By Ochereome Nnanna
SHORTLY after the highly emotive burial of 73 victims of genocide being perpetrated by the Fulani militia in Benue and other states of the Federation, Governor Samuel Ortom took Benue leaders to see President Muhammadu Buhari in Aso Villa, Abuja, a case of reversed protocol. The normal thing all over the world is for the bereaved to sit in his house and receive sympathisers. Perhaps the Benue delegation decided that if Muhammadu would not go to the mountain, then the mountain would go to Muhammadu.
President Buhari, who had kept aloof and unconcerned about the atrocities being perpetrated by criminals, some of whom were alleged to be foreign mercenaries, told Benue people: “accommodate your fellow countrymen”. He was giving an answer that had little to do with the problem. Benue and other Nigerians have for decades accommodated Fulani herdsmen because they never threatened anyone. In fact, Nigerians gradually abandoned their own native styles of livestock farming because the meat from the North through the cows, chickens, goats and guinea fowls was within easy reach.
I don’t know if Buhari will, for a moment, “accommodate” people who come to destroy his ranch, kill his people and their livestock, chase them out and occupy the land they inherited from their forefathers. I don’t know if he would tolerate for one fleeting second a situation where such stranger elements begin to lay claim to the land, citing some queer story of real or imaginary conquests in prehistoric times as one Prof. Mohammed Labdo of Northwest University, Kano offensively wrote. According to Labdo, Benue is “and parcel of the Sokoto Caliphate” and as such “belongs to the Fulani people by right of conquest”. Even If this was true, the British colonialists came and conquered everybody, including the Fulani. They later granted us independence, which means no empire currently exists in Nigeria. This is the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a country of free citizens.
In a sharp retort, one Prof. Ihembe Martin countered Labdo, saying the Tiv and other people of Benue were never overcome by the Caliphate jihadists. He proved his point that Benue is the only state in the North that does not have an emir, which is an enduring evidence and trademark of Fulani conquests. Secondly, the Hausa language is not indigenously spoken in the state as obtains in other parts of the North.
My own addition to that: the number of indigenes who practise Islam is so negligible that the position of Deputy Governor has never been conceded to Muslims. In fact, there is very little that is “Northern” about Benue, except the fact that the British colonialists unilaterally put it in the geographical North for the usual excuse of administrative convenience. Benue cosmology is essentially a South-East/South-South one.
Before the Nigerian civil war, Benue (especially Tiv) political leaders such as Joseph Tarka, had subscribed more to the political ideology of the Chief Obafemi Awolowo school of thought. They shared the same burning desire for freedom from internal and foreign colonialism. That was why the Tiv leadership formed the Middle Belt, which was meant to differentiate them from the defunct Northern Region. Middle Belt political leaders enjoyed the support and encouragement of Awo, who helped train and arm their youth militia to confront and contain efforts by Sardauna Ahmadu Bello’s government to use the police and the army to subdue the Tiv people. Prof. Remi Anifowose catalogues these in great detail in his book: Violence and Politics in Nigeria: The Tiv and Yoruba Experience.
Two things have become evident to me. Number one, the clashes between the Fulani and Benue people as encapsulated in Labdo and Ihembe’s claim and counter-claim is a longstanding, historic one. Number two, before the Nigerian civil war, the Tiv had been uncompromising in the defence of their land. But the Benue and Middle Belt people as a whole have a common weakness: unlike their Fulani counterparts they are not firmly focused on their strategic interests. They are easily distracted by ephemeral offerings which the other side capitalises on to have a tighter grip on their commonwealth.
After the first coup of 1966 which the North and elements of the Lagos press termed an Igbo coup aimed at grabbing power from the North, it was very easy for the Middle Belt people to forget their differences and join with the Fulani and the North in a war that was more than just restoring the unity of Nigeria. It was more of a quest for vengeance by the Fulani not only to remove Igbo from relevance in Nigerian politics but also to reassert their hold on it and on indigenous peoples.
The Middle Belt people formed the core of the fighting forces that subdued Biafra. They also participated in the anti-Igbo pogroms as part of the North. When the “restructuring” debate was going on a few months ago, the Governor Ortom of Benue State dismissed those clamouring for it as “popularity seekers”. Now, after burying 73 dead bodies massacred by the Fulani herdsmen militia, he is in support of it. In fact, many Benue people are now toying with the idea of pulling out of the North and becoming a Southern state. Most Middle Belt leaders do not think through issues of the national question and how it affects their people. They respond capriciously to issues which is why they find themselves moving this way and that.
The time has come for Benue State, with its strategic interests boldly defined and adopted by their people, to decide where they want to belong. Since the six geopolitical zones are not yet part of our immutable constitution, Benue can swing South and become part of the South-South zone. Nobody can stop them if they make the decision. The South has shown more willingness to rise to the defence of the Middle Belt, while most of the problems (attacks, marginalisation and medieval-like imperial expansionism) faced by that zone are caused by their regional majority.
If Benue summons the courage to switch to the South, it will equalise the Federation. The North will have 18 states and so will the South. Both sides can then bargain on equal terms on every national question-matter.
Unfortunately, the South does not even have a common platform though they share common strategic interests. I think this is where much of the problem of the Middle Belt lies. Can an inchoate and disunited South be trusted to stand together when push comes to shove? The journey to that destination is a very far and tedious one, and no one has even embarked on it.