Puzzle over Nigeria’s unity as North Central rediscovers identity
That Nigeria is more divided today than ever before is no longer news. It is already manifesting with the North Central geopolitical zone that appear set to break away and seeking self-actualization from the core north. The North Central had been lackadaisical about its own identity while it tagged along the north as an appendage, as though there was an agreement to continue playing second fiddle.
The zone has always been useful in giving the north needed numerical, bargaining strength when it comes to dividing the spoils of national resource. Now, it seems the north is unraveling, with things falling apart for Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), as prominent leaders from Nigeria’s North Central zone recently decided to take their destiny in their own hands to opt out of the northern grouping.
They cited worsening insecurity in northern Nigeria as major reason. The leaders said the forum would also be deployed to tackle socio-economic marginalization the region suffers. The announcement of the birth of North Central Peoples Forum (NCPF) means that the zone is finally breaking away from the stranglehold of the core north
In recent times, there have been unspoken feelings of disenchantment by the majority in the zone. Unlike the other five geopolitical zones in the country that enjoy consanguinity, the North Central has been tied to the apron strings of the north to the detriment of its development. While other zones have in place their common socio-political and economic platforms, where they meet to discuss their strength and weaknesses with a view to promoting development, the North Central, on the other hand, has been at the mercy of larger north.
Thus, with a feeling of being taken for a ride for too long, the leaders have finally realised the ACF cannot champion the region’s cause. Forming a platform for such purposes became a necessity for the six states that make up the North Central geopolitical zone.
For the new leaders of NCPF, the zone is like the weeping child of the north and the federation. It has faced the worst security challenges occasioned by unprovoked aggression from herdsmen within and outside the larger north. The devastating result has been the destruction of their farmlands, killings and maiming of their citizens, kidnappings and all forms of criminality. Also, there’s the sudden realisation that the zone is the most under-developed despite its contributions to the development of the country.
Weighed down by these challenges, the North Central would seem to have woken up from its long slumber. It is now searching for its soul and identity and the right leadership to champion its embattled people. Remaining with the core north, in their reckoning, would mean a gradual extermination before they realised it.
However, there seems to be some mix up between the new NCPF and another splinter group in the region, the Middle Belt Forum (MBF) that has been in existence for decades. While the NCPF is made up of Kogi, Nassarawa, Niger, Kwara, Plateau, and Benue States, membership of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF) seems geographically indeterminate. One of the questions agitating many is, which states qualify to be Middle Belt Forum?
From tabulated and web sources, locations and regions which have been categorised as constituting the Middle Belt include the conventional North Central states – Kwara, Kogi, Plateau, Niger, Benue, Nasarawa States and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. This is in addition to a number of Christian-dominated sub-regions in some North Eastern and North Western states such as Southern parts of Kaduna Taraba, Kebbi (Zuru), Adamawa (Numan), Gombe, Bauchi, Yobe, and Bornu States.
Thus, contrary to popularly held notion and flowing from the above knowledge, the ‘middle-belt’ appears to lack designated physical ‘borders’, being more of a category that is characterised by heterogeneity and diversity of its ‘peoples’ in terms of ethnicity, religion and culture.
What the Middle Belt, however, has in common is the ‘minority’ factor of tribes and religion. And this is unaltered regardless of the significant presence of other majority tribes and religions within these regions such as the Kanuri or Hausa/Fulani and Islam.
However, this would seem a strange way of identifying a people. While the term ‘Middle Belt’ has been in existence and in use since the 1950s pre-independence Nigeria (the defunct United Middle Belt Congress – UMBC, led by Joseph Tarka), the term ‘North Central’ (states) as a region, however, came into existence in the 1990s under the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s regime.
The question then is: why wasn’t the region accurately named ‘Middle Belt’ region when the six geopolitical zones were delineated? Was it omitted to actualise a ‘one big north’ agenda?
While addressing journalists in Abuja on the matter, the group said in spite of the abundant mineral and human resources in the zone, the North Central was bedevilled by vices like herdsmen’s aggression, kidnapping, banditry and other forms of criminality.
The new North Central group is being led by a former Minister of State for Health, Gabriel Aduku as its interim chairman. A former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Senator Jerry Useni, former Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, former Military Administrator of Kwara State, Col. David Bamigboye (rtd), and former Deputy Chief of Staff to the President, Chief Olusola Akanmode, are also listed as members.
Others are the Publisher of Leadership Newspaper, Sam Nda-Isaiah, former Nigeria Ambassador to South Africa, Ahmed Ibeto, media consultant, Alhaji Tajudeen Kareem, former Deputy Governor of Benue State, Chief Stephen Lawani, and Alhaji Alfa Mohammed.
Useni told journalists that the existence of similar groups in other parts of the country had given rise to group affinity and solidarity among the states in a particular geopolitical zone to canvass things of common interest.
He expressed confidence that the forum would unite the people of Benue, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau, and the Federal Capital Territory in their quest to ensure that peace and stability was established and sustained within the zone.
He added that the forum would pursue rapid industrialisation across all nooks and crannies of the zone.
He also said the group would pursue policies and processes that would ensure that the zone’s massive solid mineral and agricultural endowments were adequately harnessed.
He said, “The forum is also aimed at ensuring cooperation and support for the good policies and administration of the six governors of the zone, irrespective of our political, religious and ethnic differences.
“We will support and cooperate fully with the Federal Government for full and complete implementation of infrastructure and development projects situated in the zone and the involvement of the people of the zone in the national affairs of the country.
“We will promote, defend and strengthen North Central unity and the interest of its people in the context of one indivisible Nigeria and to contribute to the safeguarding of her territorial integrity. Consequently, every zone now has a common socio-political platform where they meet to discuss their strength and weakness with the view to propounding and promoting progress and development of the zone.”
FOR the newly formed NCPF, however, many contradictions abound. The current ACF chairman and former Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, hails from North Central zone.
When contacted on the new body, Ogbeh said his being the leader of ACF was not something he bargained for, stating, “When I was made chairman, I wasn’t even there. They met in Kaduna and decided it; I didn’t even know. On the other hand, there were people within ACF, who wanted to be chairman, but they were not picked. It took me about one month to even accept.
“After leaving office, I have been concentrating on my farm. I said, ‘fine, I accepted.’ Having said that, I had no issues with the emergence of the North Central Peoples Forum. It is not an issue with us in ACF. I mean, this is a democracy and people should be free to associate as convenient and expedient to their needs in a particular area.”
He said the idea of ACF, which is 20 years old, came when they saw decline happening in the North. Ogbeh said ACF came to bring the North together to speak with one voice, to pressurise government and get things done. According to him, the other reason was to keep the North unified so as to minimise the conflict of religion and ethnicity and manage the diversity, saying there are close 300 ethnic groups in the north.
According to him: “In the First Republic, the Sardauna was here; he was not a biased man in the line of religion or politics. I can tell you a story about Cardinal John Onayekan. We were schoolmates at St. Michael Aliade. When school certificate results came out in 1962, we were in form one, he was in form five. He had the best result in West Africa, with nine distinctions.
“Guess who wanted to see him quickly? The Sardauna sent for him and asked him whether he wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge. John said he wanted to be a priest. The Sardauna said, ‘that was okay but if you change your mind you have the scholarship.’
“John said, ‘no he wanted to be a priest.’ Then Ahmadu Bello visited my school in 1963 on his way to the Sardauna’s province. He gave us a gift of two cows and praised our school for having put Northern Nigeria on the educational map of Nigeria.
Ogbeh said when those good men died and the region was split into states and military rule came in, religious sensitivity began to rise and the economy, particularly agriculture, began to decline. He indicated that the native authorities, which played a major role then in developing the region, started declining and dying when civilian rule came.
“The native authorities became totally irrelevant,” Ogbeh said. “As at today, hardship has set in. We were not growing, but we are not paying taxes anymore.
“In those days, once you are of a voting age you have to pay tax. If you don’t pay, they would make you miserable in front of your wife and children. Suddenly, the economy started dying, religious and ethnic sensitivity started growing and you kept hearing of marginalisation.”
He admitted that there were instances where a government comes into power and the major appointments come from one ethnic area, which irritates people, especially sensitive positions. He said if the Northeast elites gather tomorrow and say their region has been bastardised by Boko Haram, that they like as a group to do something about it, “how can we quarrel about that? That is our position; we are not quarrelling.”
He said the North is a very large area that is hopelessly under-developed and facing severe crises, which he had warned about in 2005 at a lecture he gave in Kaduna to the same ACF, when late Chief Awoniyi, Abubakar Rimi, Adamu Ciroma invited him to give a talk.
According to him, “The topic was ‘The North and the future of Nigeria.’ I warned that there was going to be violence and chaos on a scale that had never been seen from looking at the economic and social development of the North. There were those who did not agree with me and there were others who said, ‘well, the North is not like that, we don’t behave that way.’ “But I saw it, because my worry was that for a very long time now since the end of the 1970s, the only industry in the North is either politics, the arms services or the civil service. Gone are the days when we had the industries in Kano and even in places like Benue; the Tilly Gyados of this world; in Jos the Danboyi Zangiel; Bakko Kantagora in Niger State, to mention but a few.”
SENATOR Alex Kadiri, who represented Kogi East Senatorial District under the banner of the All Peoples Party (APP) between 1999 and 2003, expressed caution regarding the formation of any new socio-political grouping in the zone.
According to him, “All the agitators used to be part of ACF. At a point, somebody like Jeremiah Useni became chairman of ACF. What drove them from ACF? They haven’t told us yet. Secondly, at my age if I am joining a group, I look through them. Whether we like it or not, there are people who have current mandates, whether legitimate or illegitimate acquisition of power, but they have mandate. Those of them like that from the Middle Belt, have they taken them into consideration in what they are doing?
“Or would they just exclude them because they are in government? Is Paullen Tallen part of what they are doing? She is a minister from Plateau. Is George Akume part of what they are doing? He is from Benue. Is Lai Mohammed part of what they are doing? Lai Muhammed is from Kwara. Gbemisola Saraki, is she part of what they are doing? Ramatu Tijani, is she part of what they are doing?
“They are not carrying people along and I want them to expand and carry Middle Belters along.
“Thirdly, where is the boundary of Middle Belt, because I know somebody from Borno State, who is very active in this Middle Belt Forum and he is somebody I respect very well and he knows. Dr. Bitrus Pogu is from Borno State and he is an active member of Middle Belt Forum. So, where is the boundary of Middle Belt?
“Finally, the promoters of this enterprise currently seem to be all Christians. Are Middle Belt people all Christians? Or is it another branch of CAN? These are my misgivings about this outfit.”
Another commentator, Mr. Isaac Adaji, said, “Even though we are not political, I want to say that it has come at the right time. We have agitated for this type of self-actualisation as North Central. The formation of this does not mean that we are not relating with other groups.
“It is for us to actually bring ourselves together, have a common voice and because we have a common history, common interest, we have many things we share at the North Central level.
“Not just the resources, our cultural heritage is so much in common that we can flow together. Additionally, we have seen that the development of the North Central has been too slow. It has been at snail’s speed compared to other regions that came together the time North Central came together. Even though we have contributed immensely to the development of Nigeria, development has not really come to us.
“It is always promises upon promises. If North Central is fully developed and all the resources are fully tapped, the country would not go borrowing. There are so many things in North Central, and if Nigeria has harnessed them properly, we won’t go borrowing. Apart from Ajaokuta, there are other things.”