Rev. Uja Tor Uja is the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission. In this interview with Augustine Aminu he spoke on a number of issues, including his vision for the commission, the bilateral air services agreement with Israel and protection of Nigerian pilgrims.
How has the current economic recession affected Nigerians going on pilgrimage?
In the two months that we have done this pilgrimage, we have lifted approximately 5,000 pilgrims which is below our projected figure but we have to end the pilgrimage and return everybody by the end of December. We still have about 2000 pilgrims waiting to be airlifted which we may continue until the end of January and middle of February. We would have to seek the permission of the federal government for that extension. Pilgrimage started late because in all of October, Israel did not go to work in their work. They had their religious holidays and the holidays fluctuates just like Easter which may fall in March or April. Because of the month long holidays, we couldn’t have any visas at all to prosecute the journey. It was in the middle of November that the visas started coming and we had to start in toward the end of November. We have lifted approximately 5000 pilgrims and we are trusting that the remains 2000 plus will be airlifted in the New Year.
We know that the number compared to projection because of the harsh economy and due to the economic challenge, we appreciate all those who are traveling for this.
What is the status of our air services agreement with Israel?
That bilateral agreement has not been implemented. I am sure you know that since the agreement was signed, Nigeria has been going through serious crisis. We had the elections, Boko Haram, economy and global terror. There was not much attention given to it. Now that Mr. President is settling down, we will meet him again. He is the Chief diplomat of Nigeria. I believe that he will re-open it. That agreement will make the pilgrimage cheaper and easier. Right now, we always have to pass through other countries to get to Israel. We spend up to 24 hours sometimes, to get to Israel. With him, the integrity of Nigeria has gone up and it will be better for us now.
What is the major problem of pilgrimage in Nigeria?
One of our biggest challenges is infrastructure. We do not have a place where we can do enough of the screening, training and preparation of Nigerian pilgrims. That is why we intend that early in 2017, we are going to commence work on developing the Christian Pilgrimage Heritage Conference Centre, where everybody who has been accepted to go on pilgrimage must spend some days for orientation, prayer and training before they will airlifted.
Right now we do what looks almost like a caricature of orientation at the airport. When people are waiting to enter the flight we use 30 minutes or one hour, which makes little or no meaning. We intend to end that by next year. In fact, the airport orientation ends with this year. It will not go on again next year. We will use a site, and if our sites are not very ready, we will rent a premise where we will do that before pilgrims are airlifted on pilgrimage.
What is the idea behind youth pilgrimage?
Yea, that programme was carried out only once before I came and I carried it out the second this year. I think it’s a programme that needs to be continued with and even expanded upon. My programme is able to be able to extend it further and to make sure that 65 per cent of Christian pilgrimage is centered on youths and women. We believe these are the two strategic groups that can bring enduring revolution to Nigeria. Without ignoring the other group, we have afire finger approach to strengthen pilgrimage. One and the most prominent is the youths, second is the women, third is leaders- both church leaders, community leaders and so-, the fourth is professionals- including local professionals like agriculturists, and business executives- and the fifth is a general, for those who many not find themselves fitting into any of these four. In the coming years, we want to give priority attention to these targeted groups, one to four and still leave that window for the general.
We will make sure that Nigerian youths participated not pilgrimage the more. In fact, we have set out to make the youth pilgrimage the cheapest of the all the pilgrimages in Nigeria so that more youths can afford to do it. In the coming years, we are going to target, university students, secondary school students, including primary school students so that they go as a group in their category so that they can lean on over the years from what they learn and advance with them as they grow and make more pilgrimages. We intend to strengthen these things and enlarge them and we trust that the impact will be there.
The strength of the youth pilgrimage is that we introduce skill acquisition with greater emphasis on agricultural technology and the youths I laid out August and September, we spent 60 per cent of that period learning on the farms. I took part in it and got my certificate like all the youths. The remains 20 per cent was used to visit holy sites and another 20 percent used in doors to study and interact on the issues concerning Nigeria- the challenges of Nigeria, the solutions to Nigerian challenges and the individual decisions that the young people have decided on what they will do on their return to Nigeria.
This agriculture project, was it your brain child or it has been there?
It was there but was only done on skeletal level just like the youths pilgrimage that was done only once, we did the second. We plan to expand it.
In 2017, we are planning to introduce a farmers pilgrimage that will gather farmers from around the country, go with them on pilgrimage.
The programme will include prayer and visit to sites but very importantly, it will include some additional agricultural training, exposure to what is going on in agriculture in Israel and participation in what is going. Nigeria is a very vast country with big land but Israel is a small small with very small land, yet their investment in Agriculture is monumental. I want Nigerian entrepreneur, farmers, and young people to get exposed to that and receive big challenges and to receive institutional things that will last.
Some of the farms we saw in Israel are over 50 years old and they are passed on from generation to generation. One of the things we are trying to teach our youths is not do things just to eat food today, do things that have a future not just for you but for your nation because for Israel, agriculture is an investment for their nation. So, we want to enlarge the mind of Nigerians. For me, I come from Tiv land, and I’ve been principally a farmer since I was born. I have my farms- orange farms, mango farms, and so on. But when I went to the Israeli tree farms, citrus farms, I now change my mind that I’ve not been farming but I’ve been joking because, with all my farms combined, it is nearly 1000 trees but in just one of the farms in Israel, with measuring 10 to 20 hectares.
That was why I changed my plans. I told you we want to build pilgrimage heritage centre. I had applied for 100 hectares of land from the Minister of the FCT so that the centre will include a farm where young people can also work and hone their skill, a college where we will raise young people and then a conference centre for the training programme. But when I was exposed to what I saw in Israel, I came back and changed the plan. I wrote a letter to the Minister of FCT saying the first letter was an error and that I need 1000 hectare for that place, because we cannot do those kind of miniature things anymore.
I would to challenge the Nigerian farmers to do a perestroika, to open up their minds and do something bigger and something that we can export and hand over to other generations. We need something that will not only feed people but provide for their sustenance in all areas. We are taking this a very serious investment and we are hoping that in the years to come, maybe begging from next year, I maybe approaching some of you for funding and for resources to help us fulfill that dream.
By the end of your administration, how would like Nigeria’s image to be painted?
I would like to be seen as someone who opened up the pilgrimage industry and made it affordable to every Nigerian Christian. I would like a Nigeria where Christ is at the centre of pilgrimage in every dimension- discussions, operations, management etc. Third, I would like that pilgrimage is synonymous with the greatness of Nigeria and that we are not going on pilgrimage because we have problems in Nigeria, but because of the greatness of Nigeria. We want to announce to the world that Nigeria has come of age and that it is a nation ready to influence the whole world both spiritually and socially. We want Christ known and Nigeria served.