Lucky Onoriode George, an award winning travel journalist; 2006 winner of European Commission Lorenzo Natali Prize for Journalists Reporting Human Rights and Democracy; and publisher of African Travel Times Magazine, he recalled his over 20 years relationship with Prophet TB Joshua of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), the church and the politics of Nigeria tourism
August 2020 made it exactly 20 years that I have been covering the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN). I recollect that it was on Wednesday, September 20, 2000 that I first visited the church as a reporter and by the following Sunday, September 24, I attended a full service. Later on, I became a friend of the church and Prophet TB Joshua.
We discussed tourism in Nigeria and most especially the contribution that the church is making and by extension putting the name of Lagos State and Nigeria on the world’s tourism map as an emerging religious tourism destination. The rare but occasional personal relationship with TB Joshua grew by the months, years, and decades.
He’s a generous man and does often extend his generosity to me; giving money for fuel, most times well above what I would need to fill my car tank. However, my relationship with him was a symbiotic one and as a true friend, I was prepared to pay any price just to obtain rare and vital information about visitors’ profiles for my newspaper then.
As a travel and tourism journalist, I have no doubt that I was building myself as an authority in religious tourism, and for the past 20 years, I became TB Joshua’s apostle. Everywhere I go in the name of tourism, Synagogue Church is always one of the tourism products I promoted.
In America, the UK, Germany, Spain, and across Africa, I travel with the church brochures that I distributed. From being an apostle, I became the church unofficial ambassador. That was the case from my days in BusinessDAY to BusinessWorld Newspapers respectively. The freedom to do much more came in August 2011, when I started my travel and tourism monthly publication, African Travel Times Magazine. Through my publication, I was able to write and dedicate space as much as I can to Synagogue’s stories.
However, this came with a price as most times many of my subscribers who are members of other churches and faith, including hotels, would reject the editions with Synagogue story on the cover. Sometimes to get simple information from the church could take months, not minding the fact that I am a familiar face and a friend of the Prophet.
I relate with the wife and sister as well as some of the old faces in the church one on one. Despite the familiarity, the protocols could be frustrating and cumbersome. I was on many occasions thoroughly ignored, embarrassed and sometimes worked out of the church premises because I wanted information for myself and sometimes for people who believed that I am an aficionado when it comes to tourism information about the church.
Sometimes I stay away from the church and Prophet for months as a result of the sordid treatments I receive except when it becomes necessary. But because I have invested in making myself an authority in religious tourism in Nigeria, I could not just walk away. My trips to Jordan and Israel were not to seek salvation, but to ask questions and see how religion tourism is developed, marketed and promoted by those countries in order to give me a better understanding of how the sub-sector can work in Nigeria. As a friend of the Prophet, who is highly respected across the world, many also expected me to be prosperous. Besides not being prosperous, my relationship with TB Joshua also robbed me of possible spiritual deliverance as I could have visited the church for ministration. However, I decided not to go that route in order to maintain my neutral stand as a journalist and focus strictly on the tourism contributions of SCOAN to Lagos State economy. For me not to lose that credibility, I bottled my problems to save my brand. One of the major regrets that would stay with me forever was my inability to get appointment for my mother-in-law that has been down with ‘stroke’ for years to see the Prophet for prayers. Mama on her own tried several times with my brothers-in-law to see the Prophet. They never succeeded on the usual service days. Yet, I am a friend of the church and the Prophet. Despite the long years of association with the Prophet and the church, I still cannot visit the church to book an appointment to see the Prophet, I would be directed to send an mail that they would never reply to. Sadly, this is their style, however, whenever they wanted me to help them out of any bind, they know how to reach me without any protocol and I am always there for them but they were never there for me in my hours of need. To people working with the Prophet, the relationship means nothing to them as I am treated just like any other visitor and this development has forced me to redefine my relationship with the Prophet and the church because I have lost many opportunities and contacts that could have been my saviour at the point of my needs.
In fact, my devotion to the church despite the lopsided nature, is also affecting my relationship with my wife who will always bail me out when the printer refused to release copies of my magazine due to my inability to meet up with my financial obligation. I recall one occasion that my wife jokingly said to me that I need deliverance and I must talk to Prophet to pray for me.
I told her that every time I have been privileged to meet with him privately, I have always requested he prays for me, and all of the occasions, he would hold my hands and say to me ‘it’s well with me.’ Responding angrily, she said, ‘why don’t you tell him that it’s not well with you.’ To her, I struggle with the business of publishing that has consistently drained the family’s finances. As a trained journalist herself, she understood what I was doing and her thinking is that putting all my eggs in one basket brought me to where I am now.
In my 20 years engagement with the church and Prophet I have sent emails on countless numbers but I have only gotten two email replies. Sending letters is even worst as the people in charge won’t deliver it.
One of the most painful losses was the cancellation of my barter agreement with Ethiopian Airlines on account of my failure to broker a courtesy visit with the Prophet. When I was approached initially to assist with the visit I declined knowing how difficult this could be. But when it was tied to the renewal of my barter deal, I was left with no choice but to take on the task.
Formal letter was delivered by me and luckily, the church responded and gave a date for the visit. I was informed and invited to come with the airline’s official for the courtesy visit. The general manager, sales manager, and one sales’ executive made the trip with me to SCOAN. After the exchange of pleasantries and refreshment, some of his aides came and engaged us as to the reason for the visit and they were briefed.
After some minutes, they retreated and came back to inform us that the Prophet was not available and that the airline’s reason for the courtesy call would be conveyed to the Prophet. They even encouraged them to come for service the next Sunday and there could just be a possibly of them seeing the Prophet. With the disappointment of not seeing the Prophet, my barter was not renewed and the unused tickets from the previous years were also cancelled. Despite my unpleasant ordeals, TB Joshua no doubt is one of the reasons I remain in the business of travel journalism. In Nigeria, as we know it today, the only thriving aspect of our tourism is hospitality and Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions [MICE] and maybe family reunion for burial and wedding ceremonies, the latter is a form of tourism that is growing in Nigeria. From my occasional interactions with the Prophet and personal observations, SCOAN alone has the capacity to attract over a hundred thousand visitors to Lagos monthly, a figure that would fill all the hotels in Ikeja, Ikotun, Ejigbo, Igando, Festac Town and others. Most of these tourists are high spending visitors and one million visitors to Lagos in a year will do so much to the economy of the state. Sadly, those running tourism at the state and federal levels have displayed nothing, but lack of understanding of how tourism works, yet they all go to Israel and Mecca every year for pilgrimage. TB Joshua followers are real and are willing to do anything for him. For all these years that I have covered the church, the economy of Ikotun and its surrounding communities have benefited so much from the presence of the church in their locality. TB Joshua deserves recognition and accolades for what he has done for the people of Ikotun, Lagos State, Nigeria and for the tourism authorities at the state and federal levels. My many years of agitation have earned me more enemies’ than friends. Like Mohamed Rachid Rida, Syrian Arab reformer said: ‘‘To revolt on behalf of an ignorant people is to set yourself on fire or to light the way for a blind man.’’ I am sure many people will ask, why write about my relationship this time; for me, the time is now because we have always criticise our leaders for bad governance; however, I am of the opinion that they would only get to correct things that they get feedback on.