HOW THE MIDDLE BELT STRUGGLE BEGUN
The area of Nigeria often referred to the Middle Belt has repeatedly been viewed merely from a geographic sense. However, what needs to be understood is the area is as an ethnic and linguistically diverse region within the landscape call northern Nigeria (Meek, 1931. The people groups found in zone regarded today as the Middle Belt, before the coming of Christianity in the early 1900s, were predominantly non-Muslims and then people with various but related forms of cultures, socio-political organisations, and beliefs. This perhaps explains to a large degree why most initial literature about Nigeria often referred to the societies in the area as “pagan peoples/districts of northern Nigeria” (Gunn, 1956, Sharwood-Smith, 1969:102, etc.).
That Christian missionary activities flourished mainly amongst these groups seen as pagans (Ochonu, 2014) of the then northern Nigeria after Lord Lugard’s proclamation in 1900 suggests that the Middle Belt Movement ought not to be regarded essentially as a political movement. As Barnes (2007) argues, the Middle Belt struggle could also be understood as the quest for assertion for an esteemed Christian identity by Non-Muslim northerners no longer as pagans, who should be subservient to the emirate system, but as groups of people who are not simply united culturally but through a shared Christian faith and values of equity and brotherhood to all mankind.
To substantiate the above, history books have it that the genesis of the Middle Belt movement goes back to the formation of the then Birom Progressive Union (BPU) in 1945 under the leadership of one Patrick Dokotri, a former Catholic seminarian. One historian of that time, Robert Sklar, reports that the original objective of the BPU was to agitate before the colonial government for improvements of the political and economic situation of the Birom people.
However, the need for the struggle of a Middle Belt area separate from northern Nigeria as a result emerged later in 1949 after a motion was presented before the northern House of Assembly to disallow Christian missionary work in the entire north. It was at this point, we understand, that Dokotri decided to appeal to a number of other Christian leaders in the north to form what was initially called the Northern Non-Muslim League (NNML), which later took the name the Middle Zone League, United Middle Belt Congress, and at this time as the Middle Belt Forum.
Linked to this is the role of the about 60 diverse people groups of current Kaduna state in the middle belt struggle from its inception. The people of the then Zaria and part of Nassarawa Provinces, as they were called, having felt exploited and subjugated by the Hausa sarauta system joyfully joined the NNML and on the 10th January 1955 the United Middle Belt Congress, six years later now a political crusade, was inaugurated at Kafanchan and two years later a conference of UMBC held on 26th August 1957 at Kafanchan as well.
In order assert their uniqueness of history different from Hausa and in a demonstration of common languages and cultures, we read the people of the area, a geography I often describe as ‘non – Hausa/Fulani peoples of Kaduna State’, were at that time 1950s known as a group named ‘The Nerzit Union‘, with the emblem and crest been a sketch of a hunter with bow and arrow illustrating the traditional occupation of the people – hunting of wild animals – and it was the platform of Nerzit Union that they contested for elections in 1959.
It is instructive to note at this point that there were hardly no kingdoms or empires in the locality of the middle belt (Illiffe, 2005:100) until the 1400s thus there were few or no expansionist wars for territory as we have often been made to believe. What I have found is the so called ‘inter – tribal wars’ described in most Eurocentric anthropological accounts came as a result of Fulani – Hausa slave raids of the area which came in full force after the fall of the Habe dynasty in early 1800s (Smith, 1960:76, Mason, 1959).
Why did I write this? Recently, someone had claimed that the Middle Belt agitation had begun from present day Southern Kaduna whilst another person even acquiesced that Gen. Zamani Lekwot was the first leader. Brethren, this is misleading and a distortion of facts. History is one essential wealth required to free oneself from any form of oppression therefore make reading habit a culture.
Barnes, A. E. 2007. The middle belt movement and the formation of Christian
consciousness in colonial Northern Nigeria. Church History, 76(3), 591-610.
Gunn, H. D. 1956. Pagan peoples of the central area of northern Nigeria: The Butawa,
Warjawa…, etc. International African Institute.
Iliffe, J. 2005. Honour in African History (Vol. 107). Cambridge University Press.
Ochonu, M. E. 2014. Colonialism by proxy: Hausa imperial agents and middle belt
consciousness in Nigeria. Indiana University Press.
Mason, M. 1969. Population density and ‘slave raiding’- The case of the middle belt of
Nigeria. The Journal of African History, 10(04), 551-564.
Sklar, R. L. 2015. Nigerian political parties: Power in an emergent African nation.
Princeton University Press.
Smith, M. G. 1960. Government in Zazzau, 1800-1950 🙁 A Study of Government in the
Hausa Chiefdom of Zaria in Northern Nigeria from 1800 to 1950). International African
Written by Philip Hayab