the concerned youth in the area of skill they have acquired.
Christians with insight had listened to the commission’s canvassers trying to make Christians feel that until they went to Israel they were not complete. Their effort was unconvincing, and so much on the surface even when they quoted the Bible to support their argument. I believe it was with the realisation that many Christians weren’t convinced that the commission padded its campaign, claiming that the trip to Israel had been made richer. Another of such enrichment is by encouraging Christians to play lottery in order to get money to go to Israel. Meanwhile, Pentecostal preachers wouldn’t encourage their followers to take God-given money from their pockets and play lottery, which they see as a display of lack of faith in God who can provide all their needs if that need is in his will for them. In any case, no convicted Christian would engage in a game of chance. I equate the commission’s drive to make people play lottery in order to get money to embark on a spiritual exercise with a man who goes to beer parlour, drinks beer and engages in vices but wins in a promotion from what is on the cork of his beer bottle, and then gives the glory to God. If any Christian wants to drink beer, or play lottery and give the glory to God, that should be his personal decision. Nobody representing Christians should go on national television to promote it. Strangely, no Pentecostal preacher is speaking up against this contrary message that the commission feeds Nigerian Christians with.
This isn’t surprising because the commission takes cues from the church. These days, church leaders give awards to politicians, and they employ so much pontifical oratory in the process that the unwary Christians wouldn’t but be impressed. The unfazed, thoughtful Christian however would ask if giving of awards to politicians that needed to be preached to was the commission God’s servants were given. The matter is so bad that Christian leaders now prophesy victory in election for politicians who patronise them without hearing first from the one that commissioned them. One thing must be done though. In the face of all that the government should do for the larger public that it lacks enough funds to do, the practice of expending public funds on any form of religious tourism, which is purely a private affair, must be discontinued forthwith.