When the Lutheran Church Christ in Nigeria (formerly Ekkilisiyan Kristi a Nijeriya Lutheran or EKAN Lutheran), established by the Sudan United Mission (SUM-Danish Branch) decided to become episcopal in 1971, the Rev. Akila Todi was elected as its first bishop in 1973.
Akila Todi’s date of birth is not certain. Margaret Nissen, a SUM (Danish) missionary and the first historian of the mission puts it about 1909, while Nicholas Pweddon, a friend of Akila and a later historian of the Lutheran Church in Nigeria records it as 1903. However, a funeral biography has 1905. He was born to Mallam Biku Tonsheno and Mallama Flo in what is now called Old Numan among the Bachama people of northeastern Nigeria who now call themselves the Bwatiye. He was from the Klah clan. His parents were traditionalists who worshipped the Bachama demigods, the youngest and most benevolent of whom is Nzeanzo. Like Jesus Christ, Nzeanzo is said to have a mother (Vunon) but no father. He determined when to be born and the day he was born, he began to walk and plan to save his elder brothers from being killed by a wicked uncle. The story of Nzeanzo might have provided some common ground between Christianity and Bachama traditional religion. It is no wonder that the Bachama became Christians en mass. His parents called him Atodi-a-Kwaki which means “wish my ears were stuffed” because they wished the stories about enemies invading and destroying the Bachama were not true.
Probably about the age of 18, Akila Todi began to visit the mission compound close to his parents’ house to learn the white man’s mysteries. His parents, particularly his father, did not want him to get close to the missionaries. His father, being a farmer and a blacksmith, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps him rather than loiter with the strangers. So Akila would steal away to visit the missionaries. However, whenever his father spotted him there, he would order that Akila be denied food,–something which his mother usually disobeyed. He was befriended by one of missionaries, Miss Laura Madsen, a nurse, who employed him as a milk boy and as her helper in a home for orphans.
Later Madsen sent Akila to school. In 1934, after he finished school, she employed him as her steward and cook. With this new position his earnings rose to about 10 pound 8 shillings and he was able to buy a pair of trousers. Nevertheless, he could not wear them to the mission house because the missionaries taught that trousers would make young Africans proud and so “spoil them.” When he proved to be a hardworking person, Madsen made him a ward attendant in the mission hospital.
Meanwhile, Akila Todi became a Christian while working for Madsen and was baptized by Pastor Ernst I. Engskov in 1930. Akila Todi’s skills and sense of responsibility were noticed in the Numan church and he was elected a church elder (shugaban ekkliasiya) in 1936. In 1945, he was elected chairman of the local church council. He was, without a doubt, a shining leader in the young Lutheran church in Numan.
He married Ullipan Elipgan on December 29, 1930. Ullipan was baptized on 23 July 1933 and took the name Lisa. The marriage was blessed with nine children, only five are living.
From 1937 to 1938, in order to hone his skills in the hospital, Madsen sent Akila Todi to Garkida, to attend the Nursing School run by the Brethren Mission, an associated mission. He worked as a nurse in the mission hospital until 1951, when he felt called into the ministry and enrolled at the Bible School in Guyuk. He graduated in 1954 and returned to Numan. At that time, the Numan Divisional Officer pleaded with the church leaders to release Akila Todi to serve the local government council as a school manager and councillor in charge of education. The local government authorities sent him on courses in administration in London and in Leeds in 1955. The same authorities sent him to the Institute of Administration for an advanced course in administration in 1956-1957.
People liked and admired him for his honesty, transparency and hard work. Due to his thoroughness in the area of finances, he was nicknamed “manager akwai duhu,” meaning “manager with an eagle eye to spot fraud.” In recognition of this noteworthy service, the federal government of Nigeria decorated Akila Todi with the medal of the Order of Meritorious Service in 1943.
But Akila Todi had not forgotten his call to preach the gospel, in spite of the attractive opportunities he had with the local government. He was in the second group of pastors ordained in the Lutheran church in 1955. He would have been in the first group in 1948, but his health failed him. Although the local government authorities wanted Akila Todi to continue working for them, he decided to return to the church.
With the end of colonialism in sight, many missions decided to turn their work over to nationals. In 1956, the Lutheran Mission also did the same. The mission asked the nationals to select leaders to replace them. But as the national leaders felt it was premature to turn over the administration of the church to nationals at that time, they suggested a joint leadership of nationals and missionaries to make a gradual transition. Accordingly, Pastor Pilgaard Pedersen was elected as the president of the church to be assisted by Pastor Akila Todi. This arrangement worked until 1960 when Akila Todi became full president of the Lutheran Church in Nigeria.
Later, the Lutheran Church Council felt the title of “president” was not the most appropriate title to give to a church leader. The New Testament, they argued, uses “bishop” whereas “president” was the title for a leader of any organization. So, at their meeting in November 1971, the church made the change in the title. Only pastors having served the church for at least ten years could be elected bishops. It was also decided that a bishop so elected was to serve for a five-year term in the first tenure and after that period could be re-elected every five years. In the election conducted on May 19, 1973, Akila Todi was elected almost unanimously as the first bishop of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria. He was re-elected in 1978 and 1983.
Under Akila Todi’s leadership the church grew from its limited presence in what was known as the Adamawa province to becoming a national church with congregations in almost all the cities in Nigeria. The growth was so phenomenal that his successor felt compelled to divide the church area into five dioceses in 1995. One remarkable achievement in the growth of the church at this time was the presence of the church among the Koma people, a people living in the most mountainous places in Adamawa state. The Koma people are one of the most primitive people of Nigeria. The Lutheran church has 40 congregations among the Koma people. To meet the demand for pastors, Akila Todi established six Bible schools, one Bible college and a seminary named after the first Lutheran missionary, Dr. Niels Bronnum. As a result, he ordained 102 pastors. He initiated the idea of writing a history of the church and Margaret Nissen was commissioned to do the writing in 1963.
In 1970, Akila Todi was elected chairman of the association of all SUM established churches in Nigeria which goes by the Hausa name, Tarrayar Ikklisioyin Kristi a Nijeriya (TEKAN), i.e. the Fellowship of Churches of Christ in Nigeria. He also held some ad hoc responsibilities assigned to him by the Adamawa state government. He was a member of the Adamawa Tax Appeal Board from 1960 to 1979. He was appointed the first chairman of Gongola State Christian Association of Nigeria from 1981 to 1985 and chairman of Gongola State Christian Pilgrims’ Welfare Board in 1983. In recognition of Akila Todi’s service to humanity, the federal government of Nigeria decorated him with the medal of Officer of the Order of the Niger in 1978. For his contributions to the development of Christianity in Nigeria, Warburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, awarded him with an honorary degree of divinity in 1979.
Akila Todi had difficulties with the younger generation of pastors who were uneasy with the episcopal system in a church where tribal feelings were so strong. A decentralized church administration would have probably worked better. According to E. P. T. Crampton, this was the blind adoption of the Danish Lutheran pattern, because the Danish bishops, unlike the Swedish bishops, “are not part of the ‘historic episcopate’ as defined by Catholics.” Some accused the bishop of being very conservative in his theology. For example, he opposed the ordination of women and dancing during worship. According to him, dancing in God’s house was a sin. The Pentecostals came in with a more liberal stance and reaped the harvest of deserters from the Lutheran church. Even before Akila Todi’s voluntary retirement in 1986, he was accused of tribalism and favoritism towards his tribe, the Bachama. To illustrate the intensity of the tribal animosity, one of the tribes that felt very much aggrieved, the Lunguda, pulled out of the Lutheran church en mass in 1965 and joined the Baptist church. The tribal palaver was one of the problems Akila Todi’s successor, Bishop David Windibiziri, a Lunguda, inherited. In his attempts to redress the imbalance, Windibirizi sank into more mucky waters, and that controversy remains unresolved.
Akila Todi spoke four languages, Bachama, his mother tongue, Hausa, Fulfulde, spoken by many Bachama people because of proximity to the Fulani, and English, which he learned in school.
Akila Todi died of deteriorating health on February 3, 1992 in the Evangel Hospital, Jos, and was buried in Numan on February 15, 1992.
Musa A. B. Gaiya
E. P. T. Crampton, Christianity in Northern Nigeria (Zaria: Gaskiya Corporation, 1975).
Anonymous, “Biography of Rt Rev. Bishop Akila Todi of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN),” a funeral speech, 1992.
Margaret Nissen, An African Church is Born (Numan: LCCN, 1966).
Dimga Jones Kadabiyu, “The First Bishop of LCCN: The Life and Works of Akila Todi,” B.D. thesis, Theological College of Northern Nigeria, Bukuru, 2003.
This article, received in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Musa A. B. Gaiya, Senior Lecturer in Church History at the University of Jos Department of Religious Studies, Jos, Nigeria, and 2003-2004 Project Luke fellow.