The Benue Declaration & Future of Nigeria: We Solemnly Proclaim Regional Autonomy & Self-government for the Peoples of the Middle Belt
by Obadiah Mailafia
The historic summit of the peoples of the Middle Belt was held at the Benue state capital of Makurdi. The rally and summit took place on Monday 16th July at the IBB Square while a conference of intellectuals and leaders of thought took place on Tuesday 17th July 2018 on the campus of Benue State University. A mammoth crowd witnessed the occasion, including politicians, traditional rulers, women and youth groups. The event was hosted jointly by Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State and his Taraba counterpart, Darius Ishaku. The Special Guest of Honor was General (Rtd) Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma who was ably represented by Major-General (Rtd) Zamani Lekwot.
As my gentle readers by now would have known, the leaders of the South led by Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark of Pan-Niger Delta Development Forum (PANDEF), Chief Ayo Adebanjo of Afenifere in Yorubaland and Chief Nnia Nwodo of Ohanaeze Ndiigbo arrived on a charter plane which was inexplicably denied landing rights at Makurdi Airport. This was the only sore point in an otherwise resoundingly successful event.
Clearly, somebody somewhere is afraid of the newfound solidarity between the peoples of the Middle Belt and the South. Early this year, at the historic Enugu Summit with its theme of “Handshake Across the Niger”, the peoples of the Middle Belt and the South entered into a historic covenant to realign their political fortunes as one people. They have made it clear to the whole world that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Those who denied the Southern Elders the right to meet with their Middle Belt brethren have arrived too late. There is no turning back the wheel of history.
Like their brethren in the Southeast and Southsouth, the Middle Belt peoples affirm their commitment to the restructuring of our federation to make our country survive and flourish in the years ahead. Taking cognizance of the defects inherent in the 1999 constitution – a document that did not spring from the collective will of “We, the people”, the Middle Belt desire a new constitution that better reflects the aspirations of all the peoples of Nigeria. They look askance at the fact that the 1999 constitution was designed and handed over to us by a military dictatorship without the full consent of the people. The very idea that our constitutional lawgivers were a faceless cabal renders it, ipso facto, without political legitimacy.
The Middle Belt takes strong exception to the gerrymandering of the structure of our federation in such a manner that favors some while shortchanging others. They also have reason to believe that the number of local government areas per state as enshrined in the current constitution was done in a rather arbitrary manner to favor some regions while disfavoring others.
The Middle Belt also decry the erosion of the secular character of Nigeria under the current illegitimate constitution. They point to examples such as the mention of Sharia 73 times, Grand Khadi 54 times, Islam 28 times and Muslims 10 times; with no mention whatsoever of words such as “Christian” or “Christianity”, not to talk of African Traditional Religion.
The peoples of the Middle Belt believe that the 2014 Political Conference was one of the most successful episodes in democratic consultations in our history. The conclusions of that confab provide the basic framework for the Middle Belt position on constitutional restructuring. The Middle Belt believes that holding another consultation of that kind will be a wasteful exercise. What the government needs to do at this point is to release the report and develop a White Paper out of it as a basis for further action. After the report and White Paper would have been released, an enabling law should be passed by the National Assembly to create a Constituent Assembly to design a new constitution for our country.
The Middle Belt takes the view that the current six Geopolitical Zones, which have no basis in law but exist merely as convention, should be expanded to 8 constitutional Regions: North East, North West, Middle Belt West, Middle Belt East, South West, South East and South-South and Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. The Middle Belt also advocates the creation of several additional states to bring the total to 54 from the current 36 states.
Among the regions to be created, the two proposed Middle Belt Regions comprising the Middle Belt West and Middle Belt East should comprise the 6 existing states of the North Central Zone in addition to Southern Borno, Southern Kebbi, Southern Kaduna and parts of Adamawa, Taraba, and Gombe. Through the process of a referendum, ethnic nationalities must be given the choice of which regions they would prefer to belong to.
The Middle Belt envisages a two-tier federation in which the federating units will be the 8 regions, each governed by an elected Governor-General. Within each of the regions, there shall be states with elected state governors. Each state will be free to create its own municipal councils with administrators and elected councils. The Middle Belt envisages regions that shall be economically and financially viable; able to meet their basic obligations in terms of operating an elected government and civil service.
The bulk of the natural resources of each region shall belong to the region. A sharing formula will be worked out such that the central (Federal) government does have some share of the revenues accruable from those natural resources. They insist on the need to have a regional police force under the control of the Governors-General to provide security for the lives and properties of each of the federating regions.
At the national level, the Middle Belt advocates for the preservation of the institution of the President who shall be the Executive Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and symbol of the nation; supported by a triumvirate of 3 Vice-Presidents to be drawn from the regions other than the one the elected president comes from.
The Middle Belt also believes that the spring and fountain of participatory democracy must be founded on a vibrant parliamentary tradition. They believe that there should be a popularly elected full-time unicameral legislature at the federal level while at the regional level and state levels there should be part-time elected unicameral assemblies.
Going forward, the Middle Belt demands that, in the design of a successor constitutional settlement, a Committee of Wise Men and Women, made of jurists and scholars of the highest intellect, will develop a White Paper out of the report of the 2014 political conference to distil the essential elements of a broad national consensus on the framework for a new constitutional settlement.
The next process will be for a Constituent Assembly, drawn from a broad cross-section of the country to draft a new constitution based on the broad elements provided by the Committee of Wise Men and Women. This should pave the way for a national referendum for the adaptation of the new constitution based on the principle of simple majority. This would then culminate in the adoption of a new constitution, followed by a transitional period of no more than 2 years, during which elected politicians will continue to hold office until new elections are held and a new government is installed at all levels of the federation.
The Benue Declaration culminates in a Covenant of Solidarity which the peoples of the Middle Belt have made among themselves. It is no less than a clarion call for a New Nigeria:
When, in the course of history, a people desire a better life;
When, in the course of ordinary events, a people desire to build a new society that will see their lives go forward and to guarantee a future for their children;
They will begin by solemnly reaffirming those universal values that have guided humanity through the ages in their quest for the good life, for justice and the pursuit of happiness.
Believing that men and women are made in the image of God; equally endowed by the Almighty Creator with inherent rights to life, liberty, and happiness, to live in a secure and peaceful environment, to flourish with our children and families;
Aware that, we, like every people on this earth, have a right to live under a government of our choosing as enshrined in all the sacred precepts of the Law of Nations and the United Nations Charter;
Aware that, for the better part of two centuries, we have been at war with alien feudal lords who pursued our ancestors with the threat of enslavement, persecution, and subjugation under the ruse of Islamic Jihad;
Remembering our heroic ancestors who remained valiant and strong with the help of God Almighty, and were never conquered;
Regretting the failure of the Willinks Commission 1959 that was intended to address the unique challenges facing the so-called “minorities” of the Middle Belt and the South;
Aware that, through the decades of Independence in 1960, succeeding Nigerian governments preserved and strengthened the yoke of oppression over the peoples of the Middle Belt under the spurious ideology of “One North”;
Conscious of the fact that our people bore the burdens of keeping this country together as one indivisible entity;
Recalling the structural violence and social injustices visited on our people through decades of neglect, systematic religious and ethnic persecution and gross social discrimination;
Recalling the thousands of our war dead – men, women, children, old people and disabled – who perished under a myriad of assaults through the pretexts of Sharia, so-called “religious riots”, Danish Cartoons, Boko Haram and murderous Fulani militias;
Recalling the martyrs of Dogo Nahauwa on the Plateau, the martyrs of Chibok land, Southern Kaduna, Taraba and Benue, and the rape and rapine visited upon the young martyred virgins of the daughters of our people;
Remembering the holy martyrs, Reverend Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha and the 17 parishioners of Ukpor-Mbalom who were massacred for their faith on 24 April this year (2018);
Recalling the systematic destruction of churches and persecution of Christian communities of the North, from Kano to Katsina, Borno, Yobe and Zamfara;
Recalling the silence of the entire world in the face of genocide against our people;
We solemnly proclaim regional autonomy and self-government for the peoples of the Middle Belt and all our brethren throughout the South;
We covenant this beloved land of our ancestors – this green and rich homeland of ours — to be inalienable under God forever;
Reaffirming that every inch of this land of our venerable ancestors belongs to the people who live on it, that we are entitled to all the riches under its soil, its rivers, its valleys, its rocks, and its hills and mountains to enjoy and to pass on to our children and our children’s children as an inalienable heritage forever;
We hereby declare our autonomy from the iron yoke of the Old North that has treated our people with such evil contumely for more than a half-century, realigning with our brethren in the South in the pursuit of a common destiny under God;
We swear that the crimson blood of the holy martyrs of our people shall never go in vain;
And let it be known to friends and foes alike, to those who wish us well or ill, that we will do whatever it takes to protect the lives and liberties of our peoples;
That we will defend this sacred land of our ancestors against all alien impostors, in conformity with the right to self-defense by people threatened with genocide under the sacred precepts of international law and global ethics;
With malice towards none and with goodwill towards all, we will march forward to protect the land we love, joining our brethren in the South and all men and women of goodwill to build a New Nigeria where truth, freedom, peace, and justice shall reign.
July 20, 2018