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2019: Has the Middle Belt been roused from sleep?

After years of lying in limbo, the Middle Belt geopolitical zone last Friday rose up to make a claim for political relevance when it threw up four persons to represent the interest of the zone in the forthcoming presidential election.

By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor

Former member of the House of Representatives and director of communications of the Middle Belt Forum, MBF, Mr. Jonathan Asake was yesterday lamenting the fate of the region which had in the past been a bedrock for Northern solidarity and to wit, the north’s engagement with the rest of the nation.

Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim
Politician and activist, he was the first National Deputy Publicity Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party. He is the youngest of the four and has solid pro-democracy credentials from his University of Lagos days and was recognized by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience in 1989.

“In fact, there is no time that the Middle Belt has been left out in the cold like now,” he said in response to a question on the reward the region has gotten for its near solid vote for President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2015 presidential election.

All but Plateau and Taraba States voted almost overwhelmingly for Buhari in that historic election.

Perhaps it was arising from that the regional leaders last Friday sat down to appraise the about a dozen presidential aspirants that have emerged from the region for the 2019 general elections. At the end of their deliberations, the group picked four men who the leaders said would be marketed to other geopolitical zones for consideration.

The four men who were adopted by the leaders to represent the interest of the zone at the meeting in Abuja were Senator Jonah Jang, Mr. Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim, Dr. Obadiah Malafia and Prof. Jerry Gana.

Though not a geopolitical zone, the Middle Belt region straddles across 13 of the country’s 19 northern states from the Northwest through the North Central to the Northeast geopolitical zones.

Prof. Jerry Gana
Former minister, senator he was one of the founders of the PDP. He has a solid reputation of having come out without a scandal despite his numerous years of service in different arms and positions in government.

In some states like Kebbi, Kaduna and Borno, however, only southern parts of the states are fittingly reported as Middle Belt.

The states in the region include Kwara, Kogi, Niger, FCT, Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Borno (South), Bauchi (South), Kaduna, Kebbi, Taraba, and Nassarawa.

The four men were adopted following a meeting by some of the Middle Belt region’s leading personalities in Abuja. The meeting chaired by NADECO activist, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman had some of the region’s more leading personalities present at the meeting. Present at the meeting were former Adjutant-General of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Zamani Lekwot, former Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Ishaya Bamaiyi, former Governor of old Gongola State, Mr. Wilberfore Juta, former Governor of old Kwara State, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, Mr. Sam Ada Maagbe, and Chief John Odakun.

The intervention of the regional leaders follows years of limbo when the interests of the region were largely relegated as a result of apathy, infighting, and political intrigues.

The Middle Belt Forum, MBF which had articulated the interests of the region was also dogged by the same factors, especially after the penultimate chairman of the group, Prof. Jerry Gana was reported to have deliberately toned down his profile ahead of the 2019 presidential contest.

Indeed, Gana handed over the mantle of leadership of the MBF to Dr. Bala Takaya who, however, passed on in early June, putting the fate of the region into question.

Even more, the reconstitution of the leadership of the forum with Mrs. Paullen Tallen, a prominent pro Buhari person as the woman leader did not help matters as some felt that it was an erosion of the MBF’s stance on political neutrality.

Even more, the region has been challenged by a crisis of confidence arising from the spate of insecurity around the region, notably in Taraba, Benue and Plateau States.

Dr. Obadiah Malafia
Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, he has a rich background in development finance and the corporate world.
The economist cum banker was also a special adviser to the President on Economic and Policy Matters.

The spate of killings and perceptions of marginalization despite its sizeable contributions to the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari had lately forced the group to seek political collaboration with other geopolitical blocs; notably the three Southern regional blocs, Ohaneze, Afenifere and the South-South.

Regional leaders have since the beginning of the year held different strategic meetings with the Southern leaders in Enugu and Lagos towards coming out with a common focus ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Senator Jonah Jang
The immediate past governor of Plateau State has a rich experience in public life and as a pro-democracy activist having been one of the prominent Nigerians who fought for the actualization of the result of the June 12, 1993 election and a member of the G-34 which fought the Gen. Sani Abacha regime.

The decision to come up with four of its own as possible presidential candidates is believed to be the group’s assertion of its political weight.

The four persons are to be presented for acceptability to other geopolitical zones in the country by the Middle Belt leaders.

The intervention of the Middle Belt leaders in the 2019 political permutation is expected to raise the bar given the significant influence of the region in Nigeria’s presidential elections.

Middle Belt as political goldmine

The region with the notable exception of Plateau and Taraba voted almost overwhelmingly for the All Progressives Congress, APC and its presidential candidate in the 2015 presidential election. Besides the reported reasons of perceived other regions of the country voted against Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, the Middle Belt was particularly bitter that he took the region for granted by always trying to mollify the Hausa Fulani at the cost of the Middle Belters.

Asked yesterday of the zone’s assessment of the zone’s reward for its vote for Buhari in 2015, Asake, said:

“He is not even trying to compensate the Middle Belt, he is trying to kill the Middle Belt. It is not even like compensation, because there is nothing like compensation, he is trying to kill the Middle Belt.

“In every way possible, the Middle Belt is not protected, there is a continuous invasion of Middle Belt communities and foreigners are taking over the communities and nothing is being done to resettle them and so, they cannot go to their farms, so hunger is looming in the land. This is even compounded by the fact that the Middle Belt is the undisputed food basket of the nation.”

Benue as a landmark

One of the key indices that have characterized presidential elections in the country is the exceptional position of Benue in siding with all winning presidential candidates since the advent of presidential democracy in 1979. Benue backed Shehu Shagari in 1979, 1983, MKO Abiola in 1993, Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, 2003, Umaru Yar‘Adua in 2007; Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 and Muhammadu Buhari in 2015.

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