‘Killing always begins with the story of land.
My land, and my father’s land and
His father’s land before him
-Chris Abani ‘Histories.’
I write this article with a heavy heart because, like anyone who grew up in Plateau State in those seemingly ancient days when it was a model of peace and multi-ethnic concord, I am at a loss for words. What brought Plateau State and its hilly, temperate-climate capital, Jos, so low? Why is the ‘home of tourism’ now the home of bombs and bullets? Satan’s new headquarters is in Jos.
For nearly ten years Jos has known no peace and the domino effect is spreading across the state. The inadequately handled state of emergency imposed in 2004 by the Obasanjo government did not teach the saber-rattlers anything. If anything, tempers have gone from red-hot to white-hot; the dogs of war have been replaced by the wolves of genocide and in recent times, the pattern of grisly killings, inflammatory rhetoric from those who should be calming tempers, and the rather unorthodox tendencies by officers of the law posted there indicate that it is only a matters of time before Jos goes the way of Rwanda in 1994. I sincerely pray I am wrong.
At the heart of the conflict are questions over ‘indigenes/foreigners’ and its overt and covert implications: control of political and traditional positions; allocation of local government councils and ownership of arable lands and Jos’rich but ignored tin ore resources. Religion is the cloak with which these differences are covered. In a boiling cauldron of this nature appealing to history and legal facts for its resolution, though vital, is risky because they can be interpreted by any side to suit its interest. The psyche and mindset of the combatants does not make matters any easier; they are fired up by a blood lust rooted in codes of conduct which outsiders like this writer find hard to understand, let alone penetrate.
But keeping silent is not an option. Especially when I read a recent online newspaper report of a peace meeting that broke up in pieces when the Gbon Gwom Jos who chaired it declared that Jos belonged to the Birom and that all other ‘foreigners’ (including the Fulani) should respect the rights and identity of the ‘owners of the land’; that traditional titles that subsumed the identity of the ‘sons of the soil’ would not be respected at the gathering. So the fighters returned to their trenches.
Many issues arise here with wider implications for our fractured republic. First, Jos, indeed, the entire Plateau State, is a multi-ethnic entity made up of various agrarian tribes and the pastoralist Fulani. Irrespective of whatever the British colonial masters might have ruled in their gazettes, which I bet were not scribbled in the interest of their ‘protected peoples’, what does the Nigerian constitution say? Does our constitution have specific provisions that assure any Nigerian of unfettered access to the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship anywhere in this blooming country?
Anyone with a knowledge of the history of Nigeria, indeed Africa, knows that the European colonial powers simply lashed together different peoples to form self-serving entities. In the case of Plateau and much of North-Central Nigeria, the British simply consolidated on the Fulani overlordship established by the Uthman Dan Fodio caliphate to impose non-indigenous administrations on peoples who have a long record of virulent resistance to the Fulani jihad of the nineteenth century. With this background, should the British and subsequent Nigerian successors not have established systems that take into consideration their peculiarities?
The challenge of co-existence between agrarians and pastoralists is one that predates the birth of Christianity and Islam. History is replete with their clashes and how such seemingly innocuous sparks ignited holocausts. The bond between the Fulani and their herd is a matter of fact. But in this day and age can their practice of unfettered roaming in search for pasture continue? If yes, how can their identity be protected and their livelihood assured? Do our governments, specifically the Northern state administrations, have the backbone to get involved in the complexities of managing the relationship between their agrarian and pastoralist citizens? This is a sticky bone for the good people of Plateau, given the involvement of ‘Fulani herdsmen’ in the worst massacres.
The ‘ownership of land’/ ‘son of the soil’ criteria attributed by Nigerians in defining tribal or even sub-tribal entities in areas of the country is, to put it mildly, historically fluid. Whoever were the original inhabitants of a particular area is, in most cases, lost to the winds of history, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Since our peoples rarely had documented evidence of whoever was there before them how do we determine the original owners of the estate? Of course, non-literate peoples have abundant historically acceptable proof of their existence. The Jos Plateau boasts of the famous Nok terra culture dating back to the fifth century A.D. but does it answer the question: who came there first and thus owns the land? There is the geography factor. The Jos Plateau, due to its arable lands, hilly topography and plains, experienced waves of migration and settlement over the millennia. Groups replaced others, at times through the force of arms. With the advent of imperialism-both of the jihadists and the British-identities and groups mutated. For instance, peoples who lived elsewhere had to take to the Jos hills for safety while the jihads raged. According to the eminent historian, Okechukwu Okeke in the book ‘Issues in Contemporary Nigerian History’:
The resistance to the jihadists involved great losses and
much sacrifice. Many of the non-Muslim groups had to
abandon the plains where they lived and flee to the safety
of …hills. For instance, the Jere of the Jos Plateau ‘remained
ensconced on the Jere peak, surrounded and buttressed by mountain
ranges and offering a refuge to later immigrants.’
With the imposition of the Nigerian super-structure by the British, the Nigerian peoples moved into communal identities and borders that may have nothing in common with what their ancestors knew except name and language. Indeed, Nwaka, the Owner of Words, in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Arrow of God’ might have been referring to our dispensation when he declared, ‘We know a father does not lie to his son. But the lore of the land is beyond many fathers.’ The views of the American scholars, Robert Melson and Howard Wolpe, sum up the situation adequately: ‘Under conditions of social mobilization and inter-group conflict, communal boundaries are indeed transformable. In fact, much contemporary communal conflict…is being waged not by traditional entities (like the Igbo village group of the pre-colonial era or by the Ijebu, Egba and Oyo of pre-colonial Yoruba land), but by communities which were formed in the crucible of mobilization.’
So who is to say who, in this day and age, is indigenous to an area? This does not mean there are no foreigners in Jos or Plateau. As an Igbo I am not from Plateau. But the fact is that the current struggle for supremacy and control between groups like the Birom (indigenes) and the Hausa-Fulani (foreigners) is wrong-headed because NONE of them, based on my small knowledge of history, actually ‘owns the land.’ Forget legends, myths and cultural motifs; they do not explain the truth about who first controlled an area. You might as well believe that the Bayajidda story explains the origin of the Hausa or that Mung
o Park discovered the River Niger.
To much more contemporary and scary concerns. If the stories that members of the Nigerian army and police sent to restore peace in Jos have become active combatants, taking sides with the murderers are true, then Nigeria is in trouble. The implications are ominous. Does it mean that our security agents’ loyalty to the Nigerian state they swore to uphold is non-existent? What, if any, background checks are run on recruits into our security forces? Are there foreign infiltrators using Nigerian guns to settle trans-ethnic and religious scores? What is the composition of the Special Task Force in Plateau? Religion has a way of making the average Nigerian go crazy so is it safe to set up internal security operations with religiously and tribally unbalanced forces? Why is it so difficult to arrest or capture these attackers? Reports allege identity cards of military attackers were found at scenes of the mayhem. Can’t these ID cards be useful investigative tools for the security forces? They should not hide the outcome of such investigations; espirit de corps is less important than the lives of innocents. Is the ‘shoot-at-sight’ order of the army commanders helping matters? Do our security forces understand the conflict they have been thrust into?
If the government of Jonah Jang is overwhelmed by the mayhem, if the politicians of Plateau have sold their souls to the devil, the good people of Plateau should not go to hell with them. The federal government should read and enforce the riot act. Constitutional measures may have to be considered. Perhaps administrative and legal boundary changes are necessary. But let a referendum be conducted after law and order has been restored. The people of Plateau must live and take their destiny in their hands.