The Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC) has introduced some reforms and initiatives aimed at making the yearly pilgrimage to Israel a memorable adventure. The Executive Secretary of NCPC, Rev. Dr. Uja Tor Uja, who recently shared his views with Onyebuchi Ezigbo in an interview said, apart from helping pilgrims to become closer to God, the commission is also inculcating nationalism, patriotism and getting them to imbibe the enterprising spirit for which the host nation, Israel is known. Excerpts:
What was your preoccupation before being appointed to take charge of the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC)?
I was born in 1957 in Shongo, Benue State, where I grew up and spent most of my life. Apart from travelling to different places, I always came back to Shongo and my mother still lives there and some of my brothers and I visit there from time to time. I schooled around the country, which enabled me to meet a lot of people and establish a lot of networks. I started in Makurdi, Jos, Lagos and a few other places.
I think the most important thing I learnt in my life was when I became born again in 1975 and I started preaching the gospel and going round the country and beyond. I ended up serving as a Pentecostal Fellowship Ministries (PFM) chairman for Benue state for 10 years, leading the entire body of Christ in Benue statement and linking up with the national Pentecostal movement in the state and from there, I came to be here.
So, that is the story of my life. I am married with five daughters and they are the pride of my life and they have also honoured me, because they are the best children anyone can wish for in his life. They are dedicated Christians and always operating as a family. So, I can say I am a proud and happy man.
Let’s go a bit personal. At what point can one say he is born again?
Born again simply means hearing the gospel of Christ and submitting to it and accepting Jesus Christ in their lives as their Lord and personal Saviour. That moment changes your life. It is the most significant thing in my life and before this time, I was a thug on the streets of Gboko.
I was living one of the worst lives anybody could live as a young teenager, involved in so many vices and my life was heading to a wrong path and most of the time we were drunk by the time we were going to bed and sometimes waking up in a ditch somewhere and we were tied up with drugs, Indian hemp and violence.
We were the young people that were part of the development of violence in Benue and especially in Gboko and when I gave my life to Christ all that disappeared. I can say that since that time, from 1975 till date, I have been free from any kind of violence and my testimonies speak for it. I live a heavenly life under the guidance of Jesus Christ since 1975 till date.
I have made my stand for Christ in holiness, in uprightness and of course, I think one of the things that it has produced in my life is my extreme passion for nationalism and Nigeria, because Christ teaches us to love, build and promote our nation and especially for Nigeria. Christ has told us that he has a great programme for Nigeria and it must be fulfilled and I want to see it fulfilled in my lifetime.
How has your decision to embrace Christianity impacted on your life?
I have been a preacher and I have preached around this country and beyond over the last 44 years. I have headed many Christian associations and groups and led many activities. Like I said, I have led PFM in Benue for 10 years and we were able to build and develop leadership not just in Benue, but across the country.
We laboured to lift the profile of Christianity in the Middle Belt and mind you, note that the Middle Belt is different from North Central, the North Central is limited to six states, the Middle belt is close to 18 states and we laboured to build the Christian profile in all these areas and more importantly we were able to work with all the churches in the denomination.
So as I am, I am closely linked with all the denominations in this country including the different groups in CAN, CAN has five blocks. The OYC that is called the white garment churches, we are closely linked, because we work with them in developing their faith; the CCN; the Christian Council of Nigeria the Anglican, Methodist, African Church and so on. We work with them and we are closely linked with all of them.
The Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, which is a Christian group of Catholics, we have worked closely with them and we are still linked with them nationally. Of course, the ECWA, which I used to work with very closely as a church and very close to all the churches in the ECWA tankan; the Baptist and so on which I am closely linked with and of course the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria which makes one block of CAN, we work closely with all of them.
So, I must say that I am a body builder and I head a ministry called Missioners International. It is not exactly a church based ministry, we work to harmony all the churches and to send missionaries to Africa and other nations of the world. So, this also makes it easier for us to build our network with all the churches of course in terms of social and care work. I am a journalist, of which I was an editor and rose to be the Commissioner of Information and other areas like that before I went into full time preaching of the gospel.
How do you see your job at the pilgrims’ commission: a political appointment or a religious calling?
First and foremost, it is a political appointment, because I was appointed by the President, after the recommendation of the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. It is a political appointment with a tenure and its job definition is also a religious and spiritual calling or invitation, because the Act setting it up commission says that ‘someone who will be appointed must be very well versed in Christian and religious affairs’.
So, there is a religious and spiritual aspect and I think whoever is there must be able to balance the two, relate very well with the political structures and relate even much better with the religious structures, including those that are not Christians, because it is a mandate that in its full implementation, we will require an interface with our opposite number, our Islamic brothers with whom we need to work together to build the country, because the two are the outstanding religions of this country: Christianity and Islam.
It is important for both to work together and we have been able to build an interface with the Haji commission and the Islamic groups in this country. So, when we have time we visit them, we pray together, we exchange ideas and we share our progress and challenges together. I think these are things apart from fitting those criteria, I think it is a very good opportunity to help in building this nation and to provide structures for relationship, for development and for spiritual depth in our Christianity.
Are there reforms or initiatives you have introduced since taking up the job at NCPC?
Nigerian Christians are interested in pilgrimage but they prefer to participate in pilgrimage if someone else pays, which is the only difference otherwise all Christians are very interested. Even millionaires at times when they come to see me they ask me to sponsor them to pilgrimage but these are people that can pay for thousands of people without losing sleep.
We need a situation where Nigerian Christians will see the need to pay for pilgrimage for themselves and also pay for other Christians, who are less endowed to participate in pilgrimage but more importantly, Christian pilgrimage is not only about seeing sights.
The three things that define visitation to a location for pilgrimage are sights as mentioned in the Bible as mystery, miracles as mentioned in the Bible that Jesus conducted or experienced in any part of the Bible and then events that took place either in the Bible or Biblical history. Those are the three things that govern Christian pilgrimage.
However, we have introduced a concept that pilgrimage must go beyond visiting these sights and seeing all these things; they must enable people to know Christ better and then go ahead and contribute to the development of Nigeria more and very importantly to grow up in their leadership capacity as individuals and as groups.
The current pilgrimage going on now is very indicative of what we are expecting. Baylesa State contingent came with almost all their spiritual leaders in Baylesa State and they also came with a Choir from the government, they were praying for their state and praying for Nigeria at almost every point. That is the kind of thing we want to see and in addition, we want that the Christians who go on pilgrimage become part of development of the nation by seeing some of the developments taking place in some of these places in Israel, especially in agriculture and in technology.
Israel is a small country, which is less than Abuja in size, Benue and many of the states and yet Israel is one of the biggest exporters of food in the world. So, I ask, why can’t we Nigerians go that road? I want pilgrims to go on pilgrimages and come back with a challenge that we can lead the world; that we can feed the world and we can take over the mantle of spiritual history to the world, because God has endowed us with size, with numbers, with capacity and with the spiritual revolution that is going on now, right now.
The Nigerian church is the biggest, strongest and most vibrant in the world. There is no church like Nigeria in the world and there is no church that has the kind of spiritual leadership that we have that in two minutes that you can call a hundred great teachers of the gospel in Nigeria. There is no nation in the world where such can take place. We want to challenge the Nigerian church using the pilgrimage route to stand up and beat the world in all spheres of life.
What are you doing to make pilgrimages a better experience?
The few things we have done are, first, we set a template for pilgrimage. That pilgrimages must be first of all spiritual and then nationalism driven and then it must provide leadership and productive development for Nigeria. So, we set that template as an important function than having a hundred thousand pilgrims just going on a jamboree and coming back. We want those who will go with a mission and come back with a determination to do something for Nigeria.
Second, we have made the processes more predictable and easier to access for all Nigerians. So, you don’t need to come here, you can access everything on our website, your local government or in your state or your village. We have made things easy enough but more importantly, we have tried to ensure that we develop our screening template to make sure that people who are planning to abscond are edged out of the journey and many Nigerians still think that many countries are better than Nigeria, which is a lie.
Nigeria is one of the best countries to live in the world and I can tell you yes we have problems of security here and there, we have the challenge of trying to revamp the economy, we have unemployment issues with our multitude of youths that are coming out of school and of course we have all the challenges – we have of managing trade and investment.
However, when you go round the world you’ll find that the peace we enjoy is more than many of the western nations that condemn us and call us a violent nation, because we are still doing well, we are a people. Nigeria is still a better place to live. Many of the people that went out of this country can’t feed themselves and can’t have a network of anything and they can’t get the job they thought they would get but here anybody can be a president.
We have seen in this country people come out of prison and become president of this country. So, anybody can be anything in this country once you are a Nigerian and I think it is important that we recognise that. We are trying to also develop a template for making Nigerians to see the beauty, the glory and above all, the future of Nigeria. We challenge everybody to be part of it. We have tried to make pilgrimage easy, meaningful and result-orientated for everyone.
Is the pilgrim board contemplating the idea of having a dedicated airline for its services?
Not exactly! Every year we do a procurement programme and we charter planes, either from one airline or from two. Right now, it is one airline but it is either one or two airlines depending on the number of pilgrims and their duty is to provide a plane that would be at our services throughout the duration of the pilgrimage and to also have one or two backup planes in their base in case the major plane has a problem.
We are expecting that we will develop this area but we are not likely to go into the purchase of an airplane in order to make pilgrimage easier, because we won’t be able to manage the plane and the cost needed in running an airline. We would rather continue to charter and utilize airlines that are available and I would like to challenge the Nigerian Aviation Industry and especially owners of airlines to move into the pilgrimage service and be involved.
The Nigerian Aviation Industry is too aloof to pilgrimage and I think this needs to change, because if we are going to take ownership of our nation, a primary industry like the aviation industry should be at the command of Nigerians. For now, we will maintain the hiring of airplanes and making available for pilgrimage wherever we go.
Before now, we were running the pilgrimage through Turkey but this pilgrimage we had a new shift. The flights are going through Jordan, which makes it shorter and better. The flight to Jordan is six hours thirty minutes rather than the nine hours flight we take before. We intend to keep on improving on that and the day we can fulfill the Basa agreement, we would make the flight straight to Israel, which is just Five hours thirty minutes.
Why is Nigeria unable to fly pilgrims direct to Israel?
The process is ongoing and from what the Ministry of Aviation told me, the Basa agreement is likely to be implemented in 2020. There have been discussions that have been ongoing for security between Nigeria and Israel and as you know, very well Israel has three priorities in their national life; the first one is security. The second one is security and the third one is security.
So, they want to be sure that people, who are coming to Israel from any nation, are people that are coming for their mission and back and not part of some of the problems that they are having with security. They have been networking with the Nigerian government to discuss all this.
Of course, Nigeria also, as you know is concerned about its own security. That if we are dealing with a nation, we should be sure that the nation is not only conscious of their own security but conscious of Nigeria’s security needs as well. We will ensure that before the end of the year that the agreement and details would have been finalised and by 2020, there would be the first direct flight from Nigeria to Israel and back.
How has the yearly pilgrimage impacted on the Christian faith?
I think one of the biggest things that pilgrimage does is to develop Christian leadership and the leadership takes the responsibility of expanding the fortress of evangelism, of development and also of nation building. So, our target is that every person that goes on pilgrimage is developed and transformed into a key leader in the country and you must recall also that the Christian church has grown over the years. By the time I became born again in 1975, I am not sure that there were up to 5,000 born again Christians in the whole of Nigeria.
You can see that by today, if you hold a meeting of 5,000 people, you would say it is a small meeting. There are many churches in Nigeria today that hold meetings with born again Christians of about one to two even three million in attendance.
So, the church has grown but as a systemic growth and enlargement, it is also in need of development, more maturity, more understanding in teaching and of course, more responsibility bearing both to church and the nation.
So, pilgrimage is at its end of seeking to equip those who participate in pilgrimage to play that role of investing in the church and challenging the church to invest more in the nation. I will end that issue by saying that we are planning many pilgrimages with selected church groups including pastors and church leaders, who go on pilgrimage just on their own to pray, to dialogue and to look for way to develop the church and making the nation to be the kind of country we want it to be.
We hope that by next year, that first pilgrimage of pastors and church leaders will take place. We are planning a pilgrimage for farmers in Nigeria. It is going to delay, because of changes in the political composition of the country and in Israel. So, we are hoping also that by next year, this will also take place so that farmers will understood what is going on in Israel, see how they can apply to Nigeria and make the Nigerian agricultural department one of the most fundamental economic fairs today. We are building on all those frameworks.
Are there moves to end government sponsorship of pilgrimage?
My answer is no! Government owes the citizens the duty of coordinating and supervising these activities especially, when those activities include moving thousands of people outside the country and to the glory of Nigeria our country is the first nation to have this kind of establishment for pilgrimage that we have. Other nations are coming to study what we are doing with the idea of replicating it in their country and I think this is very indicative of the progress we are making in the country and the innovations we are bringing up.
The Nigerian government no longer sponsors pilgrimages especially the federal government. The federal government doesn’t sponsor one pilgrim no matter who you are. We expect people to sponsor themselves or states would take over the responsibility of their people from their areas, local governments or institutions or companies and private establishments.
Federal Government only plays a role in ensuring that the pilgrims that go out of Nigeria are provided with security, medical facilities and also with the consular support that they need so that they don’t get embarrassed in any country they go. Minus the payment of our salaries, government is not involved in sponsoring pilgrims and we think this will continue, because we are still Nigerians, whatever is our faith we are Nigerian going on international journey and the first definition that we carry as we go out is that Nigerians are coming.
The government and the nation owe good attention to the pilgrims. When people abscond during their pilgrimages, it is not their religion that is mentioned first, it is their nationality, which is Nigeria. They say Nigerians are absconding which is the same thing with whether they are Christians of Muslims. So, it is important for Nigeria to keep track of this oppression, to supervise it and to ensure that it goes to fulfill Nigeria’s objective as a nation
Some people have said that whereas Nigeria can be said to be a highly religious nation, this has not reduced her degree of criminality. What do you think?
This is not a fair comment on the church and its role in Nigeria, because without the church and its development, Nigeria would have been a million times worse than it is today. The church has played a fundamental role. It has taken a large community of youths off the street. It has made many people from both urban and rural areas to have commitment, involvement and participation. It has raised women who are playing big roles.
In fact, it has recruited a lot of people into the development agenda of Nigeria. Without that, this nation would have been hell. I think I would like Nigerians to see that we are in a progress of growth. Sometimes when things are going on for you, you find contradictory issues coming up. Mothers will tell you more, that when a child is growing, he may be stooling, vomiting, having fever and all that.
It is only a place of growth and sometimes many people call it teething, developing teeth and the whole body is reacting. Nigerian church is developing teeth and so the system is reacting. In a few years to come you will find that Nigeria would be a saner place.
Predictable, morally vibrant and value driven community, the church will be at the forefront of that and I want church leaders not to be discouraged by what they see but to labour on more, because success is being achieved and growth is being seen. The church has a role to lead Nigeria from where it is to higher places and by working together we can achieve it.