Bitrus Pogu is the national president of the Middle Belt Forum, a body which is made up of the non-Hausa, Fulani ethnic groups in the North. He tells Daily Sun that the Middle Belt will continue to fight for emancipation and against the general perception that they are all part of one monolithic (huge) North which is united by language and culture.
A former commissioner of Police from Benue State, Abubakar Tsav, has said that the leaders of your organisation are noise makers because you say that the Middle Belt should not be regarded as part of the monolithic North. What is your response to his statement?
People, who held leadership in the Middle Belt Forum right from the onset with the forebears like JF Tarka from his state, initiated the process of the establishment of the Middle Belt Movement which is now the Middle Belt Forum. There have been prominent people who have held the leadership position of the forum; people like TY Danjuma, Dan Suleiman, the late Olusola Saraki, Prof. Jerry Gana, etc. These are people of credibility and honour and they have always stood firm for the emancipation of the other nationalities other than the Hausa/Fulani in the North in spite of the fact that states have been created and have become entities of their own.
For reasons which are beneficial to the far North which consists mainly of Hausa/Fulani, they have continued to insist that the North has to be monolithic because that is how they get the numbers; by emasculating other ethnic groups. The treachery we have received has gotten us to a drowning phase and we cannot continue to maintain that relationship, we would rather move with more progressive people who want Nigeria to move forward and that is why we said what we said. Tsav is speaking for himself; he wants recognition from the people who are his paymasters. The Middle Belt Forum will continue to stand for the people.
You are saying that there is no monolithic North, yet the 2019 general elections saw most of the states in the North almost voting in one direction.
Look at the Middle Belt states; Plateau, Kogi, Nasarawa, etc, many of these states got the leading results for Buhari because results were deliberately cancelled not that it was because the average person from the Middle Belt was in support of the other direction. The problem is that we have not yet got there in terms of credible elections and it is good that Atiku Abubakar is now in court challenging the election. As far as we are concerned, we are going to continue preaching liberation and our people are going to be liberated. We want a restructuring of this country so that all these anomalies which were created by the colonial masters will be done away with once and for all. Tsav is welcome to be part of the Middle Belt movement but if he doesn’t want and he prefers to see herdsmen killing his people, the Tivs, I believe the people of Benue will know how to handle it.
He says your organisation has no followers and that is why no one from the Middle Belt came out to identify with you after you declared that it is not part of the monolithic North. Is it true?
Abubakar Tsav was a Christian in his early years; he converted to Islam later in his life and now he feels that religion is more important to him than his people. The people of Benue including the governor whom we worked with closely came out to be part of the Middle Belt Movement. Who is he when his governor is with us? I am just talking about a small enclave which is his state and his ethnic group. The issue here is that people have been using religion to create division within the Middle Belt but we are not talking about religion here, we are talking about people who are indigenous to the Nigerian State who reside in the geographical location called North. The use of religion which has been used as a tool by the Fulani to lord it over other ethnic groups should stop.
People like Tsav should have a rethink on these issues. Maybe he converted to Islam because he thought that it was a way for him to go to heaven or maybe he did it because he wanted to attain some beneficial position, we don’t know. But as far as we are concerned, we object to anybody using religion for political reasons that would bring down the cohesive relationship we have within the Middle Belt for the liberation of our people. We will not continue to be manipulated by forces in the far North. The Middle Belt stands for restructuring and the progress of Nigeria and people like Tsav should stop making a noise and follow what his people want and not what the enemies of his people want.
At what point in time in his life did he convert to Islam as you allege?
I can’t say the exact date but it was before he became a police commissioner and that was why I said that maybe, he realised that becoming a Muslim will take him to heaven or maybe he felt that he needs to be a Muslim to get to the level he needed to get to, we don’t know. But that notwithstanding, Tsav is a Tiv man, the people being killed in Benue include Tivs and they are from the Middle Belt. The people who started the Middle Belt movement like JF Tarka, is a Tiv man as well. So, whether he said we are noisemakers or not, his own people identify with the Middle Belt struggle and the election result in his state tells the whole story.
Political players are already strategising for the 2023 election and the narrative now is about whether the presidency should remain in the North or return to the South. Your forum is pushing for restructuring which is likely to change the dynamics of elections if it happens but the likes of Tsav are saying that restructuring cannot happen unless the constitution is amended. Do you see the possibility of restructuring happening before the 2023 elections?
In restructuring, you have to take some of the things on the exclusive list and move to the concurrent list. Also, the issue of state police and creation of states will be considered, though they are constitutional issues. But to look for self determination, you don’t need any constitution. The issue is that there is nothing called the North or South in the constitution; even the geo political zones we have are political and not constitutional structures. So, these nebulous organisations which have been breathing down the necks of people is not constitutional, so Tsav is displaying ignorance in what he is talking about.
As nationalities other than the Hausa/Fulani in the North, we are pushing our case and in pushing our case, we have to divorce ourselves from the stranglehold of the so-called Northern oppressors who today are allowing the Boko Haram and killer herdsmen to destroy lives in the North. We are not part of this nonsense; we prefer having a Nigeria that is accommodating to everyone irrespective of tribe or religion. The Middle Belt stands for a Nigeria that is not divisive and allows for individuals to achieve their potential without intimidation.
Some states in the North are negotiating with bandits and kidnappers so that the crime rate will reduce. Do you think this approach will be effective in the long run?
That is a call for anarchy. I even saw in Katsina State where one of the bandits came with his gun to the negotiating table; that means the government has admitted that we are living in a failed state where our security agencies are no longer able to secure us. It is unacceptable. A time will come when people will sit at the negotiating table to discuss but that would not happen when you invite bandits with their guns. So, what happens to the victims? Does it mean that the oppressors are now better recognised than the victims? It means that our country has become a failed state. Remember when the Ohanaeze, Middle Belt Forum, Afenifere and PANDEF, told the former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, who wanted us to attend a security summit, that we could not sit on the same negotiating table with Miyetti Allah who have openly come out to say kill because their cows were killed. We cannot come out and talk with such people; therefore, it is up to the government to sit up and provide security, not to be wining and dining and protecting terrorists.
Do you think that our porous borders may have contributed to the insecurity?
I don’t think it is just about our porous borders; I believe that these people must have been imported into Nigeria because of their huge numbers. Many of them do not even speak our local languages, so people must have just brought them in. Some of the kidnappers and bandits that were caught by the police confessed how helicopters were dropping arms for them and this means that there are some state actors behind this criminality because it is not possible for aircraft to just be flying through our airspace without being detected. It is obvious that there is a conspiracy going on and that conspiracy has to stop for Nigeria to move forward.