We reject any attempt to detach north central from the north by any group —Kwande
A former Nigerian Ambassador to Switzerland, who is also a co-chairman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Alhaji Yahaya Kwande, speaks with ISAAC SHOBAYO on the raging controversies over the craving for a separate identity for Middle Belt from the North and the identification of some local governments and communities in the North West and North East as parts of the Middle Belt. Excerpts:
Sir, from all indications, the North is currently fragmented and no longer speaks with one voice. There is Middle Belt within the north which seems to be aligning more with the Southern part of the country than the North. What is your opinion on this disunity?
Those talking about factions in the North are not being sincere to themselves; those listening to them too are not honest. We go by law in this country. There is North which is northern Nigeria and South which is southern Nigeria. When you go to the South you will find South-South, South West and South East, are these not factions of the South? The North Central is also a faction of the North, but all these don’t stop the division of North and South recognised by the government. What people see as factions in the North is just in nomenclature of calling it the Middle Belt. Of course there is Middle Belt because there’s a belt between the North and South. You may call it Middle Belt because some of our leaders like the late Joseph Tarka, Ijumu, Chief Solomon Lar and others propounded the idea of Middle Belt. It was a division in its own right; it was founded to champion the interest of the Middle Belt within the Northern region. They felt that area was being marginalised but that had since been addressed because the six areas then considered as ‘Middle Belt’ has now become six states recognised as the North Central zone. These states Kogi, Kwara, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba are now North Central. The issue of marginalisation which formed the basis of the Middle Belt agitation has been taken care of by former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon who is also from the Middle Belt.
The question now is who is oppressing the Middle Belt or any state in the North Central? Every state in the zone has a government. Unlike in the first republic, they don’t have to go to Kaduna to take order or permission to do anything. It can be called any name but the fact remains that the Middle Belt is not a political party, it is just a historical name which has been overtaken by events. It used to be the vogue when they felt they were being marginalised in terms of appointments by the far north. Another question is why do they want to put the Middle Belt together again? They failed when they were together, they couldn’t develop it as a group because they felt they were being dominated. But today they are on the same footing with other states in the country. Let me tell you, if Middle Belt is a pressure group within the geographical location recognised as the North Central, I belong to it because it will be a watchdog of what is happening in the area. But if you are talking of the Middle Belt that extends to one thousand kilometers from the concept of what we know as middle belt, it means you are aiming at something else.
In discussing national issues, it seems the Middle Belt is seen as an entity outside the concept of the core north?
You cannot put something on anything. What are they putting the middle belt on, are they a political party thinking one day they would win the election? I want you to know that it is not Afenifere that is the only group in the South West and Ohaneze is not the only group in the South East. I am not saying they should not call themselves Middle Belt, but they should stop fooling the people that the Middle Belt consists of some places in the North East and North West and also that the president of Middle Belt association is from Chibok. Jos, the Plateau State capital is supposed to be the headquarters of this association but where do you find the office? What are these Middle Belt leaders fighting for? I want to say that I belong to the Middle Belt that is within the North Central zone. The ideal Middle Belt should stand for the interest of all irrespective of religious and tribal affiliations within the zone; but as soon as you cross over to get other people outside the zone to be part of this, you are missing it completely. I still stand by my words that they are deceiving the people of Middle Belt. Only two leaders there are talking, what is their mission? The original mission was to stop domination of our people and that aspect had been cleared by Gowon.
Are you not disturbed that the interest of the North is divided?
There is division of interest everywhere in the country. Are you telling me there is no division of interest in the Southern part of the country? It is part of democracy but the most important is to sit down to harness your interest in order to help your people. That is what we are doing in the Northern Elders Forum.
Are you saying national issues should be discussed along north/south lines?
I am a member of Northern Elders Forum. I am also from the Middle Belt. We had met several times in Abuja with the people of South-South, led by Chief Edwin Clark. However, we are always surprised that the Middle Belt representatives often sit with them on one side and the north on the other side, whereas some of us from the middle belt led the north to the meeting. It is funny; it is always South South/Middle Belt versus the North. We always laugh at them. In one of the meetings we had before the election, the Middle Belt and the South were sitting together on one side, they were talking to the North and that north they were talking to included I. Are they saying I am no longer from the Middle Belt because I am a Muslim?
How do you think this mutual suspicion can be eliminated?
I am still saying that we are northerners, we are also a pressure group. If there is anything that is not favourable that is peculiar to the North Central, we should discuss it within the North. Is it not absurd that some people are still talking of maginalisation within the confines of the North when there is equal opportunity for every state to develop at its own pace?
There is the contention that the far North is not keen about the happenings in the Middle Belt but only remembers the zone whenever election is approaching. They cited the example of the killings in the Middle Belt which the far north has not made any official statement to condemn?
There is nothing that happened that the north has not shown interest, it is a mere allegation to justify their position. There is the need for all us to come together and confront the challenges confronting us collectively. The era of maginalisation is over, those trying to cause division should have a rethink. I also want to emphatically state that our region is identified by pluralism of faith and ethnic identities as well as historical roles as the bridge of the nation, which geography and our politics have made us. Our history, destiny, mode of life have always been Northern. We reject any attempts to detach our communities from others in the North by negative and opportunistic interests; or identify us with characteristics of faith or political disposition which are fictional.
Sir, are you still saying they have no right to come together to discuss their peculiar problem?
There is freedom of association but what we are saying is that we disagree with the idea of the Middle Belt that goes beyond the geographical area of the present North Central zone. Our part of the north will continue to champion the rights of all communities that make it up, and we will work with all Nigerians to improve our unity and our socio-economic well-being. The political division remains the South West, South South, South East, all of them in the South while the North remains North East, North Central and North West. The era of complaints about maginalisation is over. Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State, from the Middle Belt, is the Chairman of Northern Governors Forum while Reverend Yakubu Pam is the Northern Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria. I am advising those self-employed, styled leaders to have a rethink. The north is one. The era maginalisation is gone.