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« The Internet and the Changing Face of Journalism Practice in Nigeria | Main | Operation Declare your Assets or Forfeit your Surplus »

May 11, 2005

The Middle-Belt/South-South Alliance and the Spirit of J.S. Tarka

by Aonduna Tondu --- About a year and a half ago, in the light of a nagging suspicion that much of the pro-Middle-Belt advocacy had been hijacked by influences that were more interested in feathering their political nest than in the over-arching interests of the people, I wrote an article to denounce this dangerous trend by, amongst other things, warning of its implications for the polity. The title of my commentary then was “Wither the Middle-Belt?”. In it, I drew the reader’s attention to the fact that some groups and individuals claiming to be fighting for the interests of the so-called minority people of the region had by their curious ways effectively discarded the J.S. Tarkar spirit of impassioned people-based advocacy and had thus invariably become willing tools in a macabre game of political supremacy on the part of power-hungry operators. Tapping into a well of otherwise genuine grievances, some notable figures of minority advocacy have for long sought to exploit the persuasive authority of legitimate contestation for obviously selfish or parochial objectives.

Today, it would seem that the pro-Middle-Belt advocacy wants to be seen as playing a more dominant national role in the current dispensation. At least that is what the delegates to the first Middle-Belt/South-South Summit of April 22, 2005 would have us believe. To the extent that this supposed alliance between the ‘minority’ groups of the two regions claims to work for greater unity within a more equitable and therefore more stable polity, it is only proper that the actions of some of the principal actors whose political conduct I took to task in my earlier article as well as the rhetoric of their South-South partners in the new alliance be confronted with a reiterative response which should serve as a cautionary tale for all Nigerians.

So, although my reaction here will focus on the recent inaugural summit in Abuja involving individuals or groups from the Middle-Belt and the South-South, it will at the same time point out some of the lessons to be gleaned from the type of pro-Middle-Belt politicking that I did chastise in “Wither the Middle-Belt?”. For demonstrative purposes, I will be required to quote extensively from that piece. I plead for the reader’s patience and understanding.

As to be expected, the Middle-Belt/South-South summit organizers released a communiqué in which they harped on the main objectives of their alliance.

After serious and in-depth deliberations on various issues, the following declarations and resolutions were made: that the Northern and Southern minorities of the Middle Belt and South-South zones constitute the bedrock of this country, having made great sacrifices for the survival, political stability and economic well-being of Nigeria.

We believe in a united Nigeria in which Nigerians are their brothers’ keepers and this great gathering is a statement of faith and commitment to the continued existence of corporate Nigeria.
We affirm the secularity and plurality of our country and, therefore, see the necessity to tolerate and respect our differences within the context of true federalism. The summit acknowledges the need to consciously build an enduring solidarity amongst our peoples.
We are committed to the enthronement of justice, equity and fairness, throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria. We lend our unwavering support to the on-going campaign against corruption in all its ramifications and shades and we consequently express our desire that transparency and accountability be enthroned as uncompromising values in the interest of sustainable national development.
We advocate balanced and very effective policies for the protection and wise management of our environment, so as to ensure sustainable development. The summit resolved to set up committees to work out details of our cooperation.

These are noble objectives and most Nigerians should support the sentiments conveyed by them. As a matter of fact, there is nothing novel in the contents of the communiqué. The principles espoused therein can be said to be a restatement of the principles in the Nigerian constitution. That notwithstanding, the fact that this gathering reportedly attracted the political elites from the two zones at this critical point in time when jostling for the 2007 presidency would seem to be the single most important preoccupation amongst Nigerian pols has led observers to believe that bare-faced jockeying for power and its spoils is the dominant consideration of the conveners of the event amongst whom are said to be (Rtd.) Lt.-General Danjuma. In his address, Danjuma reportedly talked about empowering the two zones. “The alliance will seek to ignite a fresh hope that together, we can make a positive difference in the various contests for national power”, he noted.

The point needs to be made that as one of the main allies of President Obasanjo and his incompetent regime, Danjuma has played controversial roles in the regime’s violent dealings with minorities in both the Middle-Belt and the South-South. It was under his stewardship as Defence minister in charge of the army that Obasanjo’s soldiers ransacked and committed untold atrocities against minorities in Odi, Zaki-Biam and surrounding villages. In the case of the Benue massacres, like his ally and friend, Obasanjo, Danjuma has not publicly expressed any remorse for the crimes.

As I write this article, the victims of the orchestrated mayhem against the Tivs continue to suffer extreme hardship and neglect. Beyond his born-again antics – a sad reminder of Obasanjo’s sectarian posturing – one has no recollection of Danjuma calling for justice in favour of the victims of the 2001 Tiv genocide. So, it is a contradiction of sorts that this Obasanjo acolyte should today convene a gathering whereby equity, justice and the empowerment of minorities are enunciated as key concerns. A genuine advocacy for empowerment should necessarily include a transparent rejection of impunity by a backward tyranny. This, the likes of Danjuma and their fellow wanderers in Nigeria’s troubled political terrain appear not ready to do any time soon. Through their actions and inactions, they elicit our suspicion and even disdain.

There is not a shred of doubt that the people of the Middle-Belt and the South-South have made tremendous contributions and continue to do so for the development, unity and corporate existence of Nigeria. This fact was eloquently stated at the first Middle-Belt/South-South Summit by a former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon. As perhaps the most enduring living testimony to Nigerian statesmanship, Gowon speaks to the reality that what makes a truly great leader is not one’s ethnic or social origins. In a most trying period in our country’s history, Gowon managed to restore stability to a fractious nation by appealing to the people’s common sense while at the same time laying emphasis on our shared humanity. Through the policies of his regime, he sought to transcend the myopia of sectional or ethnocentric militancy. Under his leadership, Nigeria enjoyed relative prosperity. His was an era of promise and great hope for the citizenry. In a political tour de force which in itself was both an expression of foresight and deference to the will of the majority, Yakubu Gowon instituted a far-reaching rebuilding of Nigeria into a twelve-state structure the immediate effect of which would be the dousing of ethno-religious tensions in the land. But evoking this positive legacy should not prevent us from alluding to some of its failures. For instance, Gowon procrastinated and needlessly toyed with organizing democratic elections and in the process, did inadvertently help in laying the groundwork for the emergence of the type of largely unpatriotic kleptocracy one has witnessed with especially Babangida, Abacha and now Obasanjo.

That said, it needs to be mentioned that there is one critical element of truth that seemed to have escaped the scrutiny of Gowon and the other participants at the minorities summit, namely, the consistent refusal or failure on the part of the elites of the two zones and those of the other zones in general to take to task the type of irresponsible political leadership Nigerians have lived under at the various levels of governance in the past three decades in particular. To a large extent, the crisis of leadership involving pro-minority advocacy in the Middle-Belt these days is symptomatic of a much deeper moral crisis plaguing the entire civil society in Nigeria. In stark contrast to the broad-minded, masses-oriented struggles of the likes of Chief Tarkar, today’s civil society advocates tend to box themselves in cranky, sanctimonious, self-centred power-mongering whereby the provincial demagoguery of self-proclaimed local champions has replaced the enlightened statesmanship of yesterday’s political greats. This nugget from my commentary, “Wither the Middle-Belt?”, is explicit enough:

Today, a myriad of groups with names and profiles which their so-called leaders or “big ogas” will be hard pressed to say what exactly they stand for are laying claim to pro-Middle-Belt advocacy. One may argue that the public behaviour of the Middle-Belt activist or “big oga” is reflective of the wayward mien of the average Nigerian politician. This is cold comfort for a people who, as can be attested in the case of the Tivs of Benue, have historically suffered more than most groups because of bad government at both the federal and local levels. Yet, despite the status of the Tivs as a marginalised people, the current crop of Tiv political leaders have generally failed to make a meaningful impact nationally and locally, not to talk of positively influencing the lives of the average Tiv or Middle-Belter. Indeed, it is fair to say that the relative irrelevance of the Tiv political class at the level of national political engagement today mirrors the condition of general neglect and underdevelopment which Tiv land and its people have historically been subjected to since independence. If we agree that politics is about making our lives better and more fulfilling, we must draw the painful conclusion that, to a large extent, the Tiv politicians of today have individually and collectively failed to live up to the minimum expectations of the people they claim to represent. Under normal circumstances, due to a host of salient factors and in particular the existence of a significant local intellectual elite and the demographic position of the Tivs as perhaps the fourth or fifth largest ethnic group in Nigeria and the largest in what traditionally has been understood to mean the Middle-Belt, Tivs should play leadership roles in all the strategic sectors of our national life. That their elites have been unable to work more closely together in the realization of the aspirations of their people is a telling indictment of the wisdom ( or lack of it ) of our present crop of so-called federal politicians in particular. To have allowed the likes of Solomon Lar and Dan Suleiman to virtually hijack Middle-Belt minority advocacy and politics which they have arguably used and abused as grotesque instruments for the negotiation of personal favors, or worse, as weapons in the hands of a dictator like Obasanjo is most worrisome indeed. As is the case with the Nigerian political class in general, there exists a troubling disconnect between the Middle-Belt advocacy elite and the legitimate concerns of those they claim to speak for.

This indictment of the pro-Middle-Belt advocacy has lessons for all Nigerians. The proponents of a Middle-Belt/South-South alliance in particular cannot afford to ignore the message of that admonition. Only today, I read an editorial by a Lagos-based daily. It touched on the food crisis in the country and the direct responsibility of politicians in this neglect of a vital sector of the economy. What that means is that the average citizen has no respite whatsoever. While South-South local tin gods today boast of having realized an electoral heist in 2003 which they unabashedly baptized a “seaslide” – a local term for the electoral ‘419’ perpetrated by essentially Obasanjo and his PDP, the rest of the country is grappling with the reckless profligacy of public officials, an epileptic power supply, an increasingly treacherous road infrastructure, decaying industries, a comatose health sector and dilapidated education system. Surely, the ‘big ogas’ of the Middle-Belt, the South-South as well as their counterparts elsewhere in Nigeria, should be aware of this state of affairs.

Despite the attempt by Professor Itsey Sagay to seek consensus around the issue of resource control, at the end of the day, one is left with the déjà vu impression of being treated to largely cosmetic measures by the conveners of first minorities summit. For the Middle-Belt/South-South alliance to be taken seriously, its proponents will do more than indulge in largely nostalgic chest-beating. For starters, they will dispel the impression that the lust for power and its perks is the over-riding concern of advocates of their alliance. Crucially, they must avoid a “we versus them” type of politicking that has been the stock- in- trade of the current Obasanjo dictatorship. The likes of Danjuma, Baba Iyabo, Babangida , Bode George and Anenih have been obscenely riding on the Nigerian gravy train and seem determined to hang on to their nouveaux riches status. They would go to any length, including breaking the law, to ensure that a friendly government is installed in Abuja after 2007. In the spirit of a viable federation, minority rights groups and their representatives should reject the anachronism of regionalist advocacy and the schisms it fosters. Democrats must insist on a definition of Nigerian citizenship that is inclusive in nature by repudiating, amongst other things, those tendencies that seek to needlessly constrain us by erecting mythical walls of social separation. Nigerians would do well to ponder this appreciation of J.S. Tarkar and the essence of his politics. It is culled from “Wither the Middle-Belt?”.

It goes without saying that if he were alive today, the man who is fondly referred to as J.S. would be deeply pained by what has actually happened to the movement he helped nurture in the best tradition of political activism and social responsibility. Before he departed from this world, Tarkar had established a legacy so solid that he was confident enough to opt for accommodation with those whose practices he had selflessly and steadfastly fought. His foibles notwithstanding, he was first and foremost a nation builder who erected bridges of consensus across the Nigerian cultural divide by actively seeking understanding with the likes of Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Gowon, Azikiwe and Enahoro. It is ironical that the early signs of centrifugal rascality against what he stood for would emanate from within the confines of his Tiv land through acts of orchestrated blackmail and pedestrian heckling which had little or nothing to do with honest dissent. It is a sad commentary on the Nigerian political culture that those who have made a living as agents of political rascality and brigandage are the ones jostling today to call the shots locally and nationally. Benue, and by extension the Middle Belt and the rest of the country have a patriotic duty to rid our polity of its army of scoundrels and opportunists whose conduct only serves to diminish the J.S. Tarkar vision of modern Nigeria.

Aonduna Tondu
New York

Posted by Administrator at May 11, 2005 05:44 PM


Joseph S. Tarka laboured possibly so much on the movement but it was very sad to note that Tarka himself helped to kill the movement he laboured so much upon.
In 1978,instead for great Tarka to start his political struggle from where he left, it is so sad that this political giant and Middle-Belt crusader sold himself out to NPN.He gave away his ideology , his vision,just everything he stands for and joined up with NPN.
I wondered in vain why he abandoned his path and teamed up with the new fashion of the old system{NPC}that he had been struggling against all of his political life.
The idea of Middle-Belt then died.It died with the departure of its uncontested leader.
Today,those who are trying to resurrect Middle-Belt movement should please have better employment for their time for Tarker had nailed MIddle_Belt to the cross.It is dead as at 1978 thanks to Tarka.I am sure Hausa/Fulani are smiling once again.boooo!

Posted by: Olu Joseph at July 14, 2005 07:28 AM

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