On Being a Minor Minority ,By Dan Agbese



Dan-Agbese 600Fifty-seven years ago, Her Majesty’s Government appointed the Sir Henry Willink commission “(1) To ascertain the facts about the fears of the minorities in any part of the Nigeria and to propose means of allaying those fears, whether well or ill founded and (2) to advise what safeguards should be included for this purpose in the constitution of Nigeria.”
Her Majesty’s Government was under pressure by the minority leaders in the country to make some important constitutional provisions to safeguard their interests in a federation resting on the tripod of three majority tribes, each of which was a permanent majority in the then three regions – Hausa/Fulani in the North; Igbo in the East and the Yoruba in the West. Their preferred solution, even if they spoke from both sides of the mouth, was for Her Majesty’s Government to create new regions or states for them and thus free them from political domination.
The commission did a meticulous job in addressing those issues and others in stipulated in its terms of reference. But it did not agree with the suggested solution put forward by the leaders of the minorities. It was not persuaded that the creation of more regions or states would necessarily and dramatically change the political fortunes of the minorities where it mattered most – in the regions and the regional governments.
It has been 55 years since Her Majesty’s Government accepted the report and the recommendations of the commission and put its trust and the future of Nigeria in administrative steps calculated to either remove the fears of the minorities or sufficiently moderate them as to make them irrelevant. Anyone tracking the progress of minorities in the country since independence is bound to come away with the positive impression that they have made giant leaps in politics and the economy. After all, and not for the first time, a minority man is the president of this country. No one can go higher than that on the political totem pole. The commission recognised that the centre would pose no problems for the minorities. It noted that “No minority expressed fears of the federal government…because the regional governments deal with matters which affect most people more closely than those which fall within the federal sphere…because the federal government is pictured not as one group which will try to arrogate all powers to itself but as a group of interests between which compromise is essential.” As it saw it, the problem was at the regional level.
The minorities have effectively redrawn the political and the administrative map of our country. From three regions at independence, we now have 36 states, all in efforts to free the minorities from the majorities and create a level political playing field of equity and justice. Many of these states have made the minorities kings in their own homes. Sweet freedom. Yet the current agitations for more states, mostly from minority states, underline the lack of real progress among the minorities in minority-controlled states. Before and after independence, we easily knew who was a minority. Anyone who was not Hausa/Fulani, Igbo or Yoruba, was a minority. The distinction is today blurred. With a stroke of the pen, the military rulers who created all these states, turned some minority tribes into majority tribes. Tribes with insignificant numbers found themselves relegated to the foot of the political ladder as new minorities, with all the agony and the denied rights and opportunities their new label entail.
I have tried to track of the political fortunes of my tribe, Idoma, in Benue State. When General Yakubu Gowon turned the federation into a 12-state structure, in 1967, he merged Benue and Plateau provinces into a new state, with the rather predictable name of Benue-Plateau State. It was a minority state as more or less championed by the United Middle Belt Congress before and after independence. The new state had no clear new ethnic majority.
General Murtala Ramat Muhammed changed that in February 197 with his seven new states. He took the old Idoma and Tiv divisions out of the former Benue Province, brought in the former Igala division from the then West-Central State and lo and behold, we had a new state, Benue State. The new state rested on the tripod of Tiv, Igala and Idoma tribes. The Tiv became the majority, followed by the Igala and the Idoma took the rear as the number three tribe. The political leaders duly recognised that each tribe must be given a slice of the political cake according to its population. Thus in the run up to the 1979 general elections, the NPN shared political power in the state according to the population formula as follows: Tiv, governor; Igala, deputy government and Idoma, speaker, state house of assembly. That sensible arrangement was cynically breached in the case of Idoma when the party won the election. The Tiv denied the Idoma the speakership and relegated the tribe further as deputy speaker.
In 1991, General Ibrahim Babangida created nine new states. He removed the Igala from Benue and returned them to the former Kabba province to become a new state, Kogi. The political fortunes of the Idoma sank further. In a virtual two-tribe state, the Idoma remain a minor minority and hold on to the short end of the political stick as deputy governors and deputy speakers.
Here is the sweet irony. An Idoma man, the politically savvy David Mark, is the senate president, the number three citizen in the country. Were he to contest election as governor as Benue State, he would lose handsomely. Mark was once famously quoted as saying that it was easier for an Idoma man to become president of Nigeria than to be governor of Benue State. I see no evidence this is about to change. The tyranny of the new majority is even worse than that of the old majority. Ask people in Benue, Kogi and other states former minorities have become lords and masters of the state political manor.
I was in my state only last week and saw that the struggle to succeed governor Gabriel Suswam next year is in top gear in the state. Hundreds of campaign billboards tell you who is in the race. As you imagine, nearly all of them are Tiv. Some of them are, of course, jokers but the point is they are asserting their right to rule entirely on the basis of being Tiv, that right is inalienable.
Two Idoma men, Chief Steve Lawani, the state deputy governor, and Sam Ode, former minister of state, ministry of Niger Delta, are bravely in the contest – billboard wise. They know they are trying to break granite into pieces with a table knife. They know they are merely also-runs. Their party, PDP, cannot help them because it has a made a virtue of the vice of untruth and lack of principles by repudiating its zoning formula, an important and critical political policy that would have given the Idoma the right to also rule their state. But with PDP, there is no equity and justice; only electoral interests.
Frankly, I do not hold the Tiv responsible for our political misfortune. Number is everything in politics. If the Idoma choose to practice birth control when the Tiv are filling the cribs with babies, then they must accept the consequences of their foolish decision.

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