Tuesday Column By Emmanuel Yawe
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When the British colonial masters decided to merge the Northern and Southern protectorates to form a country called Nigeria, they did not anticipate the problems to follow. From the outside, the north looked like a monolith because a lot of state building efforts had been made on this side. The Usman Dan Fodio Jihad of 1804 had created a caliphate under one administrative superstructure covering most parts of the northern protectorate and even beyond.
Thus the north was much more complex and more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. And when you came into the north itself, you found some people who resisted successfully the Othman Danfodio expeditions and were therefore not part of the Sultanate. Popularly called the “Middle Belt” in those days this area was a problem to the north then and still remains one till date.
As the country inched towards independence in the 1950’s, there were serious agitations by the political leaders of this area who wanted an end to being part of the north and advocated for a separate region called the “middle belt”. Because these demands were very vehement, the colonial masters decided to set up a commission to look into the agitations of the minorities before independence in 1960. A political party emerged, The United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC with the sole aim of pursuing this cause.
The most dominant political party in the north, the Northern People’s Congress, NPC was opposed to this new agitation. The leader of the party, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto complained of the futility of this advocacy. “The group advocating for a so called “Middle Belt”, he wrote in his autobiography -“A long slice of country running along both sides of River Niger and Benue and extension to cover Plateau and Southern Zaria. Apart from the fact that it would be physically difficult if not impossible to administer such a peculiarly shaped area, there was nothing to show that the various people making this group would in fact agree amongst each other if they found themselves involved in a new region.”
The agitations were not limited in the north. Down south too, many groups were agitating for a breakaway from the western and eastern regions. Immediately after independence, the Midwestern region was carved out of the western region to give Nigeria a forth region from the three that were there at independence. Still the agitation continued until General Gowon in the heat of the Nigerian civil war created twelve states.
The oddity of the Middle Belt has always been there. Even during the first republic when the UMBC led by Joseph Tarka led the crusade, he did the unusual thing of bringing Ibrahim lmam from Borno province far away from the middle belt and gave him a UMBC ticket to contest elections in Benue province to represent the Jemgbar constituency in the northern House of Assembly. He contested and won.
But the difference between the Middle Belt agitations of those days and the agitations of today is that too much emphasis is placed on religion today. Ibrahim Imam was a Muslim and yet he contested election in a constituency that was almost 100% Christian. If it were today, those in the fore front of Middle Belt or North Central wouldn’t have given him their ticket, let alone allowed him to win. The problem with Middle Belters of today is that they see the struggle as only for Christians forgetting that there are millions of Muslims who are indigenous to the area. In their self-inflicted confusion, sometimes they bring Christians from outside the region and make them leaders of the Middle Belt while Muslims who are from the Middle Belt are excluded from its activities. The result of this confusion is that there are many Middle Belt movements today – each pursuing its own independent agenda and goal.
As if all these were not enough, we woke up one morning to be confronted with the news of the formation of North Central Peoples Forum. The initial signals in the media were that the group was rebelling against the Arewa Consultative Forum whom they accused of marginalizing the North Central. Whoever thought of that line of presentation did not do the new organization any good. Chief Audu Ogbe a two time federal minister was elected in March this year to lead Arewa Consultative Forum as National Chairman. He is an Idoma from Benue. You cannot occupy such a sensitive and powerful office in an organization as chairman and still be yelling that you have been marginalized in it.
This fact may just have dawned on the new group lately. They seem to be retracting their accusations of marginalization against the ACF. Some of their notable leaders are even saying that they are still members of the ACF.
What is evident in their confusion is that they did not hold enough consultations before venturing out to announce the birth of the North Central Peoples Forum. They did not even consult the state governors in the region. The chairman of the North Central Governors Forum, Alhaji Abubakar Sani Bello, Governor of Niger state has announced that governors of his Forum have nothing to do with the group. This looks like the last straw to break the Camel’s back. The reality of power in Nigeria is that you cannot hope to succeed in organizing such a thing without the support of the concerned governors.