Given the success of the famous Mary Slessor in Calabar, some chiefs from the Ibeno region of today’s Akwa Ibom State approached the Calabar Mission of the Free Church of Scotland for a Missionary in the mid-1880s. At that time the Calabar mission was stretched and could not afford to oblige but passed on the request to London missionary institutions. One of the trainees in London, Samuel Alexander Bill, who was from Belfast, responded to the call and sailed to Calabar without financial backing.
Samuel Alexander Bill started work alone at the mouth of Qua Iboe River in December 1887, according to Qua Iboe Mission records held in the public records office of Northern Ireland. This was long before the Rev. (later Bishop) Samuel Ajayi Crowther led a team of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to Ikot Abasi in 1902. Historians remember Samuel Alexander Bill as a very energetic man and there is a popular story of how he outwitted a certain pagan chief into helping with plastering the walls with clay, to complete the first Church (in Ubenekang) in today’s Akwa Ibom State.
Today, it is evident that Samuel Bill through the Qua Iboe Church (United Evangelical Church of Nigeria) left indelible footprints not just in Akwa Ibom state, but in almost all other states of the federation and in other African countries. Some of the legacies include three colleges of theology, including the Samuel Bill Theological College at Ikot Ekang, Abak (started in the 1940s), three post-primary teaching institutions including Etinan Institute (started 1915), two hospitals (at Ekpene Obom and Ochadamu, the latter known as Holley Memorial Hospital) and a printing press at Etinan, as well as numerous primary schools. Membership of the Church has grown to over 1,000 congregations throughout Nigeria which vary in size from around 50 people to over 1,000. Perhaps, the most recognised legacies could be Mission Africa (Qua Iboe Fellowship), which is registered with the Charity Commission in Ireland and recognised by Her Majesty Government in the United Kingdom as a pioneering and experienced mission agency in Africa. From the Samuel Bill’s pioneer missionary work in Ibeno, Mission Africa has developed a rich legacy of faithful service in religion, education, health care and other social services in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya and other African countries.
It is surprising that in those good old days when men were individualistic, Late Reverend Samuel Bill rather constituted a proper council for the church and created the necessary institutions to keep the church work independent of any personal influence. This strong corporate governance structure helped the church and other established institutions grow fast and endure the past one hundred years. However, the church as a big, sovereign institution sort of shrouded the pioneer developmental impact his missionary work had in Nigeria and Africa. This means that even though the institutions he built literally healed and saved lots of communities and societies, produced many leaders and industrialists, and shaped a new way of life which changed the destiny of many for the better, Reverend Samuel Bill got little or nothing in recognition of his life-long work.
Samuel Bill College, Abak, a secondary school named after the Late Reverend Samuel Alexander Bill was shut down by the school authorities about 25years ago over students’ demonstration. The school had a reputation for providing good Christian training for children and churned out students with some of the best results in school certificate examinations. Today, products of the school have become leaders in various professions, who have come together under the SBTC Old Boys Alumni Association to push for reopening of the school. They have drawn up a business model to re-establish the institution as premium institution of learning, but the move requires the right synergy from stakeholders including the state government and the church to see the light of day.
The proposed business model is viable due to the need gap for quality secondary and moral education in Akwa Ibom State. Secondly, supporting the mission to reopen Samuel Bill College is one good way the state government, Qua Iboe Church and other meaningful groups can rally to give Late Reverend Samuel Alexander Bill a lasting legacy. In doing this, many more generations will be properly groomed and the society will be better for it. His Excellency Udom Emmanuel, the Executive Governor of Akwa Ibom State recently renamed Uruan Street (one of the major streets in Uyo) after Samuel Bill, which is a laudable recognition. But we can do more for the first missionary who personally funded his trip to Akwa Ibom from Europe, and offered the people free education, free health, a civilised way of life and spiritual emancipation.