Religious Pilgrimage is one of the earliest forms of tourism that was practiced by people travelling to holy sites. This form of tourism could be traced way back to the dawn of humanity.
According to accounts, sacred religious sites were visited by admirers or people who shared the same faith and fellowship while exploring the holy sites.
Today, these religious sites have become part of the cultural landscape within their environs and now constitute major players in the tourism market; thus, improving the economy of host communities. Cities like Mecca, Rome, Jerusalem etc continue to attract millions of visitors on a yearly basis.
Nigeria is a country with many different religions. Thus, religious pilgrimages and travels are significant motivations today. Although many Nigerians profess either Christianity or Islam, they have continued to practice some of the older religious traditions like ancestor worship and the belief in deities as adherents of African Traditional Religion (ATR).
African Traditional Religion (ATR) is the oldest religion in Africa and it is the indigenous religion of Africans. In this vein, Kitause and Achunike (2013) point out that, “this indigenous religion is what Nigerians have been practicing before the advent of Christianity and Islam” in Nigeria. Like Christianity and Islam, ATR fosters tourism.
In traditional society, religion permeated every part of the culture such that it was difficult to dissociate one from the other. Nigeria possesses numerous worship sites that attract admirers and adherents.
This Essay shall emphasise significant places of pilgrims in Nigeria with a view to examining their tourism potential.
It argues for emphasis to be shifted to homegrown pilgrimage sites of significant ATR to be upgraded as World Tourism Sites in addition to why traditional religious monuments and sites in Nigeria should be recognized and for a Pilgrims Commission for ATR constituted by Government so as to remove the discrimination against ATR.
Highlights of Major Religious Monuments And Sites In Nigeria:
Nigeria is a culturally-diverse country, with over 250 local languages. These various cultures have very rich histories and backgrounds and the local people are incredibly proud of their heritage. The heritage comes in the form of ancient places of worship, artifacts, old towns and monuments, to mention a few.
In ATR there is the belief in a supreme being. This is variously named according to the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. For instance, the Yoruba call on the name of Oluwa or Olorun; the Hausa call on Ubangiji, while the Igbo call on the name of Chukwu Okike or Chineke. Traditional religion also acknowledges the existence of priesthood, oracles, divination, spirits (gods), ancestors, medicine, medicine- persons, magic or sorcery. In traditional religion, the Supreme Being does not communicate. He communicates through deities or oracles.
The oracle, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is the medium by which deities were consulted like in ancient Greek and Roman kingdoms. However, this explanation is silent about some other elements that can be essential for oracle. For this reason this writer presents an oracle as a deity with a shrine and also a priest or priestess who ministers to it and plays the intermediary between it and human beings who come to consult it.
Okafor (1989) has identified notable oracles in Nigeria such as Ifa (in Yorubaland) and Chukwu (in Igboland). In Igboland, the Chukwu oracle is found at Arochukwu and it is called Ebini Ukpabi. It was the colonial masters who named it “Long Juju.”
According to the information from Okafor, Ebini Ukpabi was destroyed by the British in 1902 because of their belief that the Igbo derived power from it that made them to resist colonial subjugation. Today international tourists still visit it. However, much is not known about domestic tourists who go there.
Nri (in Anambra State) which is believed to be the ancestral homeland of the Igbo people does not have any shrine that could provoke faith visits to it. Instead, for inquiries, the people of Nri go to Aguleri (Anambra State). At the extreme south of Nri town is found Agulu, both in Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State. It is the Agulu lake that has a popular shrine attached to it and a priest who ministers to it.
Some popular oracles included the Okija Shrine, Ala Ogbaga and Amadioha Ozuzu. Others are the Oshun Oshogbo Sacred Groove and the Omo-Ukwu temple (Okpoko and Okpoko, 2002:40).
The Oshun Oshogbo Sacred Groves of Osun; the goddess of fertility and one of the most popular deities in Yorubaland, are located on the outskirts of Osogbo, which is about 230 kilometers from Lagos. The groves, which are dotted by shrines, sculptures, and artworks, represent a time when people dedicated areas outside their settlements to deities, areas which are regarded as sacred. The Osun-Osogbo grove itself is located in a dense forest that is one of the primary high forest in southern Nigeria.
Apart from shrines and temples, in Nigeria, caves and rock shelters are considered to be repositories for Chukwu. According to Ibeanu (2006), caves are formed “as a result of the differential erosion of the sand stone cuesta” (p. 323). They were believed to be the house of the Supreme Being (Chukwu).
Ibeanu argues that it is possible that caves were places of worship and sacrifices in ancient times. According to him, the names given to some caves such as Okpuchukwu, Uhuchukwu, or Nnemchukwu suggest that ancient people believed that God lived in the caves and so had recourse to them by offering sacrifices there.
Ibeanu therefore saw as his aim in the study, to project the role of the caves in Okigwi (Okigwe) in cultural tourism shown in the people’s oral tradition and how they can be made to play a role today as a way of developing tourism in Okigwi area and its surroundings (p.324). The caves he was referring to are Okpuchukwu in Otamkpa, Uhuchukwu in Ahaba Imenyi and Isi-Ume cave in Uturu, all in Okigwi surroundings.
A notable cave in Igboland which captures the admiration of tourists is the Ogbunike caves, found in a valley in the tropical forest of southeast Nigeria, in Anambra State. Several streams flow into the caves, and another stream within flows out into river Nkissa. The caves are believed to have a spiritual significance for the local people, and a festival is celebrated to commemorate the discovery of the caves.
Also, the Ogbaukwu Caves, located in Anambra State in the southeastern part of Nigeria are said to be the largest in West Africa and have enough roomy compartments to accommodate an entire village. Not much is known about the caves as they are largely unexplored, but local legend tells a story of a brave warrior who defeated lions that lived in the caves. The waterfalls are an aesthetic beauty and attract many tourists.
The Sukur Cultural Landscape, which is located in Madagali area of Adamawa State in northeastern Nigeria has terraces on farmlands, stone-paved walkways, and dry-stone structures. On the landscape is the palace of the chief and other sacred remains that express the spiritual and material culture of an ancient society, and it is also representative of a former flourishing iron industry.
A lot of domestic tourisms flourish in the above named few places of faith and often people who visit those places are people who are in search of justice. Okpoko (2013: 11) rightly points out that in ATR, God is conceived as a judge, as the God of justice. From the earliest time, as King (2003:32) observed, “people believed that they were governed by the gods, represented by their priests.”
The shrines and oracles that have been mentioned here so far have almost developed into myths and from generation to generation people keep on talking about them. In this way King is right in contending that it is worshippers who created myths, stories about the gods so as to explain things that happen in the world. This writer asserts that it is those myths and stories that continue to evoke the need for emphasis to be shifted to homegrown pilgrimage sites of significant African Traditional Religion to be upgraded as WORLD’S TOURISM SITES.
The Call For Justice And Fair-Play:
Nguvugher remarks that the history of pilgrimages in Nigeria dates back to the arrival of Islam in Nigeria. If individuals travelled on their own means, there would be no problems. Today government’s association with and government sponsoring of religious pilgrimage has become an issue that gives concern to patriotic Nigerians.
More and more Nigerians are worried about government sponsoring of Muslim and Christian pilgrims to their holy places. Enwerem (1995) remarked that even though government established a pilgrim board for Christians, the latter were not enthused by that, acting ‘on the principle of the constitutional provision for the government’s non-interference in religion” (p. 140). Today Christians as well as Muslims go on pilgrimage every year to the holy lands. However, the discrimination and unfair-play involved in the whole affair intrigues everyone.
Just last week, precisely on the 18th of August, 2021, the prominent and leading civil rights advocacy group in Nigeria; Human Right Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) asked President Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly to set up a pilgrims Commission for the African Traditional Religion Worshippers so as to make the many ancient shrines and landmark institutions of African worship attractive to International Pilgrims and thus, energize the local economies of those places and states in Nigeria while ensuring equity and equality of rights.”
The rights group, in a statement, wants the Federal Government to set up such a pilgrim’s commission for ATR, similar to the Institutions that care for the pilgrimages of Christians and Muslims at public expenses or else it will challenge the discrimination by the government of millions of practitioners of the respected African traditional religion in court.
Furthermore, HURIWA wondered how Nigeria, which brags to be the Nation with the largest black people globally, has continued to marginalize the segment of the population that adhere to their authentic and distinctive ancestral African traditional way of worship whereas it keeps spending humongous tax payers resources to sponsor foreign pilgrimages to middle East, Jordan, Italy amongst other foreign jurisdictions but failed to introduce a mechanism to organize pilgrimages to ancient shrines and Iconic ATR Centres in Nigeria such as the ones highlighted above.
HURIWA said: “Our prayer for indigenous religions to have their pilgrimages and to have a publicly funded body to organise these spiritual exercises is because the federal and states governments are still making plans to fund the agencies responsible for Islamic and Christian pilgrimages”.
As the Right Group revealed, in the proposal, the government said it has set aside a total of N2.6 billion it plans to spend on the programmes and activities of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission for the year.
“The two agencies are responsible for the religious interests of the Muslims and Christians, including the facilitation of annual pilgrimages by adherents of the two religions to Mecca and Jerusalem respectively”, HURIWA had lamented.
HURIWA also recalled that reportedly, the budget to fund the agencies responsible for the travels by both Muslim and Christian faithful during the year is humongous. “While the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria was allocated about N1.39 billion, the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission was allocated about N1.38 billion.
“Apart from overhead costs totalling over N617.4 million, the National Hajj Commission is to spend a total of N130 million on general travels and transportation, including N20 million for local travel and transport for training, in addition to for other similar trips during the year.
“Besides, about N10 million has been set aside for international travels and transport for training and N50 million for other overseas travels and transport during the year. Other allocations to the hajj commission are N25 million for consulting and professional services, in addition to N15 million for financial consulting, apart from another N25.4 million for general financial charges, including insurance premium.
“About N10 million has been budgeted for refreshment and meals for the Commission; N15 million for honorarium and sitting allowances; publicity and advertisements (N20 million); welfare packages N70 million; monitoring activities and follow-up (N30 million).
“Although the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission does not have a provision in the budget for foreign travels and transport, about N71.3 million has been budgeted for allowances and social contributions during the year, while overhead costs, including general local travel and transport, would gulp N586.5 million. Also, the commission plans to spend about N42.3 million on general furniture, building and residential quarters and equipment maintenance; N25.1 million for training as well as N181.6 million for other services, like consulting and general professional services.”
What is so troubling is that in all this, African Traditional religionists are being left on themselves when they go for their own religious activities. This is against section 42(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 as amended), which is about right to freedom from discrimination.
Nigeria is a secular state; Iran can afford to sponsor its citizens on pilgrimage because it is an Islamic State by definition. When government begins to sponsor one group or some groups for faith-based travels while leaving others, it is a show of injustice. This impression makes it pertinent to proffer recommendations in this Essay as follows:
a. State governments should help to develop places of tourism that enhance the growth of religious tourism in relation to ATR. Such places speak a lot about a people, their origin and their worldview than Christianity and Islam.
b. Nigerians who intend to go on pilgrimage to holy places outside Nigeria should be given a good orientation as to what the aim of their journey is.
c. Considering the fact that Nigeria is a secular State, government should put a stop to the sponsoring of people to pilgrimages whether to Christian or to Muslim holy cities.
d. Justice and fair-play should be the watch word of the Nigerian government when handling issues that concern the three major religions in Nigeria.
This writer thinks that some of our indigenous African Religious Practices have suffered neglect due largely to the fact that mass communicators from our jurisdiction and even authors have deliberately undermine these African traditional Religion because of their adherence to foreign religions. The suggestion one prominent Catholic Cleric made that ATR is dead and buried is not totally accurate. Today, more youngsters are converting to their ancient religious practices and it is only wise if the government will invest substantially to preserve these heritages of our ancient religions by establishing a PILGRIMS COMMISSION FOR ATR.
One of the most prominent Christian leaders from Nigeria his eminence John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan recently authored a book in which he too alluded to the active sabotage of ATR. In his own calculation, ATR is dead and buried in Nigeria from his statements in the book ‘Let the truth prevail’ which he wrote in 2021.
Hear His eminence: “If we take Nigeria as example, we must not forget that it is not likely that the rate of church growth that we have been seeing in the past 50 years or so will continue. In fact, it seems we have actually reached a stage now where there is not much room for major changes in the balance of figures between Christianity and Islam. My reading of the situation is that, for a long time, both Christianity and Islam have been growing at the expense of the African traditional religions. We have now reached a stage where every Nigerian has practically made up their mind to be either Christian or Muslim. What this means is that if Islam is to grow, it has to be at the expense of Christianity, and if Christianity is to grow, it will have to be at the expense of Islam. Perhaps this is one reason why our relationship has become more contentious.”
“Until recently, both Christianity and Islam were able to continue with their divine mandate to keep preaching and making converts without hitting each other. We’ve reached a stage now where we are looking at each other face to face, and if we don’t handle our divine mandate carefully, it will only lead to clashes. This means even these figures that we are looking at are not the kind of figures that are going to be permanent. We do not know how far we are going to keep growing apart from natural reproduction” (LET THE TRUTH PREVAIL BY JOHN CARDINAL ONAIYEKAN WITH EMMANUEL OJEIFO).
*EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and was a federal commissioner at the National Human Rights commission of Nigeria.