Newly-appointed Executive Secretary of the Christian Pilgrims Commission, (NCPC), Rev. Yakubu Pam said the government’s spendings on pilgrimage activities is not a waste of resources. In an interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Pam outlines his key priorities which include refocusing the organisation to assist in building religious harmony and promoting national development.
What will be your priority as the new Executive Secretary of NCPC?
My priority in this office is first to make sure that the image of this institution is positive. This place is like a church; a house of God. But so much has happened. We want the image of this place to be transparent. We want the image of this place to be seen by the outside world as a place of God. Secondly, my priority is that the staff must be taken good care of. Once you are in an organisation and the human power isn’t taken care of, there will be issues. We’ll work with them and make everybody is responsible. So, the staff’s welfare is paramount. You can’t win a war without taking care of the soldiers that are fighting. The third priority is that we want to raise the issue of those going to Israel on a pilgrimage. We want to make sure that the people who are going to Israel to be responsible, pious people; not people who think they’re just on a tourism trip. We must look at the challenges we have in our country and put a good lesson for our people when they go there and teach them.
Israel is a place we can learn a lot from. Jerusalem is a place we can learn a lot from. Rome is a place we can learn a lot from. It is not just to travel and see the buildings and all the rest. We must go there to see what they are doing there. We do have challenges with the cost of going. I want to be sure that all those challenges are dealt with so that people will travel with ease and in a properly organised manner. We also want to make sure that our ground handlers respect us. People that are going to handle one thing or the other from Israel to the flight and everything. Nigerians must be respected because money is involved. It isn’t free. So when the agencies aren’t taken proper responsibility of ensuring a dignified journey to Israel and handling our people with respect, we can terminate their contracts and find those who respect us. We must look at all those processes and also our people here who are working with people over there. We must follow everything decently and must make sure they are doing the right thing. Another thing is our relationships with the states. The major stakeholders in this agency are the states. We must relate to them. We must make sure we give them their due respect as they give us ours. Sometimes, we look at ourselves like we are the overall principal. We look above, speak with a big voice. But they bring the money. We must put certain things together relating to respecting one another. It is based on that I am planning a tour of each zone, listening to people’s complaints, and assure them of our readiness to work with them so that we will lift up this place in such a way both the states and NCPC headquarters will enjoy working with together.
We also want to bring in a new synergy. NCPC can do a lot in terms of building peace in this country. So I am already working on that to see if there is a way we could bring out the aspect of peace-building in this country regarding religion. We relate to the people; we know their desires. A lot of people have complaints. But we can come in as bridge builders. So, we are working on that with the federal government. I have made a proposal to the government to have a department to attend to issues of peaceful reconciliation. Tactically, I am always in the field. I have insight on issues in Taraba concerning Jukun and Tiv; the herders-farmers crisis in Plateau even up to Benue. Even when I am acting here as the chief executive I won’t forget that we will be the backbone to nation-building.
My greatest goal is to finish the project for the new office. The foundation has been laid and we would finish it by the special grace of God. In the near future, we should move to the new office. So I would put that as a very big goal for me to achieve.
What are the key challenges?
The major one is finance. The money allocated to us in the first place isn’t always enough. Secondly, releasing the money is also not an easy process. But in the days past, we had people like the executive governor who was helpful. So we advocate that good citizens can donate to lift up this place. We are running short of staff in some areas. If we want to make sure we put up everything tactically we must be able to get capable hands to work here. Of course, the issue of corruption is one which the president is handling and we are very happy. Once you don’t have money but you have dreams, they would remain dreams. You can’t do anything. That can be frustrating. So I come up with big dreams for this place. But I can’t fulfill that if there is no money.
Will it be a challenge if the government stops funding NCPC and what options are you likely to explore?
It is one of my dreams to see that the church fathers participate and take ownership of the vision of NCPC. Like I said in the days past if churches are educated properly of the need in helping the poor to travel and the blessings that follow it, things would have been better. Imagine a rich brother in the church assisting a widow who has never travelled out of the country, says, ‘Madam, I am going to sponsor you to Israel.’ She will pray for him to prosper. People will really support and the church leaders if they catch the fever they will definitely speak to their members to do this.
However, we will intensify our plea to the federal and state governments that this venture is not just about saying you are wasting money because even the money that you are saving sometimes even goes to the grass root for people to know, participate and enjoy it. I remember during a pilgrimage two years ago, there was a woman who came from a village. She had not ever been to the city of Jos. A local government sponsored her to Israel and when she got to Israel she knelt down and cried.
What benefit is more than that which you do for a woman who has never benefitted anything from the government besides being in Israel physically? Spiritually, she is blessed and there are some old men and women who would say, ‘Please, I just want to go and see that holy land which is the only request I have.’ I have always said sometimes we would look at it as a waste. But it isn’t a waste. It is the citizens that are benefitting from it. Imagine one man will take the wealth of this country that is three times the money you are going to sponsor people for five years and put it in his pocket alone and the little you are giving a woman to travel somewhere you think is a waste but one man wants to pack it and keep it in his house. So I always say, I love democracy because there is a time for payback. When you are looking for the position of being a governor of course you would have to do a lot of campaigns. But this time around you are going to release the money to the people in different ways and part of the release is money for people to travel to Israel and it is through this people would be able to get some benefits to travel to Israel. Assuming that everybody that sits on the seat gets there without elections, no one would remember the poor masses. So I see sense in going to stand for election and the only dividend to some people that they would get is by going to Israel and they can say, ‘Yes, I benefitted!’
Any measures to evaluate pilgrims’ activities and their contribution to national development?
That is what I am trying to do and that is what I said before. We don’t just want to travel for pilgrimage’s sake alone. We must look at the aspect of nationhood. How our people would be stakeholders in building the nation and if there is no national development coming from it and there is nothing to learn and inculcate in Nigeria in terms of building nationhood. I think sometimes it would look like just a church exercise. For instance, the issue of crises in some states like the herders-farmers conflicts, you can get a good lesson out of this with your trip. How can I contribute to my country when I come back? You travel there but nobody ever asks you: ‘What are you going to contribute to your country when you get back?’ From there you begin to build a series of things, and yes, of course, Nigerians would always end it up with telling the people about prayer which is good. But what is the benefit for the country? Yes, we will go there and pray for the country. But the character that would build the country needs to be built from there which will mean that we have taken a holistic approach to the situation on the ground.
Are more people embracing pilgrimage or not?
What you asked is very relevant in the sense that we have the positive and negative response. The positive is that the number of people going on a pilgrimage is growing and people try to apply lessons learnt when they return. The negative is that some people have taken advantage to just go and do what they want which is as good as a business. Some use it as a means to abscond and the commission suffers the consequences. We will begin to plan what we want and we will bring a holistic approach whereby we will tell people about the nationhood, the character we want them to have when they come back home. We want them to be able to say, ‘As Israel is let’s build a nation like this.’ A nation where there is transparency and corruption is detected quickly. A nation that’s security-alert and strong economically. This is the message we sell to people who travel to holy places. But criticism, division, ethnicity, and religious differences will not help Nigeria to grow. So we must learn something that we can come back home with.
Are you prepared for the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Of course, there is no agenda now that you can’t include what is happening on the ground and it is because of that every activity is suspended, and hopefully very soon things would be alright for us to resume.