Obafemi Awolowo and the struggle of the Middle Belt

A fortnight ago, a bill was proposed by Honourable Kpam Sokpo (PDP, Benue) for enshrining the Six Geopolitical Zones into law while renaming the North Central as “Middle Belt”. Knowing what we know, this bill is a rather tall order. But it raises issues that the educated public needs to understand. The peoples of the Middle Belt certainly reject being subsumed as “North Central”, in a situation where they are being treated as second-class,Bantustan, Dhimmi subjects in an Apartheid North.

Nobody in modern Nigerian politics understood these issues more than the great Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that every treatise on Nigerian federalism is but a mere footnote to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. No one has really thought more deeply or written more originally on Nigerian federalism. He was never a dogmatic thinker. Rather, he saw it as a child of necessity, given our social structure and unique conditions.

Awolowo saw the Middle Belt as the most important bridgehead linking North and South. In his political strategies and electoral tactics, he made it a point to align with the Middle Belt in order to create a coalition of democratic forces that could set our country on the right trajectory for economic and social progress. In 1958, his Action Group party went into alliance with the United Middle Belt Convention (UMBC) led by Joseph Tarka. It was only revealed to us recently by Yoruba Leader Professor Banji Akintoye that the Western Region under Awo was even paying the salary and upkeep for Joseph Tarka and others in order to ensure the viability of the Middle Belt leadership.

Awolowo’s historic motion on Creation of More States in parliament on 4 April 1961 provided a summary of his thinking on federalism in our country. The sage proposed the creation of 10 regions: West, North East, Central, North-Kano, North West, East, Calabar, Rivers and Ogoja.

The great sage was a passionate believer in self-determination for all our ethnic communities. He argued that, “…each ethnic or linguistic group should either have a region of their own now or should have a definite and invincible assurance that, granting financial and administrative viability, they will have a region of their own in the future”.

Long before anyone else did, he saw the dangers inherent in maintaining the North as a behemoth that overshadows other regions: “…the Federation of Nigeria is monstrously abnormal in structure in the sense that one of the three Regions…placing itself in a position where, at its arbitrary and capricious pleasure, it can bend the will of the entire Federation to its own”.

Up to his last political outing in 1978, his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) continued to make overtures to Middle Belt in seeking to build a coalition of progressive forces. Alas, he was denied the supreme prize.

Awo’s ideas are the self-same views that the Middle Belt are espousing today.

The Middle Belt is both a geographical expression as well as a political identity. It is also a state of mind. Like the English constitution, the Middle Belt exists in the hearts and minds of the Middle Belt exists in the heart and minds of the Middle Belt peoples. A Middle Belter is anyone who was historicallynever conquered by the Fulani Jihad. A Middle Belter is also anyone who does not subscribe to Caliphate ideology and the hegemony of the Fulani-dominated sharia political order.

The Middle Belt geographically encapsulates the area normally referred to as “North Central”. But it is much more than that. It extends from Southern Borno to Southern Adamawa, Southern Bauchi, Southern Gombe, Southern Yobe, Southern Kaduna and Southern Kebbi.

The peoples of the Middle Belt are also defined by history. They belong to the great Nok civilisation that flourished in ancient times, with links to the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Egypt of the Pharaohs. The successor to the ancient Nok culture was the great Kwararafa Kingdom that is today symbolised by the Aku Uka of Jukun land and the Atta of the Igalas.

The Middle Belt is an ethnic federation of over a hundred ethnic communities, with a landmass of 300,000 square km and an estimated population of 40 million. It has the richest farmlands, with the highest endowments in terms of minerals and natural resources. They are a tolerant and accommodating people, with a moral conscience shaped by Christianity and the humane traditions of ancient Africa.

The struggle of the Middle Belt peoples goes as far back as the 1900s. The subject of the creation of a Middle Belt region for the non-Muslim populations of the North was heavily debated in the British Parliament. Journalists, intellectuals and experts on colonial administration strongly urged the Colonial Office in London to consider creating an autonomous region for the non-Muslim peoples. Missionaries like Dr. Karl Kumm of the old Sudan United Mission also made strong submissions for that cause. The tribal chiefs from the Kilba, the Lunguda, the Baju, Atyap and others also made strong representations to the colonial overlords to create a Middle Belt region.

The Willink Minority Commission 1957 advocated creation of an autonomous region for the Middle Belt, but the British considered it to be in their long-term strategic interest to preserve a monolithic North that would rule forever. The British clearly sowed the seeds of catastrophe which has continued to haunt our country to this day.One of the laws of federalist theory is that none of the federating units should be large enough to threaten the others. Indeed, Dame Margery Perham, a leading authority on colonial administration, described Nigeria as “tripod” that was programmed to fail.

The fathers of the modern Middle Belt struggle are well known. They include Rev. David Lot, J. S. Tarka, Patrick Dokotri, J. D. Gomwalk, Solomon Daushep Lar, Dan Suleiman, T. Y. Danjuma, Bala Takaya and Jerry Gana. The millions of Middle Belt youths today are demanding a separate identity for themselves. They are tired of being lumped together as part of a monstrous and backward behemoth called the North.

The Middle Belt sacrificed more than anyone else to keep this country together. Without the Middle Belt, Nigeria would not exist.

Over the last decade, the Middle Belt Forum (MBF) has been in dialogue with Afenifere of Yoruba land, PANDEF of the South-South and Ohaeneze Ndigbo of the East. They have discovered their common destiny and are desirous of working together to build a New Nigeria.

The Middle Belt left the North, with whom they share nothing either culturally or politically. What has worsened the divide is the undeclared Jihad being waged against an unarmed and defenceless people. During the recent lockdown, hundreds of innocent children, women, the elderly have been killed. The United States Government and the British House of Lords have recently released reports confirming the existence of religiously-motived killings in Nigeria. The trademark of our latter-day Jihadists is beheading, disembowelment of expectant mothers, hacking of infants, rape, and forced marriages of under-age girls.

The Middle Belt are not hostile to Muslims. They have our own indigenous Muslims with whom they have lived in peace for centuries. What they oppose in violent political Islamism driven by Global Jihad and supported by barbaric regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran. They also reject forcible land take-overs and a Dhimmi second-class status in the land of their ancestors.

In July 2018, the Middle Belt peoples held a Summit in Makurdi, Benue State. The famous Makurdi Declaration that ensued sets out our principles, goals and vision of the Middle Belt for self-determination and for the birth of a New Nigeria.

They reject fraud inherent in the 1999 constitution, which begins with, “We, the people”, when no such agreement was reached with the constituent nationalities that make up our great federation. It is therefore, ipso facto, bereft of moral legitimacy. They demand nothing less than a new constitution with a referendum that ensures that all the peoples of Nigeria decide which region they will belong to, without fear or favour.

The peoples of the Middle Belt take strong exception to the gerrymandering of the structure of our federation in such a manner that favours some while short-changing others. They demand a two-tier federation, with federating units of no more than 10 Regions as envisioned by Awolowo; Regions that shall be economically and financially viable and able to meet their basic obligations in terms of operating elected government, civil service and local police.

It is also the considered view of the Middle Belt that the presidential system and federalism as currently practised amounts to a monstrous Leviathan that sucks the blood of our people. They demand a decentralised parliamentary system that devolves power to the people while allowing them to participate in the governance process that shapes their lives and the future of their children.



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