By Patrick Anum
The Gbagyi ethnic group, consisting of approximately 5 million people, is one of several ethnic groups found in Nigeria. Their predominant presence is in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, which encompasses significant areas such as the capital city, Abuja, as well as Niger State, Kaduna State, and Nasarawa States.
It is important to focus this analysis on the Gbagyi people. However, it is crucial to clarify that this examination should not be misconstrued as endorsing any specific candidates in the recently concluded 2023 elections as the conversation should strictly be accessed within the prism of the Gbagyi people
As President Bola Ahmed Tinubu prepares to appoint a minister for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), I delve into the pressing issues surrounding Gbagyi representation, land grabbing issues that have and continue to affect them, and the concerning trend of the Minister of FCT position being dominated by the core North in recent times, while neglecting the Gbagyi population of the Middle Belt.
Since 1999, the position of Minister of the FCT has consistently been reserved for individuals from the core North, a fact that has left experts from the Middle Belt region bewildered and perplexed.
This perplexity stems from the fact that the people in this region have been subjected to division across four states, marginalized, and denied rightful compensation for the appropriation of their lands for the establishment of the FCT. Furthermore, they are disheartened by the disregard and exclusion they face in discussions concerning the FCT ministerial role.
The existence of a bill, known as the FCT Resettlement, Integration, and Development Commission, sponsored by Hon. Zaphania Isalo, which was under consideration in the Nigerian Senate as of 2016, provides substantiation for the lack of adequate compensation and the unresolved resettlement of affected Gbagyi communities. This further strengthens the urgency of addressing these issues.
Herein is the list of past FCT Ministers since 1999
The Gbagyi people have endured a series of disastrous events throughout the 4th republic, starting with Ibrahim Bunu, a native of Borno, who served as the first Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) during the transition in 1999. Regrettably, Bunu targeted the Gbagyi community, displacing them and granting authorization for the destruction of settlements in Kado, Garki, and Wuse in 2001. This marked a distressing milestone in the 4th republic, as it was the first instance of a deliberate assault on the Gbagyi community.
In the same year, a presidential committee compiled a list of properties slated for confiscation by the federal government, with a significant portion belonging to the Gbagyi people. This unfortunate identification further compounded the challenges faced by the Gbagyi community, leaving them even more vulnerable.
Tragically, the plight of the Gbagyi people continued in 2003 when Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai assumed the role of Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Known for his imprudent and erratic decision-making, El-Rufai initiated a demolition campaign that indiscriminately impacted over a thousand structures. This campaign caused immense hardship and suffering for numerous individuals and families.
The cumulative effect of these events has left the Gbagyi people in a state of distress, grappling with the consequences of forced displacement, property confiscation, and the loss of their homes and livelihoods. It is imperative that these issues are recognized and addressed to rectify the injustices endured by the Gbagyi community.
It is crucial to highlight the role played by El-Rufai, a long-standing adversary of the Gbagyi and Middle Belt communities, in initiating his assault on the Gbagyi people.
This assault began with the forceful evictions and demolitions, which inflicted significant harm on the Gbagyi community. El-Rufai’s continuous antagonism will be shown later in the future towards the Gbagyi people when he took the controversial step of renaming their traditional stool in Kaduna, despite lacking any affiliation with their ethnic group. Critics argue that this act undermined the integrity of Gbagyi traditional culture and heritage.
Throughout El-Rufai’s tenure, which concluded in 2007, forceful evictions were rampant, resulting in the displacement of at least 500,000 individuals and potentially affecting up to 1.2 million people. The Gbagyi community bore the brunt of these actions, further exacerbating their plight.
An alarming trend that has emerged since 1999 is the consistent appointment of individuals who hold anti-Gbagyi sentiments into influential positions in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and its surrounding areas. This has perpetuated policies and actions that marginalize and negatively impact the Gbagyi community.
Regrettably, democratic progress in the nation has been sluggish, with elected officials from all spheres of governance offering limited assistance to the Gbagyi people. Interviews conducted with indigenous individuals, migrants, and activists have uncovered widespread grievances concerning the government’s persistent failure to address land redress and provide proper compensation for the lands on which the FCT was established.
These cumulative acts of neglect and injustice have underscored the urgent need for rectification and compensation for the Gbagyi community, as their rights and heritage have been consistently disregarded.
Even in past instances of demolitions, government agencies have consistently failed in providing sufficient notice to affected communities. Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP), an NGO working in these communities, has highlighted the issue, stating that “Communities were not given enough time when demolition notices were issued.” In Lugbe, a densely populated settlement in the Abuja area, residents received a mere 24-hour warning before demolitions took place. Unfortunately, even with recourse to the court systems, residents who have been victims of these policies have painfully realized that justice is elusive through the Nigerian courts.
The Federation of Urban Poor (FEDUP), a network of NGOs operating across the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), has further corroborated these accounts.
Seventy-three members of FEDUP have shared instances where they were not given any notice at all. An activist from Jiwa added a distressing anecdote, revealing that his neighbour died during a demolition because he was too ill to evacuate.
In 2012, the police settled out of court after being held responsible for the death of a 20-year-old girl during a demolition in Apo.
Despite the Land Use Act establishing special tribunals and mandating compensation for displaced individuals, these measures have offered little assistance to the displaced residents of Abuja or in providing alternative accommodations. It appears that these grievances remain unresolved, perpetuating the suffering of those affected.
During the demolitions in 2012, victims from Idu and Karmo relocated to a housing site in Pegi after paying a fee of 21,000 naira. However, investigations by the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) revealed that the area had minimal or no infrastructure and services available.
At this juncture, what the Gbagyi people demand is not only adequate representation within the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) (The FCT Ministerial position), but also in all states where they have experienced marginalization and displacement. This would serve as a fundamental starting point for addressing their concerns and seeking justice for their communities.
In a concerning turn of events, just days before the end of former Governor El-Rufai’s tenure in Kaduna, he issued an order to demolish numerous Gbagyi settlements. This came after demanding that residents pay 21,000 naira for a regularization form. However, when residents visited the Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Agency (KAPSUDA), officials informed them that the forms were not yet ready. Despite this, El-Rufai deemed it necessary to proceed with the demolitions, resulting in the displacements across Gbagyi land.
This pattern of displacing Middle Belt communities through the guise of urban planning while leaving settler communities untouched appears to be on the rise. In 2020, the Gbagyi people in Kaduna accused El-Rufai of displacing them and allowing migrant Fulani groups to settle in their ancestral lands, using the establishment of emirates to legitimize their migrant status.
Given these circumstances, it is crucial for the Middle Belt people to be proactive in securing adequate representation. Years of leniency and openness towards certain settlers have led to the displacement of numerous Gbagyi communities and the usurpation of their leadership positions by outsiders.
As we examine the appropriation of these positions, we must not overlook key roles within the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), such as the Senate and the two House of Representative positions for Abuja South and Bwari, as well as other local government positions. It is the responsibility of those who have migrated to Abuja to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of the indigenous Abuja population and support their aspirations for positions of authority within their ancestral land.
The persistent struggle of the Gbagyi people for rightful compensation cannot be overlooked, as they have been vocal in raising their concerns. In 2012, the courts dismissed a civil suit filed by the Gbagyi people, which sought compensation for the demolitions that resulted in the displacement of their communities.
The director of APRI emphasized the importance of mobilizing the people themselves as the most effective approach in addressing this issue. This highlights the need for collective action and collaboration from all stakeholders involved.
It is worth noting that towards the end of President Obasanjo’s second term in 2007, the then FCT Minister, Nasir El-Rufai, expressed some regrets regarding the demolitions. However, it appears that these regrets held little weight, as El-Rufai’s subsequent eight-year tenure as the Governor of Kaduna State was marred by similar incidents of unlawful demolitions and the displacement of Gbagyi peoples
When analyzing the issues faced by the Gbagyi people, it becomes evident that the root of the problem lies in their land rights. This problem traces back to 1976 when the Nigerian military government forcefully acquired the ancestral lands of the Gbagyi people to establish a new capital city.
To address the plight of the Gbagyi people, a comprehensive examination of their land rights and the historical context surrounding the acquisition of their lands is essential. It is crucial to seek justice and proper compensation for the Gbagyi community, taking into account the historical injustices they have endured.
The current regulation of land ownership and management in Nigeria is governed by the Land Use Act of 1978 (LUA), which, notably, does not extend to Abuja.
The Nigerian government considers Abuja as a symbol of political unity and a modern city representing the country’s development. Consequently, the Federal Capital Territory Act of 1976 (FCT Act) grants exclusive ownership of all lands in Abuja to the Federal Government.
Since Abuja is not classified as a state within the Nigerian federation and lacks a governor, the LUA does not apply in this region. This legal framework, despite the presence of indigenous communities in Abuja, effectively terminates customary land rights and is justified by Section 297(2) of the Nigerian Constitution, which stipulates that all lands in the Federal Capital Territory belong to the Government.
Consequently, the combined impact of the Nigerian Constitution and the FCT Act results in the displacement of the indigenous Gbagyi people from their ancestral lands in Abuja. Any customary land rights they may have under customary tenancy were thus considered null and void under Nigerian laws.
This discriminatory situation becomes even more apparent when examining the contrast with other parts of Nigeria. Section 36 of the LUA 1978 recognizes the customary land rights of indigenous Nigerians in the remaining 36 states of the Nigerian Federation.
However, the application of these rights becomes impossible in Abuja due to Section 49, along with Section 1 (3) of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Act and Section 297 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Upon the establishment of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), there was a misconception that the territory did not belong to any specific ethnic group in Nigeria. Initially, the government planned to relocate all residents of Abuja to suitable locations outside the territory at the government’s expense. However, this plan was later revised.
It is important to highlight that to this day, the Nigerian government has not provided compensation for the affected communities. Researcher Frank Salamone has raised concerns about the human rights implications of this situation, particularly its impact on the Gbagyi people. The sheer size of the affected area, spanning 365,000 square miles, is both astonishing and significant in this context.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the displacement of the Gbagyi people and other ethnic groups, who have had historical conflicts with the Hausa and Fulani communities, is compounded by the appointment of individuals of Hausa and Fulani descent who may not share in the indigenes ideologies and culture. This oversight fails to take into account the colonial history and tensions between these groups, further exacerbating the plight of the affected communities.
In addition, the establishment of new political units within the Federal Capital Territory has had a disruptive effect on existing ethnic leadership structures, resulting in the nullification of indigenous political leadership.
While a small number of Abuja indigenes now reside in close proximity to the city, thanks to the development and expansion of the Capital Territory, the majority still live in villages and rural areas located within the six local government councils of the region. Unfortunately, these areas lack vital infrastructure such as accessible roads, hospitals, and other basic social amenities, further exacerbating the challenges faced by the indigenous communities.
It is crucial to recognize that alongside the Gbagyi people’s fight for autonomy in their region, they are also confronted with distortionists who continuously attempt to alter their history. These distortionists claim that the Gbagyi people may have migrated from Zamfara around 1810. However, careful examination of maps and related narratives reveals a historically inaccurate incorporation of the entire Niger-Benue zone under the control and jurisdiction of the Sokoto Caliphate which propounds this theory.
A significant proponent of the distortionist analysis of pre-caliphate society in the Middle Belt was Mohammed Bello, whose mapping of territories encompassing Hausa society has been found to be untruthful by scholars. This was evident when the British encountered resistance from the Mada peoples in 1917 while approaching the Mada hills, revealing the inaccuracies in Bello’s work.
Bala Adamu Kuta, a researcher, further perpetuated this fallacy by making immensely false assertions, emphasizing that the Hausa Fulani founded various Gbagyi towns. Ayuba Sanda highlights that Darlington’s viewpoint may have influenced these egregious and fallacious positions.
Other falsehoods include C. L. Temple’s claim that the Gbagyi people, along with other known groups like the Koro, were expelled from the Bornu Empire in 1750 due to a struggle.
It is imperative to take these fallacies seriously, as they significantly influenced British policy towards the Gbagyi and other groups in present-day Kaduna, Nasarawa, Niger, and Abuja and these fallacies continue to shape the relationship between the Nigerian structure and the Gbagyi people in contemporary times, particularly regarding the FCT position.
It is important to highlight that the roots of the Gbagyi people can be traced back to the earliest signs of human presence in the region, which date back to 500 BCE during the Nok civilization. This ancient civilization flourished until around 200 CE.
Following the decline of the Nok civilization, there was a shift in movement patterns, leading to migrations and the establishment of settlements in various regions within the Middle Belt.
However, the 1804 Jihad marked a significant turning point in the history of the Gbagyi and other ethnic groups. Led by Uthman Dan Fodio, the Jihadists embarked on a conquest of Hausa territories, which resulted in attacks and migrations affecting the Gbagyi people and other ethnicities in the Middle Belt.
In response to these incursions, the Gbagyi and other groups resisted the Jihadists, leading to the creation of wide gaps in the land areas as they sought refuge in the highlands. This resistance posed challenges for the Sokoto Caliphate, as noted by Robert Taylor.
It is worth noting that the Gbagyi, along with other hill country groups, successfully preserved their autonomy and resisted the Jihadists until the arrival of British forces as they created a Northern protectorate encompassing Gbagyi groups on New Years eve of 1900. The British invasion using the West African Frontier Force and maps from the emirates influenced the subsequent attitude of British colonial rule in the region, shaping the dynamics and power structures in the area.
Subsequently, the marginalization of various Gbagyi groups in the Middle Belt began, prompting their involvement in movements like the United Middle Belt Congress in 1951, spearheaded by Joseph Tarka.
This agitation for a separate Middle Belt region, alongside other ethnic groups in Central Nigeria, gained momentum. However, the years of military rule soon followed, during which successive military administrations sought new locations for the capital.
This decision sparked significant controversy particularly in the 1970s, particularly as Chief Obafemi Awolowo favoured keeping the capital in Lagos, while Alhaji Shehu Shagari campaigned for its relocation to Abuja in the same period. The debate over the capital’s location became a prominent point of contention between these influential political figures.
With the emergence of Shehu Shagari, the challenges of the Gbagyi people soon commenced with initial plans for relocation, compensation and dislodgement soon begun.