Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
In the wake of the murderous campaign being carried out in Benue State by armed Fulani herdsmen, who have been operating more like a well-funded militia, Prof. Toryina Ayati Varvar, Professor of History and Dean of Postgraduate School of Benue State University, who spoke with Sunday Sun on the state of the nation, said that the political leadership must recognize that the fighting spirit in the Tiv people has not waned in any way. However, he urged the federal government to live up to its responsibility to protect and defend all Nigerians. This, he said, would prevent communities and ethnic nationalities from resorting to self-help that could imperil the country.
The Middle Belt region has become the theatre of war with a flood of blood flowing everyday as the people are attacked and killed by suspected armed Fulani herdsmen. What is really going on in the region? Is it that the Tiv people have become so emasculated that they can no longer fight?
When you put the question that way, it has a lot of implication. Because when you now talk about the Middle Belt being emasculated, you should know that the area is not an independent political entity. You may be talking about things in the past, things that happened in the 19th century. That time, all the areas were independent because they had their own political authority, they had their own political leaders and they were fighting outsiders. They knew they were facing external aggression. The people who came in were external people. Now you are talking about a nation and the middle belt is part of the Nigerian nation, not an independent political entity. So, it is wrong to say the middle belt is emasculated because it is part and parcel of the Nigerian nation. The problems of the middle belt are the problems of the Nigerian nation which have to be handled by the leaders of this nation if they really consider the area to be part of the country. But the issue as to whether they are emasculated does not really arise.
But when we look at what is really happening, it looks like the government of the day is not really doing much to stop the pogrom in the Middle Belt.
I think that is the concern of everybody within the middle belt. These fears have been expressed and they are very genuine fears. by the Nigerian government. But by what is happening now, it would appear as if they have been abandoned. By the Nigerian government. That is why issues like this are coming up. Well, you know, this thing called politics, this grabbing of power, the issue of winning elections are issues that are now appearing to be determining the actions of government. There are things that we as laymen see clearly yet, but with the political office holder, it becomes a difficult thing to decide on. So many times, their considerations are, “If I do this, will I win election?” And clearly, I think that is what is playing out in this middle belt issue. Playing out in two ways, because as you have just said, the middle belt is in the middle of Nigeria. You can look at the distance between these areas you are talking about; Plateau, Benue and the rest of them. The distance from these areas to the eastern border with Cameroon, the distance from here with the northern border, the distance from here with the western border, and yet you find criminals coming into these areas, causing a lot of havoc and it appears as if they disappear into thin air. For instance, in the case of Plateau, we were told that the invaders were up to about 200. They operated in Plateau and nobody knows where they are. Is it that they vanished into thin air or what really happened? These are the matters of concern. You start wondering why the government is so incapable of handling this situation. And when you start asking those questions, you would see politics coming in. First, you hear the government itself saying that these people are sponsored. Sponsored by who? By politicians. And then, the government itself feels incapable of doing anything. Why? Because whatever actions they take may cost them political positions. So, this is the dilemma we have found ourselves in now. A situation where a lot of atrocities are being committed and the government is saying that they are being sponsored by people and yet, the government is incapable of getting the sponsors or the actual perpetrators of these killings who are called by different names. So, it’s really something that we find difficult to provide answers to. But to me, I think this is a kind of primitive politics because if it is the politics that places the interest of the whole nation over and above every other interest, then, this kind of thing will not be allowed to happen.
In the past, we used to hear that the Tiv people were warriors and everybody feared them. But these days, they seem to be like prey in the hands of the predators. What is really happening? Is it that that fighting spirit is no longer in the Tiv man? From the historical point of view, would you say the generation of Tiv fighters have finished?
You shouldn’t be expecting the Tiv people to now rise and be defending themselves. That will amount to anarchy and I don’t think that is what we are looking for in this nation. At the time the Tiv fought the jihad, jihad was an external force coming to conquer this area and they resisted with their own forces. Now, the Tiv don’t have any standing army again because they are now part of the Nigerian nation. Who is going to raise an army in Tiv land to fight who? All these people we are talking about are Nigerians even though we hear stories to the effect that they are mercenaries but
they come through Nigerian borders which are supposed to be protected by Nigerian government. The Tiv people wouldn’t now go and start protecting the borders or checking people. It is the responsibility of security institutions like Customs, Immigration and the rest of them to do that. The issue of being weak does not really come in now in own present stage as an independent nation for over so many decades. Being part of Nigeria, there are some responsibilities that the government of the country are supposed to perform. If we now resort to self-help, it will degenerate to a situation of anarchy and real crisis. So, as a person, I don’t really advocate that. I feel that government has the security forces that should be able to protect us.
But in a situation where the security forces fail to perform their duty, do we just fold our hands and watch?
In a situation where the security apparatus of government appears to be helpless or unwilling to protect the people, then, you have no other option than to defend yourself. For instance, if I attempt to slap you now, certainly, you would block me. So, at that stage, yes, if you find somebody coming to fight you, certainly, you will fight back. But this still depends on your capability. If you are capable, you will be able to defend yourself but what we are facing now is a situation where people are coming in with sophisticated weapons, and then, the Nigerian government doesn’t allow you to acquire arms to protect yourself. Even if you want to protect yourself, by the law of the country, you are not permitted to carry those arms. So, whatever you feel that the people should protect themselves with is not something that is allowed by the laws of the land. We don’t know how the criminal elements have acquired their own arms. If you now say these people should now acquire arms and protect themselves, you are saying that criminality should be extended. In other words, you are saying every Nigerian should become a criminal which will not be good for us as a country.
Are you not worried that this spate of mindless killings have continued unabated especially in the middle belt?
I am worried that the government is not seeing these killings the way the rest of us, who are facing the fire are seeing it. I think it will take more commitment on the part of government and the political class to realize what is happening and to back up its promises with action. The problem is that it’s as if the government has been overwhelmed. We don’t see any action to back up the promises the government makes every day and that is why the killings have continued. So, I would suggest that there should be more commitment on the part of government rather than openly saying everybody should help himself. But in any case, if you are faced with danger, certainly, even by your natural instinct, you should defend yourself. It is not something that we should be asking people to defend themselves. If that is to happen, I think it will come naturally.
Historically, we are made to understand that sometime around 1804 at the peak of the Uthman Danfodio-led Jihad, there was a resistance which made it impossible for Islam to spread beyond Benue to other parts of the country. Would you say that what happened then and could not materialize is what is returning back this time around because people are saying that the current spate of attack has a religious coloration?
You know, religion is such a delicate thing that a lot of times, even issues that are socio-political get expression through religion particularly in our own country. Because even the Sokoto jihad you are talking about, for instance, we historians, when we look at it critically, they were more of economic contradictions, economic problems that led to that jihad. But you know, those problems had to be
channeled through a forum and they were now channeled through the religious perspective. Even now, they talk about farmers/herders clashes where the herders are mainly the Fulani group and the farmers are the settled people of the middle belt area. I don’t know if you can say what is happening now purely has a religious motive. But if you look closely at it, economic forces are underneath. This is very clear and people have made this point several times. The population explosion in the country is a factor. This area was not so populated way back and that time, even the herders could come and herd their cattle with no serious problems. But the position where we are now, with our level of agriculture, you would see that there have been a lot of changes compared to what obtained about 100 years ago. You just need to go to the countryside and look at the amount of land under cultivation. Clearly you would see that we are gradually having shortage of land in this area. So, the contest for land may have religious coloration but the deep root of it is economic.
The Benue State government promulgated the Anti-Open Grazing Law which the herders are not comfortable with. From your own perspective, would you say that these attacks were prompted by that law?
But you know that these attacks started more than 10 years ago while the law was passed just last year. Even after its passage, it was allowed time before its implementation. So, the law has been in practice for less than a year. I can’t see any sense in anybody saying that it is because of the law that these attacks are coming. This is a problem that has been building up over time and the law is an attempt to solve that problem. And I think there is a lot of sense in that if only we allow the law to operate. I think it is senseless trying to say that it is the law that has led to these killings because the killings predate the law. They were there for so many years before the law was passed.