Tor Ujah is the current Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC). In this interview with EBERE AMEH, he discloses his plan to among other things, revamp Nigeria’s economy through Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land
It’s about six months since you took over the helm of affairs of the commission. What has the experience been like?
I think running pilgrimage is one of the most engaging and enterprising things that one would do in life. I find it exciting, I find the engagement and interface with pilgrims very rewarding, and above all, I find the impact we made for Christ and for Nigeria among different nations a very rewarding experience.
I have now come to see that with a better presentation and a better exemplary leadership structure, many nations are ready to respect Nigeria very well. Nigeria is experiencing a lot of respect in my encounter with foreign nations.
We visit Israel and Rome and Greece, other territories like Turkey, Syria and Egypt have been suspended because of some of the unpredictable tendencies in those areas and we don’t want to expose Nigerians to any danger. But in all these places, when Nigerians go there, they visit religious sites, especially in our dispensation; we have restricted the sites to those of biblical importance, eliminating those that are merely history or archaeology.
Our main concerns are sites of biblical importance in order to improve the spiritual content and reward of Christian pilgrimage. Nigerians are enjoying the Christian element of the pilgrimage and they are also enjoying the application of Bible scriptures to the sites they see on ground and it is helping people to build their relationship with God and with other Christians a lot better.
Very importantly, we have introduced a stronger prayer element as different groups of pilgrims are in different places at different times; we initiated weekly prayer convocation on Mount Zion. We started it on the fourth day of December for the pilgrims who were in Israel at that time and on December 11 and then on December 16. The last one was on Christmas Day, the 25th of December last year.
During the pre-departure orientation of the pilgrims, you mentioned that the prayer on Mount Zion is to help end recession in Nigeria. Many are saying that ending recession requires practical solutions, not prayers. What’s your take on that?
Prayers alone is not enough. Prayer is a stimulant; it engages heaven and stimulates earth. So we are trusting that prayer would release a chain of ideas. Prayer creates a revival, makes people holier spiritually, and more creative intellectually.
Why we may not take credit for all, we believe that our foot print is first in prayer. The second thing is that we would like the Federal Government to make more aggressive investments in infrastructure. Infrastructure that will create opportunities for the economy to bounce back again.
If we strengthen the aviation infrastructure, Nigeria is one destination that people would all come to do business. It is a business hub in Africa from where you can move to everywhere, and with our population, they would find safe haven in us.
We need to have an export mentality in our agricultural programme. I believe Nigeria can feed the world. There are food items we can export to other countries. Nigerians as individuals and groups should think of how to earn foreign exchange for Nigeria and not how to spend it in other countries. The more we spend the more we deplete our resources.
Despite our recession, Nigeria is still better off than many countries of the world. We have gone on pilgrimage to many countries and people are leaving their countries in droves because of hardship. I can tell you, wherever Nigerians go, nations celebrate because they believe money has come. People see us as a money spending nation and not money earning nation.
How has the government’s non sponsorship of pilgrims affected the commission’s coordination and work?
For me it is a challenge. Over the years, both federal and state governments have been largely responsible for the sponsorship of pilgrims and especially at the time when oil was making our country a lot richer, it was easier for the states to do that.
Now you know the country is in a recession, many states cannot easily afford to pay their salaries. Even the Federal Government is having challenges with meeting its obligations. So both has slowed down on the pilgrimage.
So the challenge now is for us to go to the market place and to get people who understand pilgrimage and who want to engage in it and prepared to invest in it. So this year, we are pushing our efforts to reducing the cost of pilgrimage and its effect on the government.
We cannot thank the Federal Government enough for setting up a body like this and are paying our salaries.
It gave us dollars at the same rate as the last year, and so much more. Around the world, Nigeria is about the only country supporting pilgrimage in this kind of dimension – supporting pilgrims to go and pray and to maintain and build their faith. I’m proud that Nigeria is a nation of distinction that is doing what no other nation in the world is doing right now.
At the orientation, you made mention of your plan to empower the youth through pilgrimage. Could you expatiate on that?
The youth empowerment programme was carried out only once previously I carried out the second one this year. It is a programme that need to be continued and even expanded upon. My plan is to make sure that 65 percent of Christian pilgrimage is centred on youth and women.
We believe these are the two strategic groups that can bring enduring revolution into Nigeria without ignoring the other strategic groups. We have a five finger approach to strengthening pilgrimage. One and the most prominent is youth, t h e second is women, and the third is leaders – both church, political, community leaders and so on. The fourth is the professionals, including local professionals like agriculturists, and business executives.
The fifth is the general one and it’s for those who may not find themselves fitting into the first four. In this New Year, we intend to give priority attention to these targeted groups and still leave that window for the general group. We would ensure that Nigerian youths participate in pilgrimage the more. In fact we have set out to make the youth pilgrimage the cheapest of all the pilgrimages in Nigeria so that more youth can afford to do it.
We are going to target university students, secondary school students including primary schools, in their categories, so they go as a group that is homogenous and they participate in this so that maybe in the future, they can make more advance in the pilgrimage trip to deepen whatever they have started learning. We intend to strengthen those ideas, enlarge them and trust that the impact would be there.
The strength of the youth pilgrimage is that we introduce skills acquisition with special emphasis on agricultural technology.
Sixty percent of the youth that went to Israel between August and September last year spent that period learning on the farms; the remaining 20 percent visited Holy sites while the other 20 percent stayed indoors to study and interact on issues concerning Nigeria. This latter group focused on solutions to Nigeria’s challenges and what they will do on their return to Nigeria.
We are planning to host a farmer’s pilgrimage that would gather farmers from around the country and go with them on pilgrimage. The programme would include, of course, prayers and visit to Holy sites, but very importantly, it would include some important agricultural training and exposure to what is going on agriculturally in Israel.
We plan to build an orientation camp for pilgrims and I have applied to the FCT Ministry to provide us land for the project. I have asked for a 1000 hectares of land.
The centre will include a farm where young people could work and hone their skills; a school, a college and a conference centre for our training programmes. I will like to challenge Nigerian farmers to do something bigger, something we can export, something we can hand over to the next generation.
Do you have an understanding with the Israeli government with regards to the agricultural pilgrimage programme?
In a sense, yes and no. I have held meetings with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Tourism, but the Israeli government would rather want that we work with their private sector than with them.
The reason is that with them we would not pay, but with the private sector, we would pay very well. We are still battling with that so we could have a partnership – part government, part private.
We are hoping that when we set up that centre, we bring some of the trainers to also train some of our people here in Nigeria. They are willing to do that, we are working on the details.
How has your background as a journalist, pastor and administrator prepared you for this job?
God has prepared me and I take it as a joyful challenge. The continuum of what we have been going through, I find it a very good occasion to strengthen the church and strengthen the commitment and confession of Christians all over the world beginning with Nigeria and to interface with other Christian leaders around the world.
We are trusting God to put NCPC on a strong administrative footing so that the commission will operate like a machine and there will be no hiccups. A place where everybody knows his duty and everybody knows the pilgrimage focus.
I intend to build an NCPC that will not depend necessarily on me to function. So that even after I have left, NCPC will be a machine that will run with minimum interference.
I want NCPC to run like a plane, knowing its end from the beginning with minimum interference. I want NCPC to be able to harness the vast resources of this nation from the churches, from the private organisations and groups.
How would you want to be remembered when you are done with your tenure?
I would want to be seen as someone who opened up the pilgrimage industry and made it available for the average Nigerian Christian. I would like a situation in which Christ is at the centre of every pilgrimage – in discussions, in operation, in management and in everything.
I would like that pilgrimage is synonymous to the greatness of Nigeria. That we are not going on pilgrimage because we have problems in Nigeria, we are going because of the greatness of Nigeria and we want to announce to the world that Nigeria is a nation that is ready to influence the whole world both spiritually and socially.
So we want Christ known, we want Nigeria served.