Buhari’s concessionary exchange rate for pilgrims


The news on Monday that President Muhammadu
Buhari has approved the naira exchange rate of
N160 to the United States dollar for Christian
pilgrims is dismaying. Viewed from all sides, this is
reckless and insensitive. Economically, it is
subversive of efforts to revamp public finances,
manage the exchange rate, inflation and conserve
foreign exchange. It is exclusionary as it ignores
those Nigerians who belong to neither of the two
faiths they are often forced to subsidise.
Nigeria is in dire economic straits; there is little or
no room for misplaced priorities.
Except the government denies it, the news of the
concession was revealed by John Kennedy-Opara,
Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian
Welfare Board, who said pilgrims headed for Israel
this year would enjoy the lower exchange rate. “The
President has approved $1 to N160 for the
conventional exchange rate for this pilgrimage
operation and he has also agreed that he will
continue to encourage us particularly as we drive to
ensure self-sustenance, to make sure that the
pilgrims are able to pay for the pilgrimages
removing government sponsorship,” Kennedy-
Opara stated.
It is wrong for Buhari, who rode to power on the
back of the “Change” campaign to have fallen flat
for such cheap rhetoric. Buhari’s policies should be
well thought out, not unfolded at a whim. It is
doubtful if he weighed the impact of the rash rebate
at a time the Central Bank of Nigeria is taking
radical measures to conserve foreign reserves and
defend the naira.
This is definitely not the change Nigerians voted for.
For one of the mortal sins of Goodluck Jonathan
was his addiction to pandering to narrow interests
and his disdain for prudent use of resources for the
higher interests of the economy. Buhari disappoints
by dishing out more of the same.
The insensitivity is shocking. From N156 to $1 last
year, the naira exchanged at N196.95 to $1 last
week at the official market and N225-N240 at the
parallel market. To maintain the official rate, the
CBN has had to take hard measures, including
drawing from reserves, to defend the naira from a
freefall. The reserves have been declining in the
wake of lower crude oil prices firming at $31bn last
week after dipping to $29bn two months ago. The
CBN had in the last week of June, locked out
importers of 41 items, including toothpicks, rice,
private jets, tinned food, among other items, from
the official forex market in a desperate bid to
conserve reserves, “facilitate the resuscitation of
domestic industries as well as generate
employment.” Buhari has made nonsense of the
policy by placing religious tourism above economic
It is even more disappointing at a time when lower
earnings from crude have upturned government’s
revenue projections and spending plans, from the
federal to the states and local governments. A bail-
out funding of N713.7bn to be shared among the
three tiers was hammered out recently and will help
about 24 state governments that have been unable
to pay salaries. The Federal Government itself had
to borrow N473bn to meet recurrent spending
needs, including salaries, within the first four
months of year. With public finances in such straits
and the country teeming with millions of unemployed
youths, the government should be conserving its
resources, not frittering scarce funds on religious
Buhari should walk the talk of change. Nigeria is a
secular state with a multi-religious population. The
1999 Constitution clearly forbids government from
promoting any faith as a state religion. In practice,
successive Nigerian governments have elevated
Islam and Christianity to state religions, spending
vast sums from the public treasury on the two. The
relief that change had come when Governor Nasir
el-Rufai, Buhari’s close ally, declared that
thenceforth, Kaduna State would no longer dabble
into religion has evaporated with the ill-advised
concessionary exchange rate for religious tourism.
This government will not succeed if it fails to deliver
change and instead, wastes resources on religion
like its predecessors. Here is a country that has
earmarked N953.62bn for debt servicing and
N755bn as deficit in the N4.49bn 2015 budget, yet
is set to pamper a few with forex subsidy in pursuit
of religion. If the CBN was ready to sacrifice the
jobs generated by importers of the 41 items that will
have to source forex from the alternative market in
order to defend the naira, what is the economic
rationale for funding pilgrimages?
Saudi Arabia is said to earn $1.6bn annually from
pilgrims, while Israel boosts its economy with
religious tourism, earning $3.3bn in 2009. Analysts
had expected Buhari to wind down the pilgrims
agencies, whose operations he had slammed as
corrupt recently, not to deepen the state’s
involvement in religion. The Steven Oronsaye
committee had recommended scrapping the two
The enormity of the challenges facing the country
demands a hands-on approach, a sustained resolve
to cut costs, end impunity and detach the state
from things better left to individuals and groups,
especially divisive ventures such as religion. Health
care, education and infrastructure are in disrepair
and require creative thinking to raise funding for
them. But religion is a private matter; those who
seek to visit religious foreign sites should make
their own arrangements while the state restricts
itself to providing consular services. The approval
is arbitrary and ill-advised. It should be reversed.

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