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Nigeria: Fixing the middle belt

By Tayo Fagbule in Jos and Illorin
Posted on Monday, 31 May 2010 14:11

The violence in Jos – the scene of conflicts

which killed hundreds of people in 2001, 2004, 2008 and again in

January 2010 – and the relative peace of Ilorin to the west illustrate

the tensions stoked by Nigeria’s political and religious leaders as

communities compete for resources and access to the state. People in

the Middle Belt are expecting the new government team under President

Goodluck Jonathan to help settle disputes between rival groups so that

the region can become a vital economic power

For more read an interview with a Catholic priest from Kaduna on the religious tension in the Middle Belt.

Two bustling cities – Jos and Ilorin – show the triumphs and tragedies of Nigeria’s fractious Middle Belt. On the face of it, they have much in common: they are both sprawling conurbations hosting a patchwork of ethnic groups drawn from across the country, traders, government officials, political activists, imams, bishops, priests and hundreds of thousands of devout ?Christians and Muslims.

But the two cities have very different histories. Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, whose car number plates proclaim it to be “The Harmony State”, is known for its political peace. Tens of thousands of Nigerians from troubled regions and other central and northern states have sought shelter in Ilorin and its environs. The political scene has been dominated by a few powerful families such as the Sarakis. Olusola Saraki was a leading national and regional politician in the 1970s and 1980s; his son Bukola is now Kwara State governor and a ?major player in national politics. Kwara’s political elite prides itself on the state’s ethnic and religious diversity and social tolerance.

By contrast, Jos has has a turbulent history with ethnic and religious clashes which have claimed the lives of thousands of Nigerians. The most recent clashes earlier this year started after an ethnic militia attacked villagers, slaughtering hundreds of women and children. The horror of those attacks prompted a national outcry about the failure of police and soldiers to intervene. Officials working with Plateau State Governor Jonah Jang claim to have warned the security services of the threat several days in advance. That prompted then-Acting President Goodluck Jonathan to sack National Security Advisor General Sarki Mukhtar.

For some, this year’s attacks were just the latest retaliation in a series of clashes between those claiming to be the ‘indigenes’ of Jos and those they call ‘settlers’, people who have migrated from the north. It is a fault-line dating back more than a century as Hausa farmers and traders headed south in search of markets and jobs.

Resources and religion

People across the Middle Belt talk about the settler/indigene divide, but its edges are sharper in Jos than anywhere else. At the heart of it is a contest about resources as successive state and local governments have failed to manage state spending fairly or accountably. Worse still, politicians have sharpened ethnic and religious divisions as they try to shore up their own bases of power.

In Ilorin, politicians have been less ready to retreat into their ethnic or religious bunkers. Abubakr Imam Ali-Agan, a lecturer at the University of Ilorin who also hosts the popular daily radio programme Madrasatu Muhammad, says Ilorin’s stability owes much to people’s respect for their religious leaders, Christian and Muslim. It also helps that the city has a history of social tolerance. Yet nothing can be taken for granted, warns Ali-Agan. The former soldiers in flowing gowns have copied “the wrong aspect of democracy”, he says, and Nigerians are exploited because they lack civic awareness. Ali-Agan wants religious leaders to harp more on the moral teachings of Christ and Mohammed – charity, social justice and feeding the hungry – as criteria for political office.

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baboko, Ilorin, the youngest parson in the archdeaconry, Reverend Olanrewaju Babalola, echoes some of Ali-Agan’s sentiments. It is the only church in the heart of this mainly Muslim area of Ilorin.St. Paul’s was established in 1976, 61 years after the cathedral church of St. Barnabas, which was the centre of the Anglican faith in the city.

St. Paul’s now has a congregation of over 1,000 people and serves as the headquarters of the Ilorin archdeaconry. Behind the church compound, in which there is a nursery and a primary school, there is a half-completed mosque.

Centre of unity or clash of civlisations?

The Middle Belt provokes extreme reactions. These eight states – Adamawa, Benue, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau and Taraba – and the Federal Capital Territory are the “glue of the nation” for veteran politicians like Enugu State Governor Chimaroke Nnamani, and Solomon Lar. For them, this central region, with its rich natural resources and magnificent landscapes, could use the diversity of its peoples to become an economic and political powerhouse.

It has happened before, argues Nnamani, referring to the pioneering Nok civilisation. It flourished around 1000BC in what is now Nigeria’s Middle Belt, developing ironworks and life-sized terracotta figures almost a millennium before China produced its own army of terracotta figures. For Nnamani, just as the Middle Belt is the country’s geographical centre, it should become its political centre – “the birthplace of our true rainbow coalition”. Activists such as Shehu Sani share these hopes for the region but say the reality has been very different. Of the more than 10,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in communal violence in Nigeria since 1999, says Sani, some of the worst clashes have been in the Middle Belt.

As the buffer zone between north and south, the Middle Belt’s rich natural resources and patchwork of ethnic groups have drawn in people from across the country, but its state and local governments have failed to develop the regional economy or confidence in the justice system. Sani says that the Middle Belt’s problems are overwhelmingly due to bad governance and economic mismanagement. Opportunistic politicians try to make capital by appealing to ethnic and religious loyalties.

Solomon Lar, former governor of Plateau State, who also helped found the ruling People’s Democratic Party, insists that the region must have a casting vote in national politics: “Because the Middle Belt is in central Nigeria, it is always in the best position to interpret the north to the south and the south to the north.” ?

That is more aspiration than reality. All too often the Middle Belt and its concerns are pushed into the background by the political battalions from the north and the south. But just as the party barons found they had to pay attention to the conflicts in the oil-rich Niger Delta, the new national order, with a bigger role for minority groups, means they will find it harder to ignore the politics of the Middle Belt.

The Anglicans at St. Paul’s have not been insulated from religious and political clashes. There have been attacks on the church and some have tried to burn it down. But it has survived and now flourishes, competing with other churches and mosques. Reverend Babalola says there is an acceptance in Ilorin that one can change one’s faith. The Right Reverend Herbert Yakubu Haruna, the first Anglican bishop of Ilorin, converted from Islam and established the church in the city.

Inter-marriages between those of different faiths and ethnic groups are more common in Ilorin. Reverend Babalola’s mother-in-law, who hails from Ilorin, and brother-in-law are Muslim. When he prays for them, they reply with amens and send him prayer requests. Babalola’s wife and father-in-law are Christians and he talks of an inter-faith harmony in the family.

Religion has played a less conciliatory role in Jos. Clashes in 2008 started in the wake of the local government elections on 27 November when militants fought over the results in the Jos North constituency. More than 600 people were killed in two days of fighting. It had been the worst incident since clashes in 2001 killed more than 1,000 people. The fighting pitted the mainly-Muslim Hausa settlers against the mainly-Christian indigene groups in Jos – the Afizere, Anaguta and Berom.

Paper funnels ?

According to Dutch academic Philip Ostien, “Religious difference is secondary, although it adds fuel to the fire when things go wrong.” A veteran mediator in the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta, Father Matthew Hassan Kukah says that rival groups try to win wider support in their local disputes by appealing to religious sentiment.

Most politicians and religious leaders seem to agree that the problem is the funnel through which the country’s resources flow. About 80% of Nigeria’s national wealth is routed through national, state and local government structures. At the grassroots, Nigeria is divided into 774 local government authorities, which control access to jobs, land, schools and healthcare.

Government jobs in the local councils, the schools, the police and the state civil service are much sought after, as are supply and building contracts with the government. A key qualification for all of these is an “indigene certificate”. Local governments issue these certificates and that is why control of them is so contested.

In Jos, the Hausa are known as Jasawa and argue strongly that they are as indigenous as any of the other groups. They settled in the city generations ago, have established trading and manufacturing businesses there, pay their taxes and have built an imposing central mosque in the city and many schools as well.

Other groups in the city fear any cession of political authority to the Hausa and talk about a bloody history of Hausa domination in the region. Accordingly, they have tried to block the Hausa from gaining office and access to jobs and contracts. The result has been a cycle of political and physical confrontations over the past two decades. Ruthless politicking has not helped. Joshua Dariye was elected governor of Plateau State in 1999 but has faced charges of grand corruption and money-laundering in Nigeria and the UK. As a political ploy, Dariye took a tougher line against the Hausa to regain local support. After clashes in 2004, President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed Major General Chris Mohammed Alli to take over as sole administrator for Plateau State. Alli convened a conference of all the ethnic and religious groups in the state to address claims of discrimination, but Hausa groups refused to sign the final report, saying their concerns had not been met.

The governor of Plateau State, Jonah Jang, elected in 2007, also takes a tough line against the Hausa. A former administrator of Benue and Gongola states and a devout Christian, Jang seems to be turning the political battles in Jos into a bigger battle against Muslim and northern influence. The result has been calamitous in Plateau State, encouraging extremists on both sides.

Monday Mangwat, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Jos, insists that the crisis is fundamentally a political problem, whatever the religious and ethnic affiliations of the rival groups. The Hausa are not the only group who are denied indigene rights in Plateau State. Yoruba and Ibo migrants from the south have the same problem. Equally, there are many Muslims who refuse to be drawn into the conflict.

Resolving the crisis in Plateau State must be near the top of President Goodluck Jonathan’s agenda. One of his first tasks will be to mediate between Governor Jang and Ibrahim Mantu, the former deputy president of the Senate, who have been accused of fanning the conflict.

The late Joseph Garba, an ambassador to the UN who was born in Plateau, said “It has been the minorities that have determined by their self-sacrifice that Nigeria survives as a country”. Once more the country has a president from a minority group and Nigerians expect him to tackle the situation in the Middle Belt with a new sympathy and determination.

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