By ABBA MAHMOOD

In the defunct Northern Region, now 19 states and the Federal Capital Territory, there are over 300 ethnic groups. Virtually all these tribes speak the Hausa language and that is why, to the average southerner, all northerners are Hausa.

The Hausa-Fulani are undoubtedly the largest group in the north but each of the Kanuri, Tiv and Nupe has at least 10million people and each transcends at least three states. So, apart from the big three tribes of the country, the fourth, fifth and sixth largest ethnic groups in Nigeria are found in the north; never mind the myth that the Ijaw are the “fourth” largest ethnic group.

During the late colonial and early post-colonial era, some non-Hausa/Fulani northerners, mainly from the central and southern parts of the northern region, started identifying themselves as middle belters. The main chairperson and leader of the middle belt entity was a charismatic Tiv, Chief Joseph Tarka, whose party was called the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC). Tarka’s middle belt was non-religious. It was composed of non-Hausa tribes of whatever faith within a distinct geographical area, roughly the current PDP-recognised north-central geopolitical zone.

Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first and only premier of Northern Nigeria, made conscious efforts and took deliberate policies and actions to unite the whole north into one entity with one identity. In his cabinet were ministers from all tribes and religions such as Chief Michael Audu Buba, Pastor David Lot, Mr Peter Achimugu and Mr. George Ohikere. In the premier’s office were seasoned civil servants like Chief Sunday Awoniyi who later became leader of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and who once said in a speech that he was “tired of being anybody’s belt”! In fact, it was Sir Belllo who installed the first Tor Tiv, Chief Gondo Aluor, the paramount ruler of the Tiv, and also installed the first Berom chief of Jos, Chief Rwang Pam, to give a sense of belonging to each tribe and give them representation in the Northern House of Chiefs.

The subsequent creation of states and abolition of regions gave the minorities of Nigeria greater autonomy and wider opportunities to participate actively in their local affairs and the nation’s public and private sectors more competitively.

But, like anything else, state creation has succumbed to the iron law of history – old conflicts resurface and new conflicts emerge. Concurrently, there emerged in most states new majorities and new minorities such that, in states like Benue, it is only by accident that an Idoma will ever emerge as elected governor. With no common enemy to attack, some of the smaller tribes started attacking each other; e.g. the Jukun, Tiv and Kuteb conflicts in Taraba State. But, even in some homogenous states, there are occasional conflicts too: Ife-Modakeke in the southwest and Aguleri/Umuleri in the southeast.

There are some who survive and thrive only when there is enmity and disunity. Those were the ones who now redefined the middle belt identity in religious terms so that every northerner who is not a Muslim, regardless of which state he or she comes from, is considered a middle belter and every northern Muslim is considered a non-middle belter. They have conveniently forgotten that there are Hausa who are genuine Christians such as Prof. Adamu Baikie and Dr Jibrin Ibrahim, just as there are full-blooded Fulani who are also very strong adherents of Christianity such as Canon Halilu Omar Mohammed, and Dr Russell Audu Barau Dikko, the first northerner to qualify as a medical doctor; as well as Prof. Ishaya Audu, Sardauna’s physician and the first indigenous vice-chancellor of ABU Zaria.

Tried as they could, with the support of some southerners, these agents of disunity could not suppress the northern identity and jettison over 200 years of history. They have forgotten that most parts of the north were the Sokoto Caliphate even before the coming of British colonialists here. They refused to accept that the only language, even in the churches of the north, is Hausa — the unifying language and lingua franca of the whole north. They don’t want to know that the culture, history and traditions of the north, dressing of the north, and even the food of the north have been the same for centuries and are inextricably intertwined for all the northern tribes.

Sir Ahmadu Bello typifies this: his father was a Sokoto Fulani descendant of Danfodio while his mother was minority Bachama from Adamawa. And this has been happening for centuries now, such that no Hausa-Fulani or even most minorities are of any single identity but pan-northern.

Without northern identity, Gen. Gowon wouldn’t have emerged head of state in 1966 and ruled for nine years, the longest single tenure in the history of Nigeria. Without northerner solidarity, Senators Iyorchia Ayu, Ameh Ebute and David Mark would never have become Senate presidents at various times in the nation’s history. Without northern unity, Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara wouldn’t have been heading the National Assembly at the same time. Without a common north, Sabo Bakin Zuwo, a Nupe, wouldn’t have been a senator and governor in Kano State; nor would Ibrahim Imam, a Kanuri from Borno, have been elected legislator for Benue province.

It was the same northern identity that gave Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a minority Bageri from Bauchi, to emerge the first and only prime minister of Nigeria. The same northern consideration made President Shagari appoint both Paul Unongo and Isaac Shaahu, both Tiv, into his cabinet at the same time.

In the south, the minorities are predominantly found in the geographical Niger Delta region. They consist of about 30 ethnic groups none of which is more than 2million in population. Most of the oil Nigeria is producing is found in the minority areas of the south and offshore in the sea. Apart from the Yoruba, they are also the ones having seaports. When General Sani Abacha was announcing the geopolitical zones after the 1995 constitutional conference, he named the zone “southern minorities” but the people of the zone who had access to the media started calling their zone “south-south”, a name that is only found in Nigeria, as there is no south-south in geography.

Their only unifying language is pidgin English. They are very friendly and very accommodating. State creation gave them some form of autonomy from the domination of their majority neighbours. They are agitating for more share of the nation’s oil wealth. The oil-producing communities are devastated by environmental degradation as a result of the activities of the oil companies. This was why the Tafawa Balewa administration set up the Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) when oil was first discovered in the region. The Babangida administration subsequently set up the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) which later became the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

In the First Republic, the Niger Delta Congress aligned with the ruling Northern People’s Congress, which led to the appointment of Chief Melford Okilo into the Balewa administration as parliamentary secretary in the office of the prime minister and the establishment of the NDDB.

In the Second Republic, they voted overwhelmingly for Shagari, and Senator Joseph Wayas from the region emerged as Senate president in that regime, while Senator John Wash Pam from Plateau was the deputy Senate president.

In this Fourth Republic, Mallam Umaru Yar’Adua chose Dr Goodluck Jonathan from Bayelsa as his vice president and, upon his death, Dr Jonathan emerged as president and got elected again in 2011. These are the historical and political undercurrents of the various Nigerian regions so far.

History is on the side of the oppressed.

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