By Patrick Anum
The early 50s, produced the greatest generation of Middle Beltan nationalists Nigeria had ever seen. The likes of Joseph Tarka, Akase Dowgo, David Lot, Patrick Dokotri, Solomon Lar and D. Dimka.
They championed the cause of the ethnic minorities in the Middle Belt. The earliest Middle Beltan struggle lead to rise in the consciousness of the Middle belt people and subsequently led to the creation of the Benue-Plateau State which captured some parts of the Middle Belt although excluding major areas that fall outside the North central to this day.
At the time, the Northern Regional Government defined the Middle Belt region in terms of its geography as:
“The whole of Ilorin, Kabba, Benue and Plateau Provinces, the Southern parts of Bauchi and Zaria Provinces, the whole of Niger Province except for the area north of Kontagora town and the whole of the Numan Division of Adamawa Province together with the districts of Muri and Wurkun in the Muri division of the same province.
It was an attempt to detach themselves from the core North that led to these early agitations.
Decades later, ideologies and motives that led to the formation of the (Action Group – UMBC Alliance) would be at play in the 2023 Presidential elections where there seems to be a common ground between parts of the South South, South East, Middle Belt and even parts of the South West (despite the popularity of the All Progressives Congress in the region) regarding the candidature of the Labour Party Presidential candidate Peter Obi.
However, before the Peter Obi movement became wide spread, there was another movement calling for reform of the Nigerian police called EndSARS.
EndSARS was a largely decentralized movement calling for the reform of a unit of the Nigerian police force known as the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) with a long record of abuse of Nigerian citizens mostly occurring in the Southern parts of the country.
Despite the Middle Belt regions not having that lived experience of Endsars, large parts of the Middle Belt, most notably Benue, Nassarawa, Taraba, Plateau, the FCT and parts of Southern Kaduna all came out in large numbers in solidary protests along side their counterparts from Southern Nigeria.
This was the first notable instance of Middle Belt – Southern solidarity in the 4th Republic.
The earliest case of Southern/Middle Belt alliance was in the first republic when the Middle Belt movement found solid ground in a political alliance between the UMBC (United Middle Belt Congress) led by Joseph Tarka and the Action Group (AG) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo who led the dominant party in the Western region of Nigeria’s Southern province in the first republic.
According to a scholarly review of the alliance between the two parties by Andrew Barnes, the two factions joined forces because they had similar ideologies at the time. The Middle Belt was at the moment preoccupied with forging an identity distinct from the North and it was said that the AG offered them the perfect ideological platform/coalition to develop their ideologies, culture and goals.
The UMBCs goal were in 3 fold. (i) To fight against political domination and systematic exploitation of the peoples of the Middle Belt in the old Northern region (ii) To fight against forced Islamization of the entire peoples of the Middle Belt due to Ahmadu Bello’s forced conversion policies at the time (iii)To stop socio-economic discrimination of the peoples of the Middle belt.
Ironically, in 2023, the peoples of the Middle Belt and Southern parts of Nigeria would unite again to oppose the infamous “Muslim-Muslim” ticket and “North-North” ticket, much like they did in the 1950s when they opposed Ahmadu Bello’s “One North” policy and forced conversion campaigns.
It was equally as bad back then, probably if not worse because in 1964, when the late Ahmadu Bello spoke at the World Islamic League, he boasted in respect to converting 60,000 infidels. It was a bleak era especially considering how the late premier of the old Northern region enforced crackdowns that resulted in injuries and fatalities of the Middle Belt people in the old Northern region, had repeatedly referred to the 1804 Jihad and emphasized the uniform continuity of the NPC Government and the former caliphate.
On the successes of the UMBC, they would later go on to clinch seats in the federal elections making them a stakeholder at national politics.
The second case of Southern and Middle Belt alliance would be in the second Republic when the Late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s party -Nigeria’s Peoples Party won in the old Plateau State (Now Plateau and Nasarawa States) in the 1979 election, beating the eventual winner Shehu Shagari of the NPN, National Party of Nigeria.
Although Obafemi Awolowo, who also came Second in the election did not win any state in the region, he got a decent 21% in the old Gongola States (Now Adamawa and Taraba States)
Fast-forward to the start of the 4th republic in 1999 and there were no “clear” signs of an alliance. What would change all of this would start following the release of a video purporting to show the murder of a man by the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
This would spark what became known as the #EndSars protests where tens of thousands of young Nigerians in the Southern and the Middle belt parts of the country would take to the streets to protest against police brutality
The demonstrations, which shook the nation for two weeks, forced the government to disband SARS and establish judicial panels of inquiry to look into the numerous claims of police abuse.
The federal government mandated an investigation into the abuses in all 36 of Nigeria’s states including the nation’s capital.
Borno, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara were the seven states that were unwilling to cooperate and to the dismay of many from the Middle Belt and South, neither these areas in the core North held any EndSARS protests. Nonetheless, Middle Belt youths organized demonstrations, particularly in Benue, Plateau, Taraba, Nasarawa, and Southern Kaduna and adequately bridged the gap.
In reality, these actions were sufficient considering the fact that the alliance attracted the attention of respective state governments and raised the stakes for the federal government.
Kenneth Jande, one of the organizers of the Middle Belt protests, spoke to Sahara reporters in Jalingo, Taraba State, and argued for comprehensive police reforms to address the security issues rather than a name change from the Special Anti Robbery Squad to the Special Weapons and Tactics team, as the Nigerian police had attempted to do at the time.
Another Middle Beltan protestor in Benue, Ukan Kurkugh told Vanguard that in solidary with the youths in other parts of the country, they (Middle Beltan youths) in the region had declared to have the police disbanded and to have the police reformed to ensure security of lives and property.
These examples and many more were part of events in the Middle Belt.
Memorable scenes like that created nostalgic feelings in relation to the UMBC (United Middle Belt Movement) in the 1950s with a young Joseph Tarka who at only 25 years of age at the time, led the historic merger and fight for the peoples of the Middle Belt after being elected leader of the party in 1957.
Reading these accounts of the Middle Belt’s struggles brought back vivid recollections of the several young leaders from the old area who were fighting for their rights and achieved emancipation for most parts of the Middle Belt.
These scenes would morph into political agitations as the 2023 elections drew nearer. The EndSARS generation of young Nigerians would play a big role in promoting the candidature of Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour party as well as him being seen as a renewed hope for the “Sorosoke” generation (a yoruba word meaning to speak up).
Peter Obi would be projected to win most States of the Middle Belt such as Plateau, Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa and the FCT. He is also piped to win 25% in other parts of the Middle Belt like Borno, Kebbi, Niger, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa, Kogi and Kwara States.
Youths in the Middle Belt are mobilizing and going into their communities to support Peter Obi using their own resources.
There are many office spaces that have been rented and mobilization has begun in all the aforementioned areas.
The question of whether this is the start of an ongoing alliance between both groups and whether future movements can call for the necessary restructuring, resource control, autonomy for each region would be answered in the coming months.
The Middle Belt’s most crucial concern is whether or not they will be able to achieve the much-needed regional restructuring that would include all of the region’s areas in what Dele Ogun calls the “orange union”. The other two issues are the restructuring of lands being grabbed in the area and state police in light of the ongoing genocide happening in the region.