5 July 2003

Nigeria: Violence in Nasarawa Toto: Politics Or Ethnicity?


When hell was let loose in Toto Local Government Area of Nasarawa State during the last House of Assembly polls, two of the three major ethnic groups in the area - Egbura and Gwari - did not probably imagine the end result. The consequence manifested itself in the killing of the state's Commissioner for Women Affairs and Youth Development, Mrs Memuna Katai on election day and a community leader, Alhaji Alhassan Mohammed Dio, who allegedly died in detention and the alleged 150 now languishing in detention without trial. This is not counting some 10 others, two of which reportedly died with three others sustaining injuries. It became obvious that pre-election tension had found expression in open conflict, for which opinions are now divided as to whether or not the pogrom was political or ethnocentric.

The fracas, which kick-started with the May 3, 2003 polls was considered by the Gwaris as the Egburas' offensive against their kinsmen in the now-volatile Toto. The Egburas view it from the point of an ethnic-cleansing agenda against the tribe by the Gwaris with some political backing. Thus, while the ethnic undercurrents gain upper hand, the political undertone is also considered significant to the escalation of the violence.

Between the proponents of the political and ethnic factors are those who believe both are interlocked. The political factor is tied to the fact that it waited to happen during elections, while the ethnic consideration is rooted in the conflict that has characterised the relationship between Egburas on the one end and Bassa and Gwari tribes on the other in recent years. The pervading opinion in Nasarawan Toto, where all seem to be calm at the moment, is that there is a causative relationship between the complicated political tussle between two leading political parties in the area and the problem of inter-ethnic disharmony.

The late commissioner, Mrs Katai was said to be Gwari and that her killers were Egbura, who were said to have embarked on a revenge mission with the arrival of two Egbura corpses at the police station where Mrs Katai had taken refuge. The angry youths allegedly broke into the armoury room of the police station she was hiding, brought her out and manhandled her till she breathed her last. Thereafter, the police station, along with her official Peugeot 504 was reduced to ashes by the rampaging youths. There from the news spread to both the predominantly Gwari and Egbura settlements in Toto, catching on with a bushfire effect.

The deployment of armed mobile policemen and a military reinforcement ensured that rather than continuous bloodshed, an uneasy calm pervaded in the area. However, complaints came in, in torrents that the soldiers carried out "arbitrary arrests" thereby renewing tension. With a house-to-house search and arrests, many residents had to flee to neighbouring communities, scurrying for cover. But the police public relations officer of the state, Barrister I. S. Ochenehi, denied that the security personnel dispatched to the area have been harassing people.

The Egbura Development Association, a pressure group with basement in Kaduna, accused the police of detaining some 150 Egbura youths among whom was Alhaji Alhassan Mohammed Dio, who allegedly died behind bars. The police public relations officer, however, denied the allegations, saying "those arrested were not upto 150" even though he admitted that the state police command initially made "mass arrests." The police spokesman who said he would not want to be seen to be partial in his remarks, however, accused the Egbura youths of ganging up to disrupt the elections at Rafin Kunama village, which he said prompted the late Katai to take the ballot box away. Of the death of Alhaji Alhassan Mohammed Dio, the PPRO said he was not aware of any report of death "either in the prison yards or police station" for which he said even "if anybody had fallen sick, we would have been informed at the headquarters here."

But Malam Musa Momoh, who claimed to be an eyewitness to the incident, disagreed with the police spokesman, saying Alhassan "was left to die in detention" only for Momoh to hear that "a suspected armed robber of the same name was announced dead." Alhaji Alhassan Dio, said a reliable source, was a husband to four wives 18 children and some dependants.

In disagreement with Momoh was Ibrahim Dangwari, who told Weekly Trust in Hausa language that he has been in Toto since the creation of Nasarawa State. He argued that the Egburas were "on a mission to take over Nasarawa State and the Gwaris (his tribe) along with Bassa tried to stop them." He went on to say that the Gwaris and Bassas have for long been suspicious about "the game plan of the Egburas in Toto." He claimed that the Egbura/Bassa crisis and later the Gwari/Egbura clash were the result of the unfolding "Egbura domination agenda."

In contrast to the claim of Dangwari, Malam Musa Momoh said "there is historical record that the Egburas never have conflict with the Gbagyis," saying that the Egburas have inter-married more with the Gwaris than with any other tribe in Toto. Momoh believes that the intermarriage has an indisputable connection to the relationship between the Egburas and the Gwaris.

There is a growing concern over the need for setting up a commission of inquiry, with a view to identifying the culprits and prosecuting them. The proponents of this approach in Nasarawan Toto believe that testimonies before the commission of inquiry would help keep records straight and forestall a recurrence of the orgy of savagery. Commenting on why the arrests by police have so far been the only measure taken in connection with the crisis, the Nasarawa State police spokesman told Weekly Trust that "if the state government decides to set up a commission of inquiry that is apart from the criminal action," saying as for the police, they did the right thing in consonance with Police Act, Cap 359 of 1990, which provides for "mass arrests." He submitted that the idea of a commission of inquiry rests with the state government. The question on the lips of some people in Nasarawa Toto is whether the state government would do so.

When Weekly Trust visited Government House, Lafiya, with a view to confirming whether there is such a plan in the offing, the governor was said to be on his way out to Abuja. Weekly Trust sought to pin down the governor in the Federal Capital Territory only to be told that he way back on his way to Keffi. Some respondents in Lafiya had jocularly said the governor hardly stayed for up to one week in the state capital. But a Government House source hinted that the state government's reluctance to set up a commission of inquiry might be connected to "the calm that is gradually returning to Nasarawa Toto, the presence of armed police and soldiers notwithstanding." The source also said that the state government "in the end may have to bow to pressure by setting up the inquiry commission," but feared that the implementation of the white paper recommendations by the government "might renew the violence." He sought to tie the reluctance of the state government to "the need for the matter to end soon."

But the Egbura Development Association's secretary, Mal. Mohammed Ibrahim told Weekly Trust in Kaduna that the only way forward is the setting up of a commission of inquiry to investigate the matter and submit appropriate recommendations. He has a supporter in Momoh, who also believes that at the moment, the state needs "an unbiased commission of inquiry." However, Momoh believes that the relationship between the Egburas and the other tribes "is going to be very cordial," saying that "this is not the first time Egburas are playing politics."

When Weekly Trust visited Toto Local Government, the Bassa tribe who left the area in their hundreds during their clash with the Egburas before the Assembly polls were seen returning home. One of the Bassa returnees, Moses Adamu, claimed that they were exploiting the gesture of the state government of resettling them. However, some respondents said business activities were picking up slowly, as certain villages in the local government appear partly desolate. But patrol by gun-totting security agents are still on, as no date for their withdrawal has thus far been officially announced.

Fears are, however, being expressed as to what happens should the state government decide finally to hold elections at the local government levels. A cross-section of respondents would want careful planning through some tough security measures, to avert a recurrence of the May 3rd crisis that has crippled Nasarawa Toto, compelling people in their thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring local governments.

Meanwhile, a member of the House of Representatives, Mr Samuel Egya attributed the near total absence of democracy dividends in the area to the "myriad of crises." The Nasarawan Toto federal constituency representative then implored the people of the area to "cultivate the habit" of embracing peaceful means of resolving conflicts as a tool for development. He also noted that it was the wish of God that they had to stay together as a people and lamented that the myriad of crises in Toto has the tendency to portray the area and its people in bad light.

Mr Egya also said that going by the situation on the ground, Nasarawan Toto risks losing touch with development if the ethnic groups in the area fail to embrace the instrument of dialogue.

How does lasting peace return to Nasarawan Toto? Yakubu Pam, a student of the University of Jos resident in Lafiya believes that the provision of job opportunities for youths in the state, Toto inclusive, "is another guarantee to lasting peace." He said the youths that participated in the Gwari/Egbura clashes were "mostly unemployed and ready to do whatever would fetch them money."

But Rabi Almakura, a textile materials dealer disagrees with Yakubu, saying that the elite in Nasarawa "need to put their acts together and stop using innocent youths to challenge one another's supremacy." She described what she termed "political power tussle" among the Nasarawa State elite as "the main problem that must be tackled urgently."

A member of the PDP in Nasarawan Toto, who pleaded anonymity, accused his party's strongest rival in the state, the NDP, of allegedly "fuelling the crisis." But Garba Adogi, a member of the NDP countered that the ruling party was guilty. The two respondents believe that the ruling party in the state, along with the NDP could nip the crisis in the bud through some form of dialogue and compromise. However, one case before the Nasarawa State Election Petitions Tribunal according to reports, has to do with the Assembly elections during which the incident occurred. For this reason, other respondents declined comment for fear of contempt of court.

For Hajiya Halima Akwanga, the way to lasting peace in Nasarawa "is the effective use of the Poverty Alleviation Programme, to keep the citizenry busy and more committed to the development of the state." She observed that with a "vibrant economic empowerment programme, the end to these pockets of violence would be seen."

Shehu Akwanga, in his view, wants what he called "inter-ethnic suspicion to be faced squarely" as the only means out of the logjam. He went on to say that though the level of poverty in the country may be a factor, inter-ethnic disharmony has no direct bearing to poverty. For him, the way for lasting peace in Nasarawa State in general and Toto in particular "is more of psychological rather than material."

At the moment, expectations are high among the warring parties in the Nasarawan Toto pogrom that the culprits would soon be brought to book by way of an independent commission of inquiry or its equivalent. This is while the injured nurse their wounds and the deceased people's families mourn their kith and kin. It does appear that the ball is now in the court of Governor Abdullahi Adamu to take a decisive step, with a view to either cushioning the effects of the fracas or oiling the wheels of inter-ethnic harmony. But the Egbura Youth Development Association in Kaduna has a preference for direct federal government intervention. Ibrahim Mozum and Mohammed Ibrahim, chairman and secretary respectively, advocated for setting up what they variously called "a high-powered judicial commission of inquiry" to tackle the matter.

What is inevitable, however, is peace. The hope of Nasarawa Toto people especially is, let the indispensability of peace not be lost on the state's stakeholders.

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