At the age of 25, Uja Tor Uja was appointed the Commissioner for Information and Social Development, and later Commissioner of Commerce and Industries in Benue State. A seasoned journalist and apostle of pilgrimage as a panacea for curbing corruption, Uja also served on the Advisory Board of the Benue Pentecostal fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) and was later appointed as the Chairman of Benue Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) where he served for 10 years. Dr. Uja who is now the Executive Secretary, Nigeria Christian Pilgrim Commission recently convened the Conference of Christian Pilgrimage Operators (CPOs) in Nigeria in Lagos. He talks to Omolola Itayemi about the challenges of the commission, the role of CPOs in pilgrimage and why the bilateral agreement with Israel might have to wait
Who are CPOs, what is their relevance to pilgrimage and what is this conference about?
CPOs are Christian Pilgrimage Operators, we need them to develop increased working capacity, improved efficiency and acquire added access to global practices and networks in order to deliver efficient services to Nigerian Pilgrims. The main aim of the conference is to create the needed environment for them to succeed, to create an avenue for more CPOs to emerge and for more organized, coherent and predictable pattern for pilgrimage operations in Nigeria. Pilgrimage must achieve the designed purpose of serving Nigeria, projecting Christ and also promoting development ideas and become the pride of Nigeria.
How has NCPC been able to thrive in this period of recession?
I must first commend the federal government for offering services and infrastructure for the organization and supervision of pilgrimage; also state governors for supporting many Christians who aspire to embark on holy pilgrimage over the years. The biggest challenge we face is finance especially as the federal government has decided not to finance pilgrimage. We cannot totally begrudge government because of the present financial predicament. We have to take it courageously and what we have chosen to do is re-organise our internal operations by cutting cost drastically.
When I came in and met the financial situation, we didn’t have any funds at all. I called all our service operators whose contract has already been agreed and sealed and asked for a reduction in the cost of pilgrimage and flights. After much haggling, we were able to achieve the reduction. We also did the same thing with ground handlers. Also in our internal operations at the headquarters, we reduce expenditures on travel, fuel, cleaning services and so on, thereby enabling us to save funds. Strangely in the course of saving here and there, we now have some good saving in foreign exchange. We don’t look like we can ever be embarrassed financially; my intention is that we increase our areas of revenue drive. If we have the cooperation we need, then we expect pilgrimages to run soon without hitches.
Our greatest challenge is to remove the dependence on government for pilgrimage and let churches, organisations and individuals whom God has blessed and have the wherewithal sponsor people because government largesse is reducing drastically by the day. Right now, just about 35 per cent of states sponsor and they sponsor little numbers. We don’t expect a drastic increase except something miraculous happens but we don’t want to work on that, we want realities.
If government can give this agency support by giving us some strategic funding on facilities we need for the next five years, we will never need government support for ever.
Will reducing cost not impact on efficacy of manpower?
We have not reduced manpower. Instead, we will like to increase manpower. While we are cutting costs, we are investing in other areas, For example, we are opening eight new offices in the country, We call them Metropolitan offices. They are focused on the big cities of Nigeria, where we think we can target and get good manpower and revenue to support or work, include Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Kano, Gombe, Awka and Asaba.
These offices will help build our linkages with churches, schools and organisations in that milieu. They are engagement and mobilisation offices. We want them to break into the economies and populace of these areas that have opportunities to wealth creation. These areas are strong in their economies and establishments are concentrated there especially universities who are also strategic entry points for us. We have repositioned pilgrimage into five entries. We are targeting youth, women, families, specialised groups and general pilgrimage open to anybody.
While we cannot ignore the role of states in pilgrimage programme, we want to move away from dependency on government both at federal and state level. No nation is as vibrant in the spirit like Nigeria and I believe with a better harnessing of it, it will translate into human development and the development of the environment. This spiritual movement going on in Nigeria has people coming from outside to participate in these activities and also invest in Nigeria by also spending something in the country.
Going by what you said earlier on, are we expecting a synergy between NCPC and other tourism parastatals like NTDC?
We can only have a synergy when they see our successes. We are going to invite people in their communities to come to Nigeria. Part of the programme on this conference is to train our pilgrimage operators to develop and manage tourists for religious tourism. Most of them don’t have equipment, some don’t even have buses. So when we get strong, the world will naturally come.
There are some sites we call the reverse pilgrimage and it is a process of inviting other parts of the world to come to Nigeria for pilgrimage and we are not looking first at ground centres. We are looking at human and historical centres. For example, if we bring pilgrims into Nigeria, we will like them to see Ajayi Crowther’s works and history as documented in Badagry and Mary Slessor’s works in Cross River but beyond that, we want people to come at the time people are holding their programmes so that they can be part of the spiritual exercise.
We want to create the pilgrimage booking so that people outside the country will be part of Nigerian activities and that way, they will benefit from the spiritual revival in Nigeria and also invest in Nigeria by also spending something in Nigeria. But I can tell you verbally, no country is as spiritual as Nigeria; it has the highest spiritual level far more than any nation and by developing on it, it will develop into human development and the development of the environment.
The painful truth is that the world sees Nigeria as a rich fool. All they want is to get the petro-dollars and kick her out. They don’t need us. I want to change that perspective. I want the world to reckon with Nigeria. I am hoping the media will help reduce negative stories about the country in their publications. They should increase the positive stories published; there are many positive things going on in Nigeria.
A bilateral agreement with Israel was pursued fervently by your predecessor, who argued that if Nigeria is able to do bilateral agreements with Israel, Nigerians can fly directly and that will reduce the cost of pilgrimage. Has it been concluded?
No, that bilateral agreement has not taken off. Actually, it is slightly below the elementary stages. I have seen the document and it says nothing. Israel says it cannot go forward with any agreement except Nigeria addresses their concerns. Such concerns include security and there are many dimensions to that. Secondly, we need a Nigerian indigenous airline that is capable of running flights straight from Nigeria to Israel, there is none. I have been asking the Nigerian government to do a bail out for the aviation sector because any airline that flies us to Israel that is not ours will definitely stop at its hub, which is usually its country. It’s a shame that a big country like this has no airline to fly us directly. It is embarrassing.
Of recent you mentioned the need for the church to begin to invest in pilgrimage, isn’t that the norm?
As I mentioned earlier, the time has come for us to stop dependence on government. We only need proper advocacy to reach out to Christians and we are doing that. We are making efforts to simplify operations here, especially with regards to financial transactions. Christians are advised to take advantage of the installment payment arrangements of the Commission to pay and plan for their pilgrimages. They need not fear, any money paid into NCPC account is safe.
The commission is setting up a template that would enable any pilgrimage process to be done within a time frame. So I am using this opportunity to admonish every church to set up CPOs that would be fully registered with the commission. It is also pertinent that every state should have a registered CPO’s so as to be part of the pilgrimage process. CPO is a spiritual ministry and a profitable venture at that.
Top Promoters of Tourism honoured at Accra Weizo
he organizers of Accra Weizo, an ECOWAS region travel expo has unveiled Top 100 Tourism Personalities in West Africa at Accra, Ghana. The ceremony held on Friday, May 26th 2017 at La Palm Royal Beach Hotel, Accra, Ghana. “The Top 100 Tourism Personalities was set up to recognize individuals who have distinguished themselves through their efforts or that of their organizations in the travel and tourism sector across the West African sub region, whose efforts have stimulated and helped to achieve their individual country’s tourism goals and forging interactions among stakeholders and customers across the region”, says Mr. Ikechi Uko, organizer of the awards.
While the Balafon Awards was instituted 2009 by the publishers of ATQNews, the Balafon Awards Committee made up of Travel Professionals and Journalists from across West Africa had earlier met and shortlisted Nominees.
The award was set up to recognize individuals and organizations that have excelled in Tourism and Travel and who also have contributed to the growth of Hotels Business, Tourism and Travels in West Africa. The event was graced by his royal highness, Nene Nagai Kassa VIII and other dignitaries.