Saai, Joseph Elisa Isholibo (B)

Church of Christ in the Sudan Among the Tiv

His Birth and Christian Faith

Joseph Elisha Isholibo Saai (alternate spelling: Sai) was born on January 2, 1911. His year of birth coincides with the arrival of the first missionaries in Tivland of Benue state. The missionaries arrived at Sai village in April 1911 where they established their first station for the evangelization of the Tiv people. They belonged to the South African Dutch Reformed Church Mission. The missionary C. W. Guinter who was stationed at Wukari to evangelize the Jukuns led the initiative to evangelize the Tiv people. The decision to evangelize the Tiv was made because people were worried about their large numbers. Tivland was considered dangerous for strangers but after praying about it, the missionaries made a bold move to settle in the large village of Sai.

The first Christian convert was Akiga Sai. Joseph became a believer in 1922 at the age of sixteen. However, he was only baptized in 1937 after twelve years of intensive study of the catechism. He married very early. He and his wife were believers who faithfully served the Lord. His scope of influence includes church development in Benue state where he led the church and in Northern Nigeria under the umbrella of TEKAN (The Fellowship of Churches in Nigeria) where he was also a trustee member.

Christian Development and Education

JEI Sai was not highly educated. His highest academic accomplishment was primary seven. However, he had a great passion for education and the development of the church and society. He started teaching at a vernacular Bible school in 1932. He taught History of the Christian Religion, Hausa language, and the Life of the True Christian. As a great community mobilizer for development, he later “coordinated and led the community to establish and build a missionary school and health center at Sai.” [1] Schools and health facilities were considered as avenues for the proclamation of the gospel. His passion for education was remarkable. He devoted part of his income to paying the salary of teachers in the school that he helped to establish. He did a massive work of evangelization among his people at Sai from 1937 to 1943.

Pastoral Calling and Leadership

JEI Sai was first trained as an evangelist and became a Bible teacher in 1932. He was one of the first four pastors of Nongo Kristu u ken Sudan hen Tiv (NKST- Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv). [2] He was ordained in 1957 to serve as a pastor at NKST Apir. His domain was very vast. In 1957, after five years of training, JEI Sai was ordained alongside three other pastors, namely, Rev. Nevkaa, Rev. Annum, Rev. D. S. Ugoh and Rev. V. Ayaka. [3] He presided over the church at Apir for a total of twelve years and was also a life time trustee member of the church. JEI Sai was the third chairman of the NKST Church after it was handed over to its indigenous leadership in 1957. He helped to lay a solid foundation and he stabilized the church. He was also a member of the TEKAN trustees.

In 1967, JEI Sai was among the leaders of the Fellowship of Christian Churches (TEKAN) in northern Nigeria, representing the NKST. Sai explained the rationality of Aondo (God) as the creator; hence the Tiv calls creation gbaaondo. The Tiv people have two major clan divisions—Ichongo and Ipusu. The church did not consider that situation as unhealthy. However, under the influence of JEI Sai in 1965 the church discouraged this division because it had tendency to cause discrimination among the twin descendants of Tiv.

With the growth of the church, JEI Sai realized the necessity of creating a seminary for the NKST Church. He strongly advocated for the establishment of a seminary with the missionaries. Although they interpreted his request as being ethnically motivated, they recognized that his argument was compelling: “It is true that we Christians are one people. Yet we live not in one village, but in many compounds. The way to strengthen our fellowship is not through retarding the advance of each compound. Only as each compound advances can we fully advance together.” [4] JEI Sai embraced unity in diversity but he believed that diversity should not be allowed to swallow up unity because it is unity that guarantees the healthy existence of people who are bound together by one faith.

Sai championed the growth of the NKST. When the Dutch Reformed Church Mission (DRCM) was leaving Nigeria because of the government policy against apartheid in South Africa, the NKST was handed over to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) mission. There was a move to merge the NKST with the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria that was under the CRC Mission. He resisted this move and maintained that the two churches should grow distinctly. He reasoned that the NKST Church was homogenous and had the potential for massive growth. A merger would have created certain obstacles. According to Smith, JEI Sai argued that “different languages and differing ecclesiastical practices brought this about. He said that his church was satisfied that both churches had the same creed, that they could share speakers at conventions and that they could unite through the medium of the TEKAS Fellowship of Churches.” [5]

Under Sai’s leadership, the NKST brought a request to the Mission in 1966 for a separate seminary from TCNN (Theological College of Northern Nigeria). At that time there was a growing need for pastors that TCNN could not accommodate due to insufficient facilities. Another reason for such request was because the NKST was deeply concerned with its Reformed heritage and wanted a seminary that was strictly Reformed in its teaching, whereas TCNN was a mixture of different confessional and theological traditions.

It was during his leadership of the NKST Church that the Tiv Bible translation was completed and commissioned on November 4, 1964. [6] This translation was done by the missionaries. At that time, Tiv was the seventh language in Nigeria to receive a full Bible translation.[7] JEI Sai was the longest serving leader of the NKST. He visited the United States and South Africa, to attend Reformed Ecumenical Synods.

His Legacy and His Principles

JEI Sai was an outstanding leader with great vision and focus. He exemplified great qualities of integrity, due process, and accountability in the holistic sense of a Christian. He was never easily swayed on any matter that he believed was right. For him, all right principles were in conformity with the Bible as the Word of God. One of his most outstanding attributes was his insistence on due process in all decision-making and actions in the church. He never left room for ethnic or clan-related favors because he was convinced that only integrity in all matters of life and doctrine could save the church from being in conformity with the world. He believed that the worldly system should learn from the church. The federal government of Nigeria recognized his leadership qualities and President Shehu Shagari made him a Member of the Order of Nigeria (MON) in 1982.

His Last Words to the Church

Towards the end of his life, Sai was deeply concerned about the future of the church because of worrisome symptoms that he observed. Corruption was taking its toll in the church, especially affecting establishments that were critical avenues for the gospel. Certain institutions flouted due process when making leadership appointments. In many cases, unqualified people were appointed to head institutions based on clan membership. Some of those who held the highest positions of authority in the church and who determined department leadership in the church most often favored their kinsmen instead of those who were spiritually, intellectually, morally, and emotionally more qualified. This often led to poor performance and financial embezzlement as gifts of appreciation were paid out. As a result, the academic institutions and health services of the church began to decline.

Worried by these sad developments, Sai wrote in his Last Words to the NKST that “anyone who was qualified to head a church department or institution should be given an opportunity.” [8] He strongly emphasized competence and the unity of the church as he saw more and more divisions in the ranks. On unity, he wrote: “Where there is unity, there is power but where there is no unity, there is no power.” [9] He also encouraged the church to hold strongly onto the love of Christ that has shaped the identity of the church among believers. He desired to leave behind a church that stood firm with unwavering faith and perseverance in the midst of adversity and temptations. Given the global impact that the NKST had during his time, he admonished members very strongly: “I am saying again that our testimony of truth that we were known for as members of churches in Nigeria, in Africa and overseas in Europe, Asia, the United States, Australia, and other places, that which was said about us should remain without compromise.” [10] He believed that the believer should consider any work that the church has given to him or her as an opportunity to preach Christ in action.

The Church after JEI Sai

If JEI Sai were alive today, he surely would have wept as Jesus did over Jerusalem because what he foresaw and warned against is happening to the church in the most embarrassing way. Subsequent generations of leadership that perhaps never knew his legacy and are not concerned with godliness have run the church aground. The great health institutions of the NKST that sprang up everywhere beautifully have become inglorious shadows thus dimming the glory of the gospel that was the motivating factor for their establishment. The educational institutions too have lost their glory and standards. Unethical politics and moral ineptitude have dominated the life of the church. The influence of secular society that Sai resisted in his time has heavily infected the church. The church makes a mockery of due process in all things and the election of leaders has taken on a political dimension with campaigns carried out in exactly the same way as in secular politics. The divisions that Sai abhorred have eaten so deep into the fabric of the church such that there is hardly any sense of unity left. Though the NKST as a Reformed church maintains its confessional standards in conformity with the 16th century Reformation, the moral compass of the Reformed life is compromised. The Lord will save his own people, for he knows those who are his.

Philip Tachin


  1. NKST is the acronym for the Nongo Kristu u ken Sudan hen Tiv (Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv), which is the vernacular name of the church that the Dutch Reformed Church Mission of South Africa established in Tivland of Benue state. In the last decade, a great controversy arose in the church about the name of the church as many saw the need to change the name whereas other leaders who inherited leadership from the early church fathers of this church stood against it. However, in 2010, the name was changed to Universal Reformed Christian Church (URCC) but the Tiv translation still retains the NKST acronym which majority cherish so much.
  2. Victor Bem, “A Brief Biography of Rev. JEI Sai,” Unpublished, 2017.
  3. B. D. Iyortyom and JA Mayange, “Centenary of Formal Education in Tivland,” in Centenary of Christianity in Tivland, ed. T. Avav ( N.p., .N.d), 105.
  4. Eugene Rubingh, citing Rev. JEI Sai in Sons of Tiv (Grands Rapids: Baker, 1969), 240-241.
  5. Edgar H. Smith, Nigerian Harvest (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 218.
  6. Kurugh Antiev and A. O. Pever, Manyam man Sai Ngohol Icighan Bibilo, (Makurdi: Azaben Publishers, 2011), 34.
  7. Smith, Nigerian Harvest, 281.
  8. Joshua Makurdi Girgi, The Last Words of Rev. JEI Sai to NKST (Zaki-Biam: Adesco Press, N.d.), 28.
  9. Ibid, 18.
  10. Ibid, 29.

This article, received in 2018, was researched and written by Philip Tachin, lecturer at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) and approved by Deji Ayegboyin, DACB Advisory Council member.