The Middle Belt In Contemporary Nigerian Politics – By Atah Pine

  • Photo: J.S. Tarka

There is a marked paradigm shift in the articulation of the middle belt agenda by its current propagators. This shift is emblematized by the lack of cooperation and interrogation of issues of mutual governance and development with other stakeholders within the northern geopolitical space. This shift, if care is not taken, may redound on the head of the middle belt; and in the end, collectively portend negative implications on the moral and political hygiene of the nation’s body polity.

For a start, let’s look at the concept of middle belt. To some, it is a geographical entity, a long stretch of land lying in the middle of Nigeria; to others it is premised on religious considerations, specifically, it teems with Christo-indigenous religions in the north; and yet to many others it is based on ethnic minority and cultural diversity. As parabolically varying as these conceptions are related to the tale of the blind men and the elephant; the one thread that runs through them is ideology. It is a pan-Northern minorities ideological movement.

At the time it was trundled-up, northern minorities were apprehensive of the conservatist ideology of NPC, the looming clouds of political marginalisation, domination, and the threat of cultural erosion. These fears had earlier on been voiced at the Willink Commission. These feelings and many more gave vent to the middle belt idea; and the call for a Middle Belt Region. Politically, it was in 1957, that the middle belt got its fillip with the formation of the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) with late Senator J.S. Tarka as the leader.

J.S. Tarka roused the nation from political slumber by ferreting out of the federal interstice critical issues of good governance and nation-building that affected minority ethnic nationalities. He it was that emblazoned the travails of minorities on the political psyche and consciousness of Nigerians. A brilliant politician, he had a knack for epigrammatic erudition, a feat I wager he may had imbibed from reading La Rochefoucauld. The stridency of his agitations for minorities’ rights and iconoclastic pummeling of the ramparts of conservatism complexly combined to entrench the political thought of minoritism and the middle belt in Nigeria’s political calculation. The first wave of states’ creation in Nigeria in 1967 drew from his intellectual inspiration. It is for this and many others that J.S Tarka is reputed to be the father of modern minority politics and the ideological ancestor of middle belt.

In all these, J.S. Tarka never for once demonstrated disdain for the values, cultures and peoples of the north. He saw the middle belt agitations as one of the nodal triptychs of political tendencies in the then northern region; the others being the Northern Elements Progressives Union (NEPU) and Borno Youth Movement (BYM). In the 1961 elections, J.S Tarka broke political records when he brought Mallam Ibrahim Imam to run for a seat of the Northern House of Assembly on the platform of the UMBC to represent the people of Inyamatsor Constituency comprising five clans: Mbagen, Kusuv, Ishorov, Ipav, Etulo. He prevailed on the previous occupant of the seat, Mr. Jacob Mbakaa Indiorhwer, a fellow Tiv and Christian, who had earlier secured the nomination of the party to step down for Mallam Ibrahim Imam, a Muslim and of Kanuri extraction! Imam won and represented the Tiv people in the Northern Nigeria House of Assembly. This is the idea of the Middle Belt at its philosophical and ideological best.

With the demolition of the regional architecture as the framework of Nigeria’s federal system, the dream to have a Middle Belt region has completely gone into the museum of historical memory. Anyone or group of persons canvassing for a Middle Belt region in Nigeria’s federal project is not just in the wrong train station, he or she is waiting for an elusive train that would never show up.

The current propagators of the middle belt agenda are hardly bringing forth its agenda into the political space. They are more interested in alliance politics and countering positions taken by other northern groups and stakeholders. As we approach 2023 elections, for instance, what is the middle belt stake and take on the elections. Does the region want President, Vice President, Senate President Speaker? What exactly? How does such a position reflect the aspirations of the middle belt? What strategic measures and alliances are being forged across the country to actualise these aspirations? What kind of productive dialogue are leaders of the middle belt engaging with other key stakeholders in the north? Stakeholders such as traditional leaders, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), youth groups, women groups, faith-based groups, and so on.

In place of this strategic and consultative approach, the leaders of the zone have taken to a binarist opposition mode of relating to these stakeholders. Once the ACF, NEF, etc, take a position on any national issue, the next day the middle belt leaders, either singly or in alliance with other groups, would issue a communique taking the obverse side. The middle belt leaders rather than being proactive, consultative, strategic and intellectual are reactive, conceptually and intellectually occluded. Their idea of the middle belt appears to be fossilized in primordial sociological sentiments. These sentiments rather than being inclusive are exclusivist, reactive instead of proactive, counterproductive in place of productivity, inflexible rather than flexible, and above all else, dangerous to state- and nation-building.

Let me buttress the above point by siting one case out of many. In the wake of recent contentions by some northern leaders that the door leading to the presidential villa in 2023 should be flung open to competent Nigerians, the leaders of the belt after a meeting with some southern groups issued a communique that railed at this position. An excerpt of the communique reads thus: ‘this arrogant statement of ‘competence’ was originally propagated by Mamman Daura, nephew of President Buhari, who inferred that zoning should be jettisoned to have a competent person become president. Daura’s sentiment has now been adopted by some northern commentators, canvassing that there should be no more rotation and zoning but competence. Giving the impression that there are more educated and competent persons in the North than in the South. That is not only ridiculous but erroneous.’ There is nothing wrong with making a case for a Nigerian president of southern extraction. But the question is: why this meeting for the middle belt leaders to arrive at this position? More importantly, what is the end of political and strategic goods for the middle belt agenda by taking this position. Southern president, then what for the middle belt.

And more. The middle belt is largely an agrarian region, what strategic frameworks are leaders of the zone canvassing to address the agrarian question; the calibration and recalibration of its political economy; the injection of middlebeltans into the commanding heights of the Nigeria economy; the infusion of middlebeltans into the military high command, especially for a zone famed for its brilliant military officers and mafia; the entrenchment of minoritsim as part of the political philosophy and principle of the governance architecture of contemporary Nigeria. When last did the leaders of zone held a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari to take him up on some policies of his administration, especially how such policies impact negatively on the region and what measures need to be taken to remediate such policies and impact? What are they doing to strengthen jointly owned northern establishments such as New Nigeria Development Company (NNDC), Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation (SABMF), Arewa House, and so on, that the so-called middle belt states have shares and interests?

Banditry, kidnapping, inter-ethnic conflicts and uncountable moral malfeasances are fast eclipsing the social order in the middle belt. The landscape of the region is strewn with the wreckage of infrastructural decomposition, social decay and poverty of leadership; the dark clouds of environmental suicide are in advanced stage of releasing forth its apocalyptic rains. Confounded, Thomas Paine once orated, ‘these are times that try men’s souls.’ These and many more issues are plentiful enough to exert the mental labours of leaders of the region. And yet! And yet! Were J.S. Tarka to be alive, these are issues he would have taken up with passionate zeal. The time is ripe, for instance, to intellectually weaponise the middle belt struggle via the instrumentality of middle belt studies. Intellectual manpower abounds in the region. There are truckloads of issues dangling on the heads of the leaders wearing the middle belt mantle of leadership such that they need not vanish into vanities or serenade in inanities.

It needs to be emphasized, again and again, that the idea of Middle Belt is not against any religion, Abrahamic or indigenous; it is not against the mores, values, culture and traditions of any ethnic nationality or group. And as such, it is not anti-Fulani; not anti-Hausa; not anti-Arewa; not anti-Emiratism; not anti-Sultanate; in short, not anti-anybody or group. J. S. Tarka’s political gesture clearly demonstrates the ideological story of the middle belt. The leaders of the Middle Belt must follow in his footsteps and interrogate afresh their strategy of political engagements with a view of having a robust and productive dialogue with other stakeholders in the north all aimed at projecting the middle belt agenda in the wider context of Nigeria. It is by so doing that the middle belt stands to maximize its agenda and interests in contemporary Nigeria politics.

  • Pine writes from Ikpayongo Town, Benue State and can be reached on 08035974174

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