Rev Tor Uja is the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC), in this interview, he speaks on efforts made the commission to improve pilgrimage in Nigeria. Augustine Aminu reports the excerpt.
What efforts have you made to improve pilgrimage’s template since you assumed office in 2016?
One major thing we have done is to retool Christian pilgrimage, to redefine and reposition it, make it more programmed, more purposeful and set an agenda for it that is memorable and can also made more continuous.
We decided that pilgrimage should have a divine focus, people should go with an expectation and come back with something. I will give three dimensions of pilgrimage, one is focus on Christ pilgrimage and expanding the knowledge of Christ to all pilgrims so that they come back as better Christians.
Secondly promoting Nigeria nationalism, that pilgrims go on pilgrimage with the country in mind and come back with a bigger Nigerian picture in their mind.
The third thing is that every pilgrim or any pilgrimage manager should be transformed into being ordinary person who is a leader and be advocate for productive development. We found out that Israel is a nation of less than eight million people, less than the size of Federal Capital Territory, in fact far less than the arable land that we have here, in fact 65% of Israel is desert, yet the country is the biggest exporter of food in the world today, this nation should take over the export of food to the world, because we have everything, we have the man power, we have the lands, we have water for irrigation, we have everything it takes to export foods to the world. We should therefore set up an agenda that people will go on pilgrimage to pray, observe and also to attempt to replicate what they have seen while on pilgrimage in Nigeria, so that we discourage discourage people just making money but people engaged in productive development. Even if somebody is making money he should ask him self what I’m I doing, what did I do to make the money? What I’m I doing to add value to Nigeria, what I’m I producing, not just existing, not just being in employment but productive development. Israel produces, everyday is production, all the millions of people that go to pilgrimage are well fed, not only well fed, there is lot of remnants. We can also make that difference.
Another major achievement is that we persuaded the government to accept our idea of building a pilgrims’ heritage camp, so that people don’t come from their houses to go to pilgrimage, they go into the camp for orientation, training and exposure for better education and preparation for the trip, and government in 2018 budgeted five hundred and fifty nine million naira for that purpose.
How do you intend to fund the heritage camp project?
We are using both government and private funding, especially from churches and Christian companies, we have made contacts with them already and many are willing to support both in architecture and with finance, once we start many of those things will start coming in.
What has your administration done differently for pilgrims since you assumed office?
We have upgraded pilgrimage, first in Nigerialising and secondly in improving its template, when we came up, all the people that provided services for us in pilgrimage, produce souvenirs in their company’s colour, or their nation’s colour, and these are things we are paying for, so we demanded that must change, now they produce all the souvenirs in Nigeria’s colours, and all the states that go on pilgrimage also produce all the clothing materials in Nigeria’s colours.
We want Nigeria to be properly positioned on the map, we are not ashamed or afraid of our country, we want to stamp our foot on the world map and say here is Nigeria.
That is the major thing we have attained, and we have attempted to diversify pilgrimage from only government sponsorship to public and church ownership, we are taking pilgrimage to people whom we believe should own it, the churches and the Christian community. We have increased the number of private companies that run pilgrimage, from about 32 that I met to about 120 right now. All of them are engaging actively on pilgrimage Enterprise. Last year we had about 2000 pilgrims that were carried by this private groups, and hopefully by this year they will be doubling the number, we want to see an increase in that dimension because many states are complaining of salaries, they may not always increase their sponsorship, but we want it to go to where it truly belong.
Last year, a seven-man Ghanaian delegation came to under study NCPC, has there been any feedback from them?
Nigerian pilgrimage is a brand on its own, Nigeria is the only country in the world with organised and programmed pilgrimage activities, and we are the only one with an establishment like NCPC, the delegation came because they recognised that our pilgrimage is organised, established, it has a legal frame work, and it has its national input on its own and government is involved. So they wanted to know how Ghana could do the samething. They have started working on their legal processes, they have asked us to come and address the churches and Christian communities so that they can invest in pilgrimage and be more involved and show ownership. They also asked if the airlines that run pilgrimage for us can work with them, they wanted that at this first stage then work in collaboration with Nigeria so that when the planes comes, they would pick them in Ghana and then pick the rest from Nigeria so they would have the mentorship process that we have taken. They still want us to be in Ghana and train them on the issues of screening and monitoring of people. I’m sure you know many in African nations, the citizens will do anything to go abroad. That is not good for any nation especially African nations that needs their man power for development, they want us to help them manage Ghanaian mentality, so that when they go on pilgrimage it will not be an escape route. We are working on the partnership and we believe that it will turn out well.
What are you doing to address the challenges of having direct flights from Nigeria to Israel?
NCPC is working on a joint project with Israelis so that either before the end of this year or early next year we will start running a weekly flight from Nigeria to Israel, that will also impact on what we are doing. The only thing that delayed the implementation of direct flight was the issue of security management, that has been largely addressed and one of the concerns of Israel is that a Nigerian carrier that can be dependent upon for higher security output should be involved in the flight to Israel and then the Israeli national carrier should also be involved in the carrying of the pilgrims back to Nigeria. With the delay in the national carrier coming up in Nigeria, some of the business group decided that they will adopt one of the indigenous airlines, and then work with them to run the direct flight to Israel on a weekly bases, and when that start many of the private pilgrims will find it easier to do that and some of the issues of this higher security searches and mismanagement of our processes will be taking care of. We believe that will work and we are already in a very serious relationship with the groups involved, I’m sure that before long it will take off.
Any time frame?
Let me put it at early next year, it ought to be this year but there are many processes like registrations, clearances with security, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), and others. Also the planes that must go from here must have proper registration in Israel just like planes from Israel will also have proper registration in Nigeria too, those are things that cannot be bridged and we have to still fly pilgrims before the end of the year, but latest by March next year everything will be ready, we are looking forward to it and I would like to be on the first direct flight to Israel. It will continue, it will not just be one or two flights but a weekly flight, We are willing to pay the price even if passengers are not enough at the beginning, people will need to get used to it and I want you to know that Israel is a choice destination for Nigerians, just like Nigeria is a choice market for any part of the world. No part of the world can ignore Nigeria and survive, because we have good population, government, financial system and an economy that is doing well. We may have challenges locally but Nigeria is a good country that no nation in the world can ignore.
With your advocacy, have you been able to change the poor perception of foreigners towards Nigerians?
On the general level I would love to plead with the pastors to increase their teachings about holiness, integrity and contentment, it is a wrong thing for a great nation like Nigeria for people to be suspected everywhere because of greed and ungodly ways for money. Many people think that an average Nigerian will do anything to make money and this is a reproach, and we need to bring this to an end, I want to congratulate all Nigerian pilgrims that all the years of pilgrimage, there was no mention of drugs, theft, or violence. I want to challenge the Church to lift up its profile that will show integrity. We can change the Nigerian story, I will like a stronger foreign policy from Nigeria so that Nigerians are not unduly harassed around the world. Nigeria is a big and strong country, we need to confront nations with our strength and discourage the maltreatment of Nigerians in even small countries. That needs to come up at a higher level, but at our level, we try to ensure that we give sufficient education to our pilgrims so that where ever they are going, they go with honour, character and the demonstration of the Christian doctrine. Nigeria is capable of taking care of each of its citizens, so people should travel with honour and not subject themselves to a beggarly way of living or a situation of making them suspected or maltreated. I would like all the nations whom we deal with on pilgrimage to honor Nigerians, I must thank the government of Israel because they respect Nigerian a lot, they believe we are honest, hardworking, and independent. We don’t experience anything harassment when we are in Israel, even when there are issues of abscondment, they call to inform us. I think we need to increase the bond between both countries. Nigeria have a strong blessing to get from Israel, I am calling on Nigerian groups to send their people to Israel to imbibe some of the things that they do. We have a stake in building Nigeria, let’s build Nigeria and let’s do things that will attract foreigners to the country, let’s have a change of mentality, let’s decolonise our mind and stop believing that the white man’s land is the best place to be. I tell u today Nigeria is the best country to live in, we may have our own challenges, but we have peace, every nation has his own troubles. Let’s be proud of our country and Iet the world know that there is a nation called Nigeria, and we are not a small group but one of the powerful nation on earth.