#YNaijaEssays: Ignored by the government and abandoned by its famous sons, chaos is brewing in Nigeria’s Middle Belt

Middle Belt

The North’s Hidden Belt

In contradiction with its famous slogan, ‘Food Basket of the Nation’, Benue’s lands have been haemorrhaging blood for the better part of Governor Samuel Ortom’s administration. Food production in the agrarian state is at an all-time low, no thanks to the activities of Fulani herdsmen.

Who are the Fulani herdsmen?

By ancestry, Fulani herdsmen are not Nigerians. They are nomadic migrants from the Futa-Jalon mountains, who by reason of their “itchy feet” are peculiar to most West African countries such as Mali, Guinea, Chad, Niger and Ghana. Their occupation is cattle rearing and their religion, Islam, which it is speculated, they came in contact with while trading with Arabs in the Sahara desert. They dominate and superimpose their religion wherever they go and in recent years, Nigeria, especially the Middle Belt, has been the hotbed of contention.

In May 2017, Governor Ortom bemoaned the siege of 12 out of 23 local government areas of the state by these herdsmen, a situation which he admitted, had been going on for two years. By July of the same year, the Governor reported that the death toll over a three year period had passed the 1,000 mark. In fact, a thousand, eight hundred and seventy-eight human beings lost their lives. And that’s beside the missing and the injured.

2018 opened with more depressing statistics for the state. Rampaging herdsmen decimated Logo and Guma local government areas of Benue, resulting in the loss of seventy-three lives, according to official figures. Governor Ortom held a mass burial in their honour.

Middle Belt

Unfortunately, the chief security officer of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari did not respond to the pervasive crisis with the swiftness, decisiveness and compassion of one so charged. It’s been mostly crickets from his end, a tussle between his second in command, Osinbajo and the Governor over whether the FG was actually informed that more attacks were being planned and finally an inauguration of a committee to look into the matter.

How did we get here?

According to this SBM Intelligence report, between 1997 and 2010, only a total of 18 cases of herdsmen killings was reported. However, after the historic Jos riot of 2001, where over 1,000 persons lost their lives within a week, the Obasanjo administration ordered an investigation which revealed that “between September 2001 and May 2004, more than 53,787 individuals were killed due to various farmer-herders crises.” This presumes that although attacks were taking place across the Middle Belt, they passed under the media’s radar.

Amongst all the states that constitute the middle belt, Plateau has been the most hit. Jos, the state’s capital was once regarded in colloquial lingo as the abroad of Nigeria. Its English weather, beautiful topography, hospitable people and plump tomatoes and pepper made it the perfect place to vacation and settle. For years, indigenes sold their lands to Fulanis’ (settlers) and dwelt together in harmony and tranquillity until that fateful day in September 2001 when everything went awry. The general consensus on the catalyst that triggered the first riot suggests that an ‘indecently’ dressed lady passed by a mosque during Juma’a prayers and worshippers couldn’t hold their peace. She was mobbed and indigent residents came to her aid, initiating the first of the clashes that would escalate in the Jos riots. The reality is probably less ‘righteous’. Either way, before long Jos North became a hotbed for the first of the Jos Riots, a series of clashes that would come to define Plateau state in the 2000’s, effectively destroying its economy and tourist industry, a scourge the state is yet to fully recover from.

The fight for territory, economic control, even political domination are the root causes of the conflict. According to survivors and political pundits the situation has been made worse by the combustive element of religious differences. Sadly, the government doesn’t seem to care that a famine is underway. The indifference with which the present government addresses the sectarian violence in the Middle Belt is a far cry from the swift urgency with which it addressed agitations for independence by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). After the region’s self-appointed leader Nnamdi Kanu threatened to stall elections in Anambra as part of its push to force the government to contend with the group’s request for autonomy, a dispatch of soldiers were sent into the East to undertake Operation Python Dance and the group was labelled a “terrorist group”. The swift action that many activists insist crossed over into illegality swiftly ended that fight and to this date Nigerians ask, “where is Nnamdi Kanu?” the group’s charismatic leader who hasn’t been heard from since Operation Python Dance and is currently presumed dead.

Nothing of this scale or diligence has been done to stem the tide of the killer herdsmen who now make their way from North to West, leaving in their wake a trail of destruction and blood.

We only remember the Middle Belt when it is imploding

Nigeria is informally divided into a ‘Christian South’ and a ‘Muslim North’, a prescription that reflects each regions religious proclivities and their primary colonisers (Fulani Jihadists in the North and Christian capitalists in the South). But there is a band of states and communities formally split between North and South but informally referred to as the ‘Middle Belt’. An ethnic and linguistically diverse region, this band of states and communities includes Kwara, Kogi, Benue, Taraba, Plateau, Nasarawa, Niger, Adamawa, and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja).

With most of the states carved domiciled geographically in Nigeria’s North Central region, it is not unusual that they are mostly categorised as Northern states. An example is Kwara which was created in 1967 when the Federal Military Government of General Yakubu Gowon broke the four regions that then constituted the Federation of Nigeria into 12 states. The state was relatively large upon its creation until 1976 when the Idah/Dekina part of the state merged with a part of the then Benue/Plateau to form Benue. The same year, Niger was carved out when the then North-Western State which was divided into Niger and Sokoto.

Kogi was created in 1991, from parts of Kwara and Benue by the military government. Abuja on its part, was built in the 1980s and replaced Lagos as capital city in 1991. The people of the Middle Belt have, however, continued to insist that the colonial masters made a fatal error in the colonisation of various kingdoms and groups. They argue that Yoruba-speaking people who have never been a single homogenous unit were lumped together to form the Western region. Inhabitants of the coastal areas, Igbos and other vastly different ethnicities formed another region called the Eastern region.

According to them, the British government concluded that the Itsekiri, Urhobo and other minor tribes in the Delta area could also be broadly lumped in as Yoruba. They then ceded half of the Delta area to the south-east under the Igbo. The lumping of different ethnic groups under the Fulani dynasty was also done in the North, which was extended to Cameroon to form Northern Nigeria. This homogenisation they argue was a decision that served British colonial ambitions and made it easier to exploit natives. As such, the struggle for the autonomy of the Middle Belt for a region started in 1949 in Plateau, a state which has diverse ethnic groups.

This led to the creation of Northern Non-Muslim League (NNML), which later adopted the name the Middle Zone League, United Middle Belt Congress, and now known as the Middle Belt Forum.

While it clamoured for autonomy from the North, the Middle Belt had its own share of crises that would later create the feeling that they are being targeted for extinction and annihilation. From the Tafawa Balewa crisis in the 90s, to the Kaduna crisis during the same period, the infamous Jos massacre, and the recent killings in Benue. Fulani herdsmen have in the past and are currently wreaking havoc in the area. In 2010, more than 200 lives were killed and homes and properties destroyed by Fulani herdsmen. No form of relief or rehabilitation was provided by the government. A paramount ruler was also gruesomely murdered in Bokkos Local Govt in Plateau.

Even more troubling is the current rate of unabated and unchecked killings in Benue by Fulani herdsmen in response to the state’s government decision to introduce a law curtailing indiscriminate grazing of cattle.

Fulani herdsmen are traditionally nomadic, crossing a number of informal migration routes that take them from their traditional homelands in Chad and Cameroon, through Northern and Southern Nigeria, following grazing routes first followed by pre-jihad herdsmen. However, these grazing routes have always been a source of conflict between the nomadic herdsmen and the indigent residents of the areas through which these grazing routes pass. There have always been informal agreements between the herdsmen and settlers in these regions, agreements that have always mutated to reflect the times. However post-colonial globalisation has led to a breakdown in traditional agreements and rapid urbanisation and infrastructural advancements has greatly reduced how much arable land is available for grazing and farming, setting up a near-inevitable conflict between itinerant indigenes who still depend on the land for sustenance and herdsmen trying to sustain their traditions in a rapidly changing world.

Demands for a ‘modern’ solution to the problem of indiscriminate grazing have resulted in pressure on state governments especially in the Middle Belt to institute anti-open grazing laws. These anti-grazing laws require that herdsmen abandon their traditional grazing routes and settle on ‘ranches’, swathes of private of subsidised land dedicated solely to the care of their animals. Ranching on paper is a much smarter solution to the problems that has necessitated the nomadic lifestyles of the Fulani Herdsmen and would greatly reduce clashes if adopted. But it would also mean the end of a huge part of the Fulani nomad culture as we know it, the constant migration has allowed the Fulani stay ahead of the tsunami wave of westernisation that has washed over everyone else.   

Globalisation has also resulted in increased access to firearms, which Fulani herdsmen, who have always been willing to protect their perceived rights to graze their animals and preserve the purity of their culture with violence, have adopted.

Despite the killings, there has been no action by the government, strengthening the notion that the area has been marked for extermination. The ethnic divide in the area has also not helped in solving the crisis. Plateau alone comprised of over 200 little tribes, 50 tribes in Bauchi alone as well as Benue.

A fight with no champions

There are boundless contentions as to why Nigeria ought to stay as one country.  Nigeria was forcefully amalgamated in 1914, as an economic and political decision by the British, looking to consolidate its hold on its regions in West Africa. Because the British already met an existing framework of Colonisation in Northern Nigeria that closely mirrored their own policies, they never really addressed the injustices that had fostered that colonisation, and the inequalities that the Jihadist colonisation of Northern Nigeria still ripples through our communities today. There were many opportunities during which these inequalities could have been at least addressed if not corrected, especially during the fight for Independence from British rule, but it seemed then that our founding leaders feared that unless they provided a united front, the British would have used their internal conflicts to dismiss the validity of their requests for autonomy.

The Middle Belt has been failed by its leaders. Former Senate President David Mark chose to build a church and dedicate it in the middle of sectarian violence in his home state, Benue, not once has he used his influence (17 years in the Nigerian senate, a good portion of which was spent in its leadership) to advance the cause of Benue and the Middle Belt at large. The region has become pivotal to political parties and politicians on the Federal level looking to gain entry into political office because of its perceived neutrality and how it has no true allegiance to North or South. It seems, 2018 and 2019 will be the only window the region will have to use its electoral power to force the Federal government to take action regarding the herdsmen killings.

Allowed to fester, long-held grievances have devolved into ethnicised sentiments, sentiments that the ruling political class has used to their advantage. The political leadership of the Middle Belt has shown themselves as greatly irresponsible. Who could forget the antics of senator Dino Melaye, who after several increasingly juvenile stunts, recently featured in a music video for the singer Kach, who is the son of the minister of state for petroleum Ibe Kachikwu, extolling Melaye’s extravagance as a sign of good living. This doesn’t even factor Melaye’s feuds with Alhaji Yahaya Bello who, when he is not feuding with Melaye is spending the vast majority of government funding to build himself a new government chateau in his hometown. How can anyone forget the incompetencies of Plateau’s successive governors, who chose to embezzle public funds, feud with the federal government and try to circumvent the rule of law while their citizens were slaughtered in communal clashes that lasted years?

Obviously, we additionally understand that the governor of Nasarawa, is one that will rather, prominently and without shame, figure it sufficiently shrewd to establish a fight with a radio station when the state ought, by now, to effectively be trading solid minerals.

In extremely expansive terms, much the same as in Niger Delta, where the pioneers fill their as of now pot stomachs and their pockets to flooding level, the conditions of the Middle Belt have just had pioneers that will ceaselessly guarantee the subdual of a numerically and politically oppressed region.

As much as we need to concur that the political framework around which we have built our post-colonial country is as of now defective, we cannot  overlook the direct correlation between the neglect of minority regions and communities and the rise of groups like the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) (in the South East) and Boko Haram (in the North East) – and we cannot feign surprise when gatherings like this pop up in the embattled Middle Belt.

No gain delineating, again, the way that such gatherings have just started their exercises. Fulani Herdsmen, who have stated through the Fulani Nationality Movement that they intend to finish the Jihad that was begun by the Jihadist scholar Uthman Dan-Fodio and occupy all of Nigeria have just begun murdering individuals and according to certain groups ‘making spaces for their own people’. Whether this is actually true or not is secondary to the reality of the consequences of the sustained violence, the people of Benue and the region at large are convinced they are being singled out for a genocide and they are prepared to fight.  This sentiment is best expressed by APC Chieftain, Professor David Iornem, who stated:

If they think that because they are in power they can manipulate votes let the election come. Unless Buhari does something to significantly demonstrate that he is for justice we will not stand with him during election. At the moment there is no indication that he is for justice, he is favouring a certain group. Unfortunately, the group is his tribe.”

It will not just end with the 2019 elections. The debate on who remains minority will continue and more and more indigenes or residents will begin to see reasons why they have to fight for their rights.

They will begin with reprisal attacks on their killers – blood and conscience – and form groups that will eventually turn out to be regarded as “terrorists”.

The fight for equanimity never ends

By 1963, the Nigerian state had been split into four regions – the Northern, Western, Eastern and Mid West. Each of these regions were made up of ethnic minorities that were plagued by fears and insecurities fueled by economic and sociopolitical deprivations. For these minority groups, the only way to win was to ally with major political parties from other regions especially those whose agenda included the creation of new states.

As minority party United Middle Belt Congress was baying for freedom from the seeming tyranny of the Northern region, it was politically wise for the UMBC to pitch its tent with the Action Group (AG), the dominant party in the Western region that publicly prescribed the creation of a Middle Belt state. It was to be a symbiotic relationship between both parties as the AG also needed to ally with a minority group to earn itself a national image that would help it win the federal elections. The other two regional parties, NCNC and NPC also married other minority groups that would help them in achieving the ultimate goal.

Prior to this time, the Willink Commission had been set up by the British government in 1957 to look into the fears of and intervene in the growing agitation of the minority groups following unending petitions alleging marginalisation by regional majorities. It was at the Jos hearing of the Willink Commission that the minority group leaders, who were united under the UMBC umbrella, came forward to air their grievances.

On the religious front, middle belters were apprehensive that it would be nearly impossible for non-Muslims to build churches without seeking permission whereas that was not the case for Muslims who had gained privileges to build mosques without permit. Meanwhile, on the ethnic front, testifiers at the hearing alleged Hausa-Fulani domination. According to them, the caliphate sought to control and treated non-Caliphate indigents with disdain and it didn’t matter if they were Muslims; in fact, Hausas did not consider them Muslims.

Additionally, they raised concerns based on neglect in educational activities and civil service recruitment. They owed their educational development to Christian missionaries and alleged further that civil service jobs were being handed only to Hausas and Fulanis. They feared that the exit of the British government would leave them at the mercy of their oppressors whose actions had pushed them to an extent where they had to inculcate the Hausa mode of dressing to access certain entitlements.

Although the Willink Commission acknowledged the fears of the minority groups as genuine, it failed to recommend any solutions as regards the ultimate clamour which was the creation of states.

In present-day Nigeria, the agitation for autonomy for the Middle Belt is still as strong as it is loud. In 2017, the Youth President, Southern Kaduna Peoples Union, Mr Nasiru Jagaba reiterated on behalf of the Middle Belt Patriotic Front that the Middle Belt and the North remain separate entities, “We the people of the Middle Belt of Nigeria, wish to let the world know that we are not a part of Northern Nigeria and nobody in the northern part has the mandate to speak for us”.

The Middle Belt which used to be recognised as Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa, Kogi and Kwara has now expanded to include Niger, Taraba and the Southern parts of Kaduna, Kebbi, Bauchi, Yobe and Gombe. As instrumental as the Middle Belters were to the regional parties who needed to win the federal elections at the time, there is still the widespread belief among the marginalised group that they serve as the bridge between the North and the South.

We are a crisis away from violence on the magnitude of the Jos and Kaduna Riots of the 2000’s.

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