Rev. Dr. Panya Dabo Baba: A Man Apart

by Dr. Musa A. B. Gaiya | Panya personally founded the Nigeria Evangelical Mission Association (NEMA) that brought together all evangelical mission bodies (image courtesy of SIM/ECWA)

Rev. Dr. Panya Dabo Baba, a resident of the Overseas Ministry Study Center from 1996 to 1997, has been described as the greatest missiologist of the ECWA (formerly Evangelical Church of West Africa founded by the Sudan Interior Mission but now Evangelical Church Winning All). His tenure as director of the Evangelical Missionary Society (EMS) was outstanding and he raised the mission to an international level. The growth of the ECWA in Nigeria and abroad was mostly due to his ingenious mission strategy.

Panya was born in Karu on January 20, 1932 to Baba and Gnubwanyi, both of them Gbayi of Nasarawa State on Nigeria. Panya's parents were Christians, so he grew up in a Christian family. Baba was the chief of the Karu or the Estu Karu. At his birth Panya was named Panyadabo, which means "remember God the owner"–advice to Panya to remember God who made him. Panya did. When Panya sustained an injury that broke his skull as a toddler, his parents thought he would never survive. He survived but still carries a visible scar–a recovery which Panya considers miraculous. Later in his life, God also healed him of a very serious stomach ailment that almost killed him when he was working as a missionary.

Past and Current Involvement in Church Ministry

He began his early education by enrolling in the Karu SIM Primary School where he studied from 1942 to 1945. Panya heard the gospel from SIM missionary Mrs. H. W. Caster but did not understand it initially. In 1945, though, Panya clearly heard the gospel and received Christ as his personal Savior through Malam Sabuda, a student at the Karu Bible School who hailed from Kaltungo, in northeastern Nigeria. As Panya testified, "Kneeling to God in my small room, I told Him I was sorry for my sins and asked for His forgiveness. I told God I wanted to be one of His children. The moment I finished that prayer, I felt different…that was the day and time Jesus came into my life." Panya was baptized in 1946.

Having heard the call of God to go into full time Christian service, Panya studied at the Karu Vernacular Bible Training School from 1946 to 1947. In 1949 he accepted the challenge to become a missionary among his people, the Gbagyi, in Sarkin Pawa (Niger Province) in northern Nigeria to teach them the Bible. His desire to do mission work continued to grow. He returned to Karu in 1951 and was admitted to Karu Bible Training School for additional training in 1952. In 1954 he was called by the ECWA church in Karu to be a pastor starting in 1957 and was licensed and ordained in 1960. In 1961 Panya went to Kagoro Bible College where he earned a certificate in Bible. He returned to Karu in 1963 to continue as pastor of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) church there. But Panya's heart was more in missions. While Panya was pastoring this church he was appointed director of the Evangelical Missionary Society, where he made his most significant contribution to the course of evangelization of Africa.

Panya married Tayado Dokwadayi in February of 1951. Tayado means "Never depart"–perhaps a prayer that she not die. They had six children–three girls and three boys. They adopted an orphan boy named Ishaya at the age of six. Tayado died in childbirth on April 23, 1963.

Afterwards Panya married Ruth Lami Ataku on February 22, 1964. She gave birth to seven children, two of whom died. All together Panya had fourteen children including one adopted son. One of his sons, Luka, is now (2006) the Estu Karu or paramount chief of Karu.

Panya's growing interest in missions led him to apply to All Nations Christian College in England where he was accepted and studied from 1969 to 1970. When he returned to Nigeria he was the best person to take charge of the Evangelical Missionary Society (EMS)–at that time the only indigenous mission organization in Nigeria. His training at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, U.S.A. further enriched his understanding of missions and evangelism. He brought his knowledge, experience, leadership abilities, and zeal to EMS. He encouraged young graduates from Bible colleges and seminaries to join the mission, and as a result the number of missionaries increased from 194 in 1970 when he took over to 750 in 1988 when he left office as director.

He also believed in sending missionaries abroad as he felt Nigeria had come to that stage. As a result, EMS missionaries were sent out from two West African countries to five other countries including the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Panya believed in the interdependence between the developed world and the underdeveloped world in mission. He believed the developed West had a lot to give Africa in terms of finances, specialized personnel, and technical assistance, and Africa had a lot to give the West in terms of evangelism and mission. That is why when he stepped down as ECWA president in 1994 and he started the Foreign Mission of EMS.

Panya personally founded the Nigeria Evangelical Mission Association (NEMA) that brought together all evangelical mission bodies. Out of NEMA the Nigeria Evangelical Missionary Institute was created to train young men and women for cross-cultural mission work and the NEMA Searchlight Project designed to research unreached peoples groups. Through the Searchlight Project Panya discovered a number of ethnic groups in Nigeria that had not heard the gospel. These were the Koma, the Boko, the Dakawa, the Kambari, the Undir, the Dirim, and the Bolewa.

Panya was not only a missionary administrator and a strategist; he was also a missionary advocate. Everywhere he went he spoke on missions. At all the international conferences he attended any papers he gave were on the topic of mission. Panya was a member of several international missionary organizations and associations. Ruth Cox, his secretary while he was director of EMS, said of him, "He is always looking for ways to spread the gospel, looking for areas where it has not been preached. He doesn't know the difference between work and pleasure…to him they are the same. He has put missions and the gospel first…this is his life."

When Panya was elected president of the ECWA in 1988 it meant he would have to leave EMS, the place he loved so much. He served as president of ECWA for six years but although he did his work well he did not love it as much as being a missions' administrator. Also, it was very difficult to find someone to fill the vacuum created after Panya left EMS.

As a result of Panya's immense service in the ECWA, especially as EMS director, the governing council and faculty of the ECWA Seminary, Igbaja, awarded him a doctorate of divinity honoraris causa on May 18, 1991. In addition, the West African Theological Seminary gave Panya the Akanu Ibiam Award "for excellence in cross-cultural mission".

Panya Baba retired from active service in the ECWA in 1998. He returned home to Karu and has been preoccupied with writing his thoughts about mission, giving lectures at mission conferences, preaching, offering counseling and helping in any way he can in the local ECWA church in Karu.