‘How Jukun-Tiv conflict represents defective structure of Nigerian federation’
Banji Akintoye is a retired Professor of History and an Afenifere leader. In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, Akintoye, who served as a senator in the Second Republic on the platform of the then Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), dissects the lingering conflict between the Jukun and Tiv ethnic groups in the country. He says that conflict could be the handiwork of external elements working against the interest of both groups, noting that even though the two ethnic groups are traditionally war-like people, they were not enemies of each other. He, therefore, urges leaders of the groups to work out possible solutions in their own interest and in the interest of the country. Akintoye, however, notes that the structure of the Nigerian federation is defective, stressing that as long as the defect remains unresolved, conflicts among the various ethnic groups in the country cannot be ruled out.
What is your take on the perennial violent conflict between Jukun and Tiv ethnic groups in Nigeria?
The Jukun and the Tiv are very war-like people traditionally but they were not enemies of each other. What those of us who are observing now think is that some people are engineering them to fight each other in order to divert attention from what some other people might be doing or be planning to do in that area. As you know there is all this threat now — ‘we are coming to kill you, to maim you, to destroy you, to take your land, to banish you from your land and so on and so forth. We think that maybe what is behind this; that the people who are behind all the plans to invade, conquer, banish, kill, destroy and who are already doing it may be behind this Jukun and Tiv problem.
Historically, there is no reason they should be fighting one another. They are both in danger now from the situation in Nigeria. So, it is in the interest of the two nations that they bring the crisis to an end as quickly as possible. Otherwise, they will create the opportunity for their real enemies to dig into their part of Nigeria and do enormous damage to their two nations, not just one.
Some Jukun elite has been accusing the Tivs of having an expansionist agenda. What is your take on the allegation given your submission that the enemies of the two nations might be behind the crisis?
Why would the Tivs want to expand themselves beyond their territory? They are a highly respected nation. So, I don’t think so; I think there are provocateurs, who come and provoke one people against another people and provoke the other people against the same people. I think that is what is happening there. I don’t see the Tivs being expansionists to want to expand against the Jukun or the Jukun to expand against the Tivs. It is very unlikely.
The people raising the allegation say the Tivs have been expanding from Benue to Taraba and some other Middle Belt states?
No! The Tivs are not in Benue only. Historically, they are not in Benue only; it’s true that Benue State includes most of the Tivs but there are Tivs beyond Benue just as most of us Yoruba are in the Southwest but we are also in Kwara and Kogi states. Just as the Igbo are in the east of the Niger but there is also Igbo’s west of the Niger. So, state boundaries don’t exactly describe the boundaries of nationalities in Nigeria. The boundaries are arbitrary.
But you find that this problem is not new to the two ethnic nationalities, as they had severally clashed in the past. What are the likely reasons the conflict still festers taking into account the fact that the country was able to bring tribal strife like that of Ife-Modakeke to an end and today they are living harmoniously?
I repeat that my suspicion (I don’t have proof but that is my suspicion) is that some people are instigating them against each other in order to achieve another purpose.
And for how long would that continue because the problem has been there?
I hope that the leaders of the Tiv people and Jukun people will sit down and reason this thing out to bring the crisis to an end. I very much hope so. I pray so; we can’t have two vital nations of our country fighting each other. No! And it is surprising that the authorities of this country are not doing anything about it. It’s very surprising. So, we must appeal to the leaders of the Tivs and the Jukuns to bring this thing to an end. It is very embarrassing. These are historically very powerful peoples. They are both strongly dedicated to development; they are educated. So, why would they let anybody push them into continually fighting each other? I think they will bring it to an end; I hope so.
You are suspecting an outside influence but there are allegations that politicians from within the two ethnic nationalities have been fueling the crisis for political gains?
The politicians in the two groups are being influenced by outside influence. They are being directed by outside influence to create confusion among their own people. It’s everywhere!
Do you think people will readily yield to this kind of destructive influence?
There are people yielding to that kind of influence everywhere. It’s a pity! There are people yielding to that kind of influence among almost every nation in Nigeria. I don’t want to say more but it is not surprising that politicians of any part of Nigeria will yield to that, because they have been doing so. There has been a general moral collapse among politicians in this country so that it is easy to work them against there own people for personal benefits.
How can such attitudes be stamped out of the polity?
The moment we created a federation in which there is no regard for the component parts of the federation; the natural, historical component parts of this Nigeria are the nationalities, when you ignore them and you are creating a federation, drawing boundaries all around without regards to the integrity of the nationalities, you create a situation in which the members of these various nationalities will be looking for favour from some higher level and will be ready to sell the interest of their people for personal benefits — political benefits, financial benefits or whatever. That is what is happening.
That is why those of us who are saying let us sit down and restructure this federation meaningfully so that we can have order and stability must keep crying for it. This is because it ought to be the policy of the country that no ethnic group will be treated as if it does not exist; that no ethnic group will be split up between states. That will mean, as the Indians did, that the larger nationalities in Nigeria will constitute states; that the Igbo both in the east and west of the Niger will constitute a state in Nigeria. That the Yoruba, wherever they are in Nigeria, in what is now the Southwest and in Kwara and Kogi states and the Itsekiri in the Southsouth will constitute a state. That the Hausa will constitute a state; that the Fulani will constitute a state; that the Kanuri will constitute a state and that the Ijaw together will constitute a state. And that where we have a spread of small nationalities that are not big enough to constitute a state, Nigeria helps them to negotiate a small federation of their own within Nigeria. That will probably lead us to 16 or 18 states in all.
India has a population that is many times that of Nigeria but it has only 28 states because they follow the principle of the integrity of the nationalities. The fact that the foreign British, French or whoever came to Africa and treated our nationalities as if they don’t exist is not a justification for treating our own ethnic groups as if they don’t exist. That is what has happened. There is no justification for us treating the nationalities that have existed for thousands of years in this land as if they don’t exist. It is the will of the peoples who make up Nigeria that is important; it is not the will of Nigeria that is important. That is it!
So, for as long as you create a situation in which a young local politician can be lured away from serving the interest of his own people, there will be confusion in this land. That is happening.
You mean even in this Jukun-Tiv crisis…
O yes! You will see it everywhere. It may not be as malignant as you see in the quarrel between the Jukuns and the Tivs but you see it everywhere. You see politicians who disregard the interest of their own people and play a type of politics that obviously hurts the interest of their people. So, it’s going to continue; we are going to continue to have a situation in which people behave like that. It is almost a natural thing to happen.
Do you think the security agencies have done enough to nab those behind the present crisis, ensure justice and possibly end the problem?
The part of the body cannot be doing better than the rest of the body. It is not possible. The security agencies are part of the Nigerian system and they are doing the best they can. But in Nigeria, the best that anybody is doing is very poor indeed. That’s all.
I don’t think it is right for us to be blaming the security agencies. What we should be demanding is a better-organised country, a more sensibly managed country, and a better governed country. We can achieve it if we want to. But we don’t; that’s the problem. We don’t want to do it. We prefer to continue to shillyshally along and make a noise about the unity of Nigeria without doing anything about the unity of Nigeria.
Some analysts have alleged that the Jukun-Tiv strife is neither getting due media attention nor that of the Federal Government because the people of the two ethnic groups are mainly members of a particular religious grouping. What is your take?
Everything in Nigeria contributes to the destabilisation of Nigeria; even religion does. So, as I said, it is the Nigeria saga playing out in a terrible manner among the Tivs and the Jukuns.
I will say, for instance, that a people as large as the Tivs should have a state of their own in Nigeria; the Yorubas who are large should have a state; the Igbos who are large should have a state and so on. We will then come to crumbs of smaller nationalities here and there that will then create their own kind of federation. That is what Nigeria needs; that is what Nigeria should be working towards, and not saying that Nigeria’s nationality is the only nationality that is meaningful in Nigeria; it is not! The nationalities of the various peoples of Nigeria are the real nationalities of Nigeria. And then we will all contribute that to the making of the Nigeria nationality. That is the way it ought to be. So, people who are saying that the solution to Nigeria’s problems must not take cognizance of the existence of nationalities are talking riot and destruction. That’s it! It is the nationalities that makeup Nigeria; therefore, it is how to make the nationalities feel belonging to Nigeria, how to make the nationalities feel desirous of living peacefully with one another in Nigeria. That only can be the foundation for stability and peace in Nigeria.
What specific recommendations do you have for the warring groups towards finding a lasting solution to the conflict?
As things are, I repeat that these are powerful ancient people. These are today educated people. We must appeal to them to come together and rob minds and bring this to an end. Nobody is gaining anything from it. Each side is losing from it and Nigeria is losing from it.
Should they fail to heed this call, what is the likely consequence on both groups?
I guess the security people will go there and do what they usually do — clamp down on the people and say they are doing operation snake dance or elephant dance. Perhaps that is what will bring it to an end. So, if they don’t want an elephant to come and dance in their villages they had better bring this to an end.
Similar to the Jukun-Tiv crisis is the growing suspicion among the various ethnic groups in this country especially as it regards the handling of the farmers-herders clashes by the present administration…
(Cuts in) It’s not just the herders-farmers clash. People are whittling down the real essence of what we are going through and calling it farmers-herders clash. No, no, no! It’s not!
So what is it?
Some people have been engineered, indoctrinated, trained and armed to come and cause trouble in our country. That is the truth of the matter. The people who are killing are not necessarily herdsmen. They are militias accompanying the herdsmen. And they are trained and well-armed. The big question is: Who is training them? Who is indoctrinating them? Who is arming them? We don’t know. Nigeria needs to find out. If we want order in this country, the Federal Government owes us the duty of establishing an inquiry into what is happening. Something serious is happening but the Federal Government is not doing anything about it. The Federal Government is in fact sometimes appearing to be justifying or supporting the people who are causing trouble.
General T. Y. Danjuma, said from his observations in the Middle Belt (he is a Middle Beltan) not only are the military people who come to these places not defending the people who are being attacked, they appear, in fact, to be colluding with the attackers. That is a serious charge. It is a charge big enough for the Federal Government to say it wants to find out what is really happening.
But will you agree that aside from the Jukun-Tiv conflict, the Middle Belt is a bit calm now?
The Middle Belt is not calm; there is trouble everywhere. There is trouble in Nasarawa State; there is trouble in Plateau, Benue and Taraba states. There is trouble everywhere. There is trouble in the Southwest, Southeast and Southsouth. Who is saying that any place in this country is calm? There is no place in Nigeria that is calm now.
I didn’t say calm. I said a bit calm compared to what the situation was?
Violence is violence no matter how small. The disorder is a disorder and so we don’t talk about being more calm. There is still danger in those places and we don’t know when it is going to get hotter again. There is nothing you can point at to say, ‘okay, the government of our country has put the following things in place so that the crisis will come to an end or gradually fade away.’ There is no such thing. There is nothing one can point at to say that the Federal Government has put XYZ in place so that the crisis could come to an end. So, if the crisis seems to simmer down a little, it may be that the people who are attacking are tired a little or they are re-equipping and getting ready to attack again. You never can tell.
Do you suspect an international conspiracy in these attacks across the country?
There could be and a lot of people are alleging that there is an international conspiracy. A lot of the people who come to attack our people in Nigeria are not Nigerians. They come from other places; they come from all parts of West Africa. Some of them even come from parts of the neighbouring countries in the northeast of Nigeria — Chad, Sudan, Central African Republic and so.
People are coming from such places to take part in these disruptions in our country. And the President himself had said once in an interview with CNN in 2016, that there are Libyans among them from as far north as Libya. So, it needs to be looked into. The Federal Government needs to establish now a powerful commission of inquiry, including possible people from the United Nations (UN) and from the African Union (AU) to come and find out what is really happening in Nigeria.
How can Nigerians unite to confront these problems and build a cohesive country again?
There are two things. One, the people who are in danger of attack, who are in danger of being kidnapped and who are in danger of their farms or their villages being destroyed are still in danger. So, my advise to such people under the present circumstance is to defend your homes, families, and villages. Do not let anybody come and roll over you. No group of people is entirely defenseless; so don’t let the attackers have a feeling that you are defenseless. You are not defenceless. So, stand up and defend yourself, your families, farms, villages and your towns. That’s number one.
That leads of course to the danger that if we are all getting ready to defend ourselves, and we are defending ourselves, we are heading towards anarchy. So, the answer is that the Federal Government must put an end to all the attacks so that we ordinary people don’t have to get ready to defend ourselves and therefore there will be peace. If that is not done, we could wake up one day and find that there is no Nigeria there anymore. I hope it doesn’t happen; I pray it doesn’t happen. But it could happen!