Wilson Rajil Sabiya was a strong advocate of justice in all facets of life, and he spent most of his life fighting for the liberation of the oppressed. He struggled to create a level playing field for the major and minor tribes in the defunct State of Gongola. He did not compromise his ideals in the struggle for religious tolerance, equity, and fair treatment for all. He was one of the greatest freedom fighters from the former Gongola State, and he was involved in a struggle that earned him the enmity of the Muslim community there.
Wilson was born into a Christian family to Mr. Bulus Sabiya and Ndasiku at Dulguda Bangshika, Adamawa State, Nigeria. He was born on January 12, 1938 and baptized as an infant according to the Lutheran tradition. The family of Mr. Bulus Sabiya hailed from the Kilba tribe that was located in the mountainous area northeast of Yola, in Adamawa State, Nigeria. The people of Kilba are friendly and accommodating, and they encourage peace and tolerance for one another. They never succumb to autocracy and oligarchy, as they are people who do not easily give up in their fight for what genuinely belongs to them. They use every available and advantageous means to address their grievances.
From his childhood on, Sabiya was an aggressive and zealous Christian who always stood for what was right. He had a high regard for the white missionaries who had come to do mission work in the Dulguda Bangshika area, and his admiration for them earned him their acceptance. Seeing that Wilson was infected with the dreaded disease of leprosy, the missionaries asked his father if they could give him treatment. Mr. Bulus Sabiya consented to the request and released Wilson to the missionaries, who took him and treated him for leprosy.
Wilson attended Bangshika and Pella primary school from 1951 to 1953. After completing his studies, missionaries with the Sudan United Mission (SUM) spotted pastoral qualities in him, and proposed that he attend a pre-pastoral school at Dashen, in Adamawa State. He attended the school from 1954 to 1958 and successfully completed the program. In 1962, he proceeded to the Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN), Bukuru, Jos, in Plateau State, for further training. However, based on his entry examination, he was admitted on probation. In 1963, he registered for a private GCE “O” Level and met with success, which qualified him for the Diploma in Theology. In 1969 he graduated with a double qualification: TCNN and London Diploma in Theology.
Wilson gained admission to Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, U.S.A. in 1969, immediately after he had graduated from TCNN, and in 1972 he obtained a B.Sc. in Environmental Studies. Thereafter, he proceeded to Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, for their Master of Divinity program, which he completed in 1973, receiving the M.Div. in theology. His quest for knowledge propelled him to enroll for another Masters level program in Sacred Theology that same year, and in 1974, he completed the course and obtained a Masters in Sacred Theology (STM).
Sabiya was married twice. He married his first wife, Esther Thomas, in 1966 while pursuing his pastoral training at TCNN. The marriage was difficult, and his wife engaged in marital unfaithfulness, finally leaving Sabiya and marrying another man. However, the marriage had been blessed with four children and all of them are alive. Their names are: Mark, Gary, Biyama, and Leatu. After six years of unfruitful attempts to reconcile him with his runaway wife, the church granted him permission to marry again. In December of 1981, he married Margaret Isa and the marriage was also blessed with four children: Akucha, Ninyanhyel, Pembari, and Happy. It was this second wife who caught Sabiya’s vision and who stood by him steadfastly in his struggle to liberate the people from the clutches of tyranny in Gongola State.
While at TCNN for his pastoral training, Sabiya served as student librarian, as secretary of the Fellowship of Christian Students, and as secretary of the student body. While he was in the United States of America for his Master’s degree program he served as secretary of the African Students Union, and because of his relentless service to the community of Dana College, he was honored with a Campus Service Award.
On returning to Nigeria in 1974, he served the church, Christian organizations, and the government in different capacities. In 1974 he was seconded to TCNN by his church (LCCN) as a lecturer. After that, he transferred his service to the University of Jos in order to strengthen the department of Religious Studies since there were only a few qualified Nigerian theological teachers. While in the university there, Sabiya taught African Studies for two years. Since he was the most senior ordained pastor there, he was appointed as chaplain of the University, and he served in that office from 1976 to 1979.
From 1979 to 1981 he was chairman of the governing council of TCNN. He served as a member of the board of trustees of LCCN from 1979 until his death in 2004, and he also served as a member of the Lutheran World Federation. He was appointed chairman of Operation Feed the Nation from 1980 to 1982. He was elected secretary of the state chapter of CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria) in the former Gongola State from 1980 to 1983. Later, Sabiya was elected chairman of the state chapter of CAN from 1988 to 1991. He was appointed chairman of the Christian Pilgrimage board, Adamawa State, from 1992 to 1999.
Sabiya was an advocate of justice and freedom of religious worship. Injustice, discrimination, and violence were at their peak when he was elected chairman of CAN, Gongola State chapter. Christians there had to contend with those very issues, and although they were global phenomena, they were pressing and widespread in Gongola State at that time.
On several occasions, he challenged both the state and the federal government about the use of public funds to propagate Islam. The state government never showed equity in relation to religious worship and practices there, and the church had always been left out in terms of development projects. Christians were not as economically empowered as their Muslim counterparts, and Christians, who were considered infidels, were treated as second-class citizens. The state government took over Christian institutions like hospitals and schools, giving the impression that they intended to offer free medical care and education to the poor. It was only later that the motive for the takeover of the institutions was revealed. In one of his sermons at the LCCN I in Jimeta, in Yola, Adamawa State, Sabiya decried the plot by the state government to overturn the existing (secular) form of government in order to entrench a pro-Iranian Islamic government. He saw that the takeover of church institutions, their being renamed after certain Islamic personalities, and the introduction of an Islamic dress code in all the government schools, were measures intended to change the identity of the institutions as well as the philosophy that had led to their establishment. Sabiya used various media to communicate the agitation and displeasure of the church over these matters.
One of the channels he employed was to lead a delegation of CAN officials, in 1989, on a courtesy call to group captain Abubakar Salihu, who was the military governor of Gongola State at that time. During that visit, the CAN officials told the governor about the inhuman treatment Christians were being subjected to, and demanded justice, liberty, fairness, freedom of worship, and equal treatment of Christians and Muslims, in the interest of the overall development of the state. Sabiya asked for the return of church institutions that had been taken over by the government, and called for the accelerated establishment of the Customary Court of Appeals that had already been approved by the House and given assent to by the civilian governor in 1983.
He had advocated for religious tolerance in various forums, believing that tolerance was a viable tool for keeping Nigeria together. For him, tolerance was synonymous with justice, unity, peace, and stability. He thought that the solution to the religious crisis in Nigeria lay in the ability of the government to become “the government of all the citizens of Nigeria, by all the citizens of Nigeria, and for all the citizens of Nigeria.” There could never be peace when the government operates on the principle of favoritism and discrimination. Equal treatment must be given to all irrespective of sex, religion, or language.
In 1991, he contributed to the debate on “The Search for a Viable Polity”, and proposed that Nigeria should continue to adopt a political structure that is secular. This was because in a secular state, all religions are entitled to equal treatment. His submission was based on the premise that a government which runs a secular structure would provide “impartial justice and equity; honesty and integrity; respect for persons, property and authority; and regard for the equality of persons before the law.” He considered the structure of the courts in the northern part of the country to be “repugnant to national justice, equity and good conscience.” That is why he advocated the abolition of single judge “Alkali Courts,” the removal from office of the Grand Qaddi, and the replacement of that office with the Area Court of Appeals. He strongly advocated an independent judiciary, as it would be able to uphold the constitution through the power of judicial review.
During the Constituent Assembly of 1978, he wrote a joint article with Paul Unongo and Christopher Abashiya against the inclusion of Sharia law in the Nigerian Constitution and took it to the assembly. It was this article that enlightened the southern Christians about the implications and adverse effects that enshrining Sharia law in the constitution would have on the fundamental human rights of the citizenry. The move for the inclusion was defeated. Sabiya also wrote several informative articles about things Muslim leaders had done to undermine Christianity in Nigeria.
In the pursuit of his struggle for the emancipation of the oppressed and the marginalized in the state, Sabiya ran for the seat of governor of Gongola State in 1978, under the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP). His ambition was short-lived however, due to the religious intrigues that pervaded the Nigerian polity. Nevertheless, Sabiya did not allow the past to deter him from pursuing his noble struggle. In 1983, he became the gubernatorial candidate under the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). He went to court to challenge his loss of this seat, but unfortunately, the Supreme Court only ruled in his favor and declared him the winner several years after the military had taken over the government. During that entire struggle, Sabiya did not compromise his faith, and remained committed to his God. As an astute politician, he fought for the enhancement and the transformation of a society that was characterized by injustice, violence, and indifference.
On April 20, 1988, Wilson wrote a letter to General Ibrahim Babangida, the President and Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, drawing his attention to what he called “the underground plan to Islamize the country through the Nigerian Police Force.” In the letter, Sabiya clearly stated the various roles the Nigerian Police had played in the experiences of religious disharmony the country had experienced from 1983 to 1987. He drew the attention of the president to the lopsided recruitment of assistant superintendents of Police; to the fact that almost all the Police units in the north were headed by Muslims; and to the manning of the State Police Commands by Muslims. For him, this preferential treatment was a perversion of social justice and democratic principles. In the interest of Nigerian unity, he called on the president to address this lopsided favoritism.
Wilson was a simple and easy-going person, but he was dogged on issues of injustice. He spent most of his time working for the liberation of his people and his constituency. He was concerned about the ill-treatment of the minor tribes by the major tribes, and he took a confrontational approach to the Muslim agenda of ruling Nigeria by Islamic law. He lived for the marginalized and for Christians in the defunct Gongola State in particular, and in Nigeria at large.
On March 19, 2004, Sabiya died of Parkinson’s disease at the University Teaching Hospital in Maiduguri, and he was buried on March 30, 2004. His funeral was modest but well attended by church leaders, church members, and politicians, including the governors of Adamawa and Taraba States. The tributes given at his funeral emphasized his struggle for liberation and his insistence that if the government were to have any involvement in religious affairs, then it should treat them all equally.
Wilson Sabiya, “Islamization of the Country through the Nigerian Police Force,” letter to Ibrahim B. Babangida, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1988.
——–, “A Courtesy Call on His Excellency, The Military Governor of Gongola State: Group Captain Abubakar Salihu & SSPSC,” speech made while president of CAN, Gongola State, 1989.
——–, “Exorcising the Demon of Religious Intolerance,” sermon delivered at LCCN I, Jimeta, Yola.
——–, “The Search for Viable Polity,” paper read to the political bureau of Gongola State, 1991.
Barnabas Gaius, “The Life and Contribution of Rev. Wilson Rajil Sabiya to the Lutheran Church and Gongola State,” (B.A. in theology thesis, TCNN, 2006).
Mark Hopkins and Musa Gaiya eds., Churches in Fellowship: The Story of TEKAN. (Jos: ACTS, 2005).
Margaret Nissen, An African Church is Born: The Story of the Adamawa and Central Sardauna Provinces in Nigeria (Denmark: Purups Grafiske, 1968).
Emmanuel Sabiya (younger brother), interview by author, September 16, 2009.
This article, received in 2010, was written by Zechariah Nasara, a Ph.D. candidate at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso, under the supervision of Dr. Michael Leke Ogunewu and Dr. Deji Ayegboyin, DACB liaison coordinator.