December 6th, 2010
Ten years ago, anarchy loomed large in Taraba. There were many war fronts in the state - the Jukuns attacked the Kuteb; the Tivs fought the Jukun; the Kutebs fought the Tiv, the Fulani’s, the Chambas, the Ichens, the Ndoro’s and on. Everybody had a little war to fight.
The great harvest of all these small, small wars was the humanitarian catastrophe that occurred in the neighboring Sankera area of Benue State. In late 2001, soldiers sent to keep the peace in these multiple Taraba tribal wars joined the affray. Outwitted, abducted and brutally murdered in Zaki Biam, a stage became set for the most mindless carnage ever carried out by Nigerian soldiers against unarmed civilians – women, babies, octogenarians, blind men – you just name it.
The slippery road to this state of nature was discernable. Anybody who watched the sequence of events from 1976 when Gongola state was created would have seen the precursor to this avoidable human tragedy. I spent a greater part of the 80’s working for the government of Gongola state. I saw the great Armageddon coming. Did I warn about it? Yes. The evidence is there. In fact the only surprise to me was that the acts of barbarism that took place in 2001 were not as bestial as what I had predicted.
Still, they debased everybody. Taraba was on global headline news for the inhuman and primitive conduct. The brutal slaughtering of soldiers in Zaki Biam and the even more brutal reprisals by the military brought Benue into the picture. When President Obasanjo went to pay condolence to President Bush over the 9/11 bombings, he was confronted by demonstrators who were not protesting the terrorist attack on the twin towers; they were demanding answers to Obasanjo’s brutal murder of unarmed and harmless men in Benue and Taraba. That was how the tribal wars of Taraba eclipsed what is perhaps the biggest news of the century – 9/11.
Often it is argued that the problem in Southern Taraba that has led to these acts of anarchy is caused by boundary dispute between Benue and Taraba. This is false. The most contentious boundary lines between the two states are the ones that divide Abako, Vaase, Sai and Chanchanji – all of them predominantly Tiv villages – into two; one half in Taraba, the other half in Benue. Funny enough, hostilities have never broken between the two states from these disputed villages. Fighting normally starts deep inside Taraba and not at the border. I should know because my mother hails from Sai, one of the disputed villages.
It is also argued that the problem is caused by land dispute. Not true. I am aware of a committee set up on land utilization in Gongola (1986) when I was in the service of the state government. This committee found out that over 80% of arable land in the state was lying waste – unutilized. The situation I am sure remains the same today. Certainly there is enough land for everybody’s need in Taraba even though there may not be enough for everybody’s greed.
There is the need to look deeper into what has led to the most bloody communal discord in Nigeria outside the Biafra civil war of the 60’s. The Taraba tribal wars represent first and foremost a failure of governance. The state creation exercise of 1976 did not help matters because it aggravated the unfriendly atmosphere between the Tivs and the Jukuns. It also ignited a new wave of Kuteb nationalism that set them on the war part with their all time neighbours – the Chambas and the Jukuns. Ever since then, government’s efforts to resolve these differences have mostly been feeble and half hearted.
Secondly, the wars are an indictment on the Nigerian media. When the legion of minority tribes in Taraba decide to kill themselves, the Nigeria media treats their news worthy exploits with ennui. As ferocious as the wars are, they hardly ever get media coverage. They could go on as they did between 1995 and 2001 - it is their business; the Nigerian media and Nation moves on. The reasons for this attitude are quite understandable. It is not a fight between Muslims and Christians; it is not a fight between minority and majority - the traditional crack lines that the Nigerian media considers news worthy. The tribes involved are all minority and predominantly Christian. To crown it all, there are no oil wells in Taraba like in the Niger Delta.
How do we get out of this mess? That is the million dollar question. The government must rise up to its primary responsibility of providing an enabling environment for its citizens to live in peace and pursue their legitimate goals. In the past three years, Governor Danbaba Suntai has done his best in providing that environment. The flash points have again tried to detonate; between the Tiv and the Kuteb in Takum and recently between Christian and Muslims in Wukari. His response to each of these flashes is always swift and instantaneous. The trouble makers have been brought to heel.
In 1987, a young Tiv Engineer applied to enter the Gongola Civil Service. He was promptly rejected on the grounds that he was from Benue. A fierce fight had to be put up before he was eventually employed. In appreciation of his meritorious services to Taraba over the years, the engineer, Andrew Nenshi was recently appointed Chairman and Chief Executive of Due Process office in the state. About a week ago, Governor Suntai led a powerful entourage to celebrate this same engineer in his village at Jandeikyulla, Wukari Local Government.
The occasion was a tumultuous. The governor in his speech gave graphic details of the patriotic acts of this engineer who has shunned all enticements to be corrupt and saved the state billions of naira from padded contracts. He promised to provide electricity, tar the road and provide pipe borne water to the rustic Jandeikyulla community as a reward for the hard work, honesty and patriotism of Enginneer Nenshi. Without Nenshi, he revealed, his government would have been able to achieve nothing. The stone that the builder rejected in 1987 has now become a corner stone!
The Governor said more. He was prepared to do battle with tribal warriors, armed robbers and other trouble makers in Taraba. He promised to fight these people and even lay down his life for the state if need be. Governor Suntai is on the right path and I cast my vote for him.
Emmanuel Yawe, a former Managing Director of Gongola Press Ltd. in the defunct Gongola State can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or 08024585402