As he clocks 50 today, the former Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC), Mr John Kennedy Opara, has revealed that at 50, God has surprised him by giving him more than he ever expected in life.
The Chairman, CSS Group of Companies Ltd who spoke with Saturday Sun in Abuja, opened up on his relationship with ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and immediate past President Goodluck Jonathan. He spoke to AIDOGHIE PAULINUS, in Abuja
As you clock 50, what exactly is going on deep within you?
Thanksgiving! The only thing that has filled my heart is just thanksgiving to Almighty God for what He has done; for the great things He did. I couldn’t have been here, but for His mercy and grace. My heart is filled with thanksgiving. And I join David to say in Psalm 150, from verse 1-6: ‘Let everything that has breath give thanks to God.’
What has life taught you?
As a man that had a humble beginning, life has taught me to know that every single stain in this world passes away except God. Life has taught me that wisdom is supreme; that everything you need in life is contained in wisdom. You want wealth, it is wisdom; you want long life, it is wisdom. Life has taught me to be respectful. Life has humbled me. Life has taught me to humble myself to know that without God, we are nothing. Life has taught me to fear, reverence the Lord every day of my life.
Were there dreams you had that were not realised before attaining 50?
Everything I asked the Lord Almighty to do for me, He has always done. And I cannot look back because I am a man that is moved by vision. I am a man that is propelled by vision and this is as a result of my daily encounters with the Lord Almighty. I look back, I ask Him with the expectation. He is always meeting me at my point of need. So, I can’t really say this is what I wanted and the Lord did not give to me. No! No!
You brought so much panache to the NCPC and made it the envy of many. How did you attain that height?
First, what I did when I was given that position was that I went to the Lord in prayer. And the Lord said, ‘my son, I want you to be able to change the narrative about the Christian pilgrimage in the country.’ And I decided to work with all my life, all my heart. I put in everything I had and above all, I raised a team that we were praying consistently and constantly. God showed us where to go and we had to focus on that. You see, you cannot capture what you don’t picture. I pictured a very vibrant Christian Pilgrims Commission and God helped me to bring that to pass. I was not looking at a Commission that people will say oh, you started and ended up. No! I was looking beyond the ordinary way of doing things in the Nigerian system. That was why I had to work hard to make sure we got the approval from the National Assembly and the law was passed in 2007, and that made us a Commission. And I became the pioneer executive secretary by the grace of God through President Yar’Adua.
But before then, President Obasanjo had appointed me the Vice Chairman, Technical Committee on Christian Pilgrimage. And when President Yar’Adua said to me; he calls me Reverend. He said Reverend, I want you to help me, let’s see if we can raise people that will serve in this commission since it is now a commission. And the president then, Obasanjo, a very wise man and a man who mastered Nigeria in his finger tips, he didn’t want to appoint the executives of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission. He left it for the incoming president, President Yar’Adua, to appoint. He did that of the Muslims. And the president, when he came, said to me, look, I need you to work with Vice President Jonathan to be able to raise this team that will work here. And of course, you know the Christian organization is structured: CAN has five blocs. I had to get the input from all the five blocs of CAN. I didn’t put myself. It was when I submitted the names that the president said, where is your name? You started the entire process and you removed your name. I said Sir, because of the structure of CAN, I don’t need to put my name. He said no, there is an executive position of the executive secretary and I want you to be here. He directed. That was how I became the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission. It was on the orders of President Yar’Adua of blessed memory, a wonderful man.
Looking back, would you say your legacies at the Commission are still intact?
I feel the pain, the zeal with which I started. I remember very well. When President Buhari came to power, he had asked the chief executives of agencies to brief him and I was invited to brief him. I think I spent one hour with him in his office. And after reading all the achievements I recorded in the course of my assignment, he was very impressed. He said, ‘my son, this couldn’t have been possible without hard work.’ I said, thank you, Your Excellency. He said, I can see how you were able to generate almost half a billion naira for the federal government, an agency of government that is not supposed to generate money.
You built a house, you set it up and now, we have a house and a guest house that is supposed to generate money for the commission. And I said to him, Sir, the project I have in mind is that the Nigerian government will have nothing to do with funding of Christian pilgrimage, or even the Hajj Commission, that we can fund ourselves. That was why I launched ‘Win a Trip to Israel’ where Christians can get tickets and the money we generate from these tickets will be used to fund people to go on pilgrimage without government contributing one kobo. He was so impressed with that project when I shared it with him and he said waooooh! It is unfortunate that when I left office, that programme was crashed and today, they are struggling. I remember during my time, we were sending almost 50,000 to 100,000 people on Christian pilgrimage.
How many people does the commission send at the moment?
From the last count, it is about 1,000 people that I saw on TV that went to the last pilgrimage. So, I am pained because that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. I tried to use pilgrimage as a tool for moral reform and transformation. You saw what we did. I am the first person to take a sitting President of Nigeria with 14 governors and four deputies out of this country to Israel. I went with the Speaker, I went with the Deputy Senate President; so many of them.
What do you think is missing?
The spiritual flow is no longer there. We created something. I established a programme in Israel we called ‘A Day of Special Prayers for Nigeria.’ I remember the last time, the then President Jonathan, with all the governors, they fasted with me. They prayed for Nigeria. The prayers they offered, these are some of the things that have helped to keep us as a nation. So, it was a wonderful time. Every governor with the family, they were looking forward to that programme because it was a programme that we gathered to pray for Nigeria in Israel. But unfortunately, the programme is no longer there. If you look at the last count, you are in the media, you will see that even the governors, they are no longer interested because before then, it was made a spiritual exercise, to be able to help us develop.
And I also started something. I started training the Nigerian youths. I introduced Youth Pilgrimage where we trained youths in Israel in the area of agriculture. The Prime Minister of Israel, when I took the president to him, said to me, “The food Israel will eat in fifteen years, they already have.” After the meeting, I said, Prime Minister, I am interested. He said we have got the technology, all you need is to expose you to our technology in agriculture and if you run with it, your country will never lack food. So, I went on, decided to embark on that and I got the approval of the president. I started taking the youths of our country to Israel. But today, there is nothing like that, no exposure. I remember the first set that we brought back from Delta. Today, they are millionaires. They have employed other youths because of the training they got. So many states! The Governor of Akwa Ibom State also sent some youths we trained in Israel in the area of agriculture. So, these were the things I used pilgrimage at that time to achieve. But unfortunately, if I look back now, those things are no longer in place. It is sad.
Your relationship with former President Goodluck Jonathan is another aspect of you that stirs envy in people. How did you meet the former president?
When I was working under my father, President Obasanjo, when he was leaving power, he introduced me to President Yar’Adua. President Yar’Adua was a fantastic man, a wonderful man, very analytical, but with few words. And then, from there, I also met President Jonathan. Jonathan is a rare human being. He is very unique in his nature. What really thrills people is not his business. He is not a man that is carried away by power. He is one of those that I have seen that power means nothing to him.
Why is former President Jonathan like that?
Well, from interaction, it is from his upbringing. He came from a very humble beginning. He never thought he would be where he is.
And how does he feel when people take him for granted on account of that?
He feels hurt, but one thing about him is that he speaks a little. But inside of him, he feels hurt. And most of the time, people don’t know him. The man has enormous capacity to decode what you are doing to him, but he may not say anything. But he knows what they are doing to him. And he knows people. Those who betray him, those who are soiling him, he knows.
Were you one of those who advised him to relinquish power?
The president I served, President Jonathan, had one motto. He said “My ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian.” As at the time we saw what had happened, of course, I had no option to say yes, he had to go the normal way. I said it is ok, let’s give this power, there is no problem. No matter what has happened, I still believe that God has the final say for this country. And we all did that to save the nation. We all did that to make sure that the nation did not collapse. I know that God gave me to President Jonathan for one particular purpose: To help him spiritually, to be prayerful. He is a politician, I am not a politician and all I can do is to give spiritual advice which politicians may decide to take and they may not take. But I think in all fairness, he is a decent man. So, I thank God for him. And that is why till tomorrow, he is my man and I don’t have any regret for that.
What has kept you going since leaving office?
I tell you God has humbled me more than ever. When I left office, I asked the Lord, where do I go from here? One, as a young man, what next do I do? And the Lord said to me, you need to spend three days with me in prayer and fasting. And I went to the Lord in prayers. Those three days of dry fasting turned to five days. No food, no water and the Lord gave me a fantastic vision of what to do next, to set up a system that will be able to help state governments and the federal government to run. That is why today, we are training youths who are unemployed in the area of agriculture and we say ‘Farmers are Heroes.’ We call them farmers and we train them. I mentor them. I tell them look beyond what you are seeing. The future you did not picture, you cannot capture.
At 50, what resolution do you make?
I said to myself, if I have my life over and over again, one thing I will always do is to live to fear the Lord, to serve the Lord, to love the Lord more than anything on planet earth. And that is my resolution. As long as I live, I will live to fear the Lord, to love the Lord, to worship him, to serve him till I die. And there is no other thing on planet earth that is important to me apart from Him.