The Middle Belt Forum (MBF) recently held a crucial conference to review the state of the nation as it concerns the indigenous ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria. In this interview, President of the MBF, Dr Bitrus Pogu tells ONWUKA NZESHI that his people are the silent majority in the North but have been subjugated under the oligarchy and reduced to hewers of wood and fetchers of water
The Middle Belt Forum held a conference recently in Abuja and took some far-reaching decisions. What was the essence of that meeting?
The meeting was tagged: ‘Re-awakening’ because our people have gone to sleep; they are not on the alert and people are not having the correct information about what is happening to us to the extent that some of our people have lost their sense of direction. So we wanted our people to come back to the realisation of who they are as Middle Belters, different from other Northerners. We also want them to know their position in the developments that are unfolding in the country.
For example, we want them to put in correct and proper perspective, all the attacks launched by the herdsmen on our people and communities. We believe these attacks are a calculated agenda for land grabbing and change of demography rather than herder-farmer conflict as some people call them. If it was herdsmen clashing with farmers, it would have been a different thing.
During our conference, we had two papers-one, telling us who we are and the second paper telling us about the state of the nation as it relates to the Middle Belt region. These were the areas we dwelt on as a form of sensitization so that our people can be re-awakened to their responsibilities in the unfolding scenarios in Nigeria.
Who and who were at your conference?
It was a delegates’ conference, so we had people who were selected from various ethnic nationalities to represent each state of the Middle Belt. We had very fruitful deliberations and took a number of important resolutions which we captured in our communiqué.
When you mentioned the term Middle Belt states, are you referring to the six states of the North Central?
It goes beyond that geographic space known as North Central zone. Middle Belters are non-Hausa/Fulani people of the North and they are spread all over the North. Initially, it included the Kanuri but the Hausa/Fulani eventually absorbed them even though some of them had in the past benefited from the Middle Belt struggle.
The late Ibrahim Imam is a Kanuri whom Joseph Tarka, one of the founding fathers of the Middle Belt Movement took from Borno and fielded him on the ticket of the Middle Belt Congress and he was elected to represent the Tiv people..
So essentially, all ethnic nationalities in the North apart from the Hausa/Fulani are part of the Middle Belt. We span from the North West in places like Kebbi and Kaduna to the North Central where it is holistic down to the North East where we have some of our people in Southern Borno, Southern parts of Gombe, Adamawa, Taraba and even parts of Bauchi and Yobe. These are the states where the Middle Belters are found in Nigeria.
So when we talk of the Middle Belt as it is, a lot of people do not understand that we actually constitute a large chunk of the population in Northern Nigeria.
The leadership of the Middle Belt Movement has been rotating across these ethnic nationalities and states that I had mentioned earlier.
I am from Chibok in Southern Borno and my predecessor, the late Bala Takaya was from Adamawa. His predecessor in the struggle was Prof. Jerry Gana from Niger State. Before Prof. Jerry Gana, we had Chief Isaac Shaahu from Benue and before him, we had Air Commodore Dan Suleiman (rtd) from Adamawa; before Suleiman, we had the late Chief Solomon Lar from Plateau. Before Lar, it was the late Dr Olusola Saraki from Kwara and before him it was Gen. T.Y Danjuma (rtd). I am just taking you down memory lane so that you can understand the spread.
So, we have come this far because the Middle Belt Movement started even before Nigeria’s independence in 1960. In fact it started in the early 1950s and metamorphosed to what it is today. It used to be called the Middle Belt Congress but now it is known as the Middle Belt Forum.
If the Middle Belt is such a large group spread all across the North, why are you seen as minorities and crying of marginalization in the North?
Right from the onset, the Northern oligarchy, represented by the Hausa/Fulani had an undue advantage over us. The British colonial masters worked with them and handed over power to them at independence.
But before then, the British set up the Willinks Commission which went round and met with the various ethnic groups across the then Northern Region. They went as far as to Numan, Wukari and other places where ethnic nationalities other than the Hausa/Fulani and Kanuri occupied to feel the pulse of the people.
The Commission made recommendations that these groups considered to be in the minority needed to be treated separately but it was never done. Nigeria is where it is today because some of those recommendations were never implemented. We have copies of the Willinks Commission Report and you need to read it for you to understand to background of our struggle.
The truth is that we are not minorities when we come as a group because we constitute a larger group than these people in terms of numbers.
Unfortunately, the oligarchy and the Emirate system in the North, lumped so many of these ethnic nationalities together and subsumed them under the Emir and denied them of their independence. For example, my place, Chibok, is still under Borno Emirate till today. In fact, it took us revolting before the Borno Emirate started appointing District Heads of Chibok origin. There are such cases all over the place.
Let take for example, the Sayawa ethnic group, where the former Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara comes from, also has similar problems with the Fulani oligarchy in Bauchi Emirate. They don’t want to recognise the Sayawa people as an entity of their own having their own traditional institution in spite of the fact that they have a large population. These problems have continued to exist within the Middle Belt.
Last year, when the massacre in Plateau took place, more than 200 Beroms were killed, the Miyetti Allah came out boldly to claim responsibility for the bloodshed because they felt that the lives of the Beroms don’t mean anything and they can wipe them out the way they wish.
But recently, when the daughter of Fasoranti, the Afenifere leader was killed, even though it was just one person, they were afraid to even not own up to what they did because they know that the Yoruba is one big block and there could be serious consequences.
Look at the Federal Capital Territory where the Gwaris constitute the local majority, yet no Gwari or Gbagi man has even been appointed a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
So when we see all these things happening, we have to come together as a united group to be able to stand because we cannot just continue to allow the North to be using us and exploiting the whole country. Without us, they cannot even win any election because they don’t have the numbers.
In the communique issued at the end of your last conference, you said that henceforth, the Middle Belt will adopt a collective resistance approach to any further attack on Middle Belt people. What do you mean by this?
Ehhm… you see, the issue is that struggles, liberation struggles or what ever you may call them happen in stages. We are getting to the stage where we have to collectively come together and defend the weaker ones among us. There are groups in the Middle Belt that have been suffering continous attacks from forces of the oppressors in the North. The Fulanis will come, invade villages, kill the Middle Belters, they will own up to it, but nobody will be arrested and prosecuted for those crimes. Even those who will come out openly and say: We did it, will never be arrested.
By the time we have reached the threshold where we can call anybody’s bluff, you will know what we mean by collective resistance.
Are we expecting that when they attack Middle Belt people in Plateau, Benue, Taraba and other places, you will all rise up to the challenge?
We will continue to speak out against such attacks and as to what we will do, when the time comes, you will know.
We understand that since you made these declarations at your last meeting, you and some of you lieutenants have been under intense pressure from the Northern oligarchy to retrace your steps. Is this true?
As leader of the Middle Belt Forum, nobody has come to me or approached me to do anything. The truth of the matter is that I’ve been in this kind of struggle for a long time. I’ve been in it right from the Chibok area to this point and you know some people like us will not back down anyway. But I know that so many of our members have been approached, some have been threatened and whatever… whatever.
The issue is that we have reached the stage where we can say categorically, as we have said, that the North as it is, we don’t belong because some people think we have no stake there.
Right from the time Obasanjo was President, there were ministers from the Middle Belt who were appointed and the far North said these are not their own. What do they mean? Are they saying that because the people so appointed were not Hausa/Fulani? Or are they saying so because these people were not Moslems? What does that mean?
So as far as we are concerned, if you don’t want us, we don’t want you; we don’t need you. We can survive on our own and we are now putting up that pressure. We are educating and sensitising our people on the need for self recognition and self determination, so that our people who constitute the larger part of the North can tell these people that: Look, Enough is Enough. You’re using us to control Nigeria. Let every Nigerian chart the way forward for themselves
We have been used during the civil war. It was our people who fought the Civil War and today, the people who are enjoying the fruits of that war are these same people who used us. So many of these people did not go to the war. The bulk of the people who fought the war were Middle Belters. If today they say they want to fight another civil war, we will tell our people no; we’re not going to fight any civil war against anybody. If you want to challenge the people, go and challenge them and all of you will sort it out.
We are the true Nigerians. We are the aborigines of Nigeria. Even if they want to break up, let them go where they want to go. We are here and we are partnering with our Southern brothers because we believe that when you oppress people, they can forge a stronger alliance and rescue themselves and that is what we are doing.
The North is usually together whenever it is time for elections, are you saying that if there is an election today, the Middle Belters would be ready to take their destiny in their own hands?
Certainly. Just wait and see. It will require dedication and it will require enlightenment. As people get more and more enlightened about who they are, you will see the difference.
What would you consider as the greatest challenge facing the people of the Middle Belt in Nigeria today?
Of course, apart from the fact that we have some states that can stand on their own, Middle Belters are impoverished. Our people are largely impoverished and we are not in control of anything in Nigeria. This is why we have to start afresh to build ourselves.
Let me give you an example – in the 50s and 60s, the North depended on the groundout and cotton pyramids as well as the tin mining on the Plateau. Today, we have Ajaokuta which is in the Middle Belt but it couldn’t take off. Now let me ask you this simple question: If the Ajaokuta Steel Company were to be in Katsina, would it be where it is in spite of all its potentials? So, the issue is that we are impoverished and our land is now being taken over forcefully whether through grazing reserve, cattle colony, ruga or aggression by Fulani insurgents and bandits. I think they are insurgents because even the international community sees them as such.
The result is all over the place for everyone to see. Go to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. It is the Middle Belters that you will find there because their communities have been sacked and taken over by these insurgents.
In Plateau State, they have even gone ahead to change the names of these communities that the Fulani herdsmen have taken over to Fulani names. That is now to say we are now practicing some kind of internal colonisation and annexation of territories. It is as if there is no democracy and rule of law in Nigeria.
How can some armed invaders come, sack a village, kill the people and take over their community when we have a government, the Nigeria Army and the Nigeria Police? Nobody cares. Nobody arrests anybody. They settle there and rename the place and it is now their own. Our ancestral lands are being taken; it cannot continue and we are going to resist it. Very soon, it is either they leave on their own or they will be sacked. We cannot continue like this.
Are there sons of the Middle Belt who are governors and are working with you on this project?
Of course there are and we are consulting them. I can’t name them now. All I can say is that there are some who have come out openly to identify with us and there are also others who are covertly saying: Yes, we are with you, but we cannot come out.
Whatever may be the case, once you are a Middle Belter, we cannot say we don’t want you. All of us are one and the same. Middle Belt is not about religion, it is about collective interest for survival under an oligarchy that has been so domineering and so ruthless. Look at how appointment are being made under the current dispensation. Middle Belters contributed to President Muhammadu Buhari’s coming to office but he doesn’t see us as people existing in the country. So we are waiting. The time is going, the clock is ticking and everybody is wisening up every day as the time goes on.
What would be your message to your fellow Middle Belters and other Nigerians at this time?
Middle Belters should unite and be resolute that they are true Nigerians. They have no other place than Nigeria. They should stand firm wherever God has placed them in Nigeria.
To other Nigetians, I want to tell them that Middle Belters are the most peace-loving people; they are accommodating and they are true Nigerians. We are committed to having a united Nigeria where every one is equal and none is inferior to the other.
All the divisive forces whether it is Boko Haram, insurgents or bandits, came from the North. They didn’t come from the South; they didn’t come from the Middle Belt. They all came from the North. They should stop it so that Nigeria can move ahead. All divisive forces whether through government of through individuals, let them stop so that Nigeria can move ahead and let us have a better country.