20 May 2007

Nigeria: Myths and Wonders of Mambilla Plateau


Just back from the Mambilla Plateau, Correspondent Fidelis Mac Leva, takes a historical incursion into the origin of the Mambilla People of Sardauna local government area of Taraba state. He also spotlights life on the plateau, highlighting the good, the bad, and the ugly

Taraba state prides itself as nature's gift to the nation. If this claim is anything to go by, then invariably, the Mambilla Plateau can be considered to be nature's gift to Taraba. Standing out at about1, 850 meters above sea level and covering a vast fertile land of about 9389 square kilometres, the Mambilla Plateau is truly an invaluable gift of nature. It is characterised by a breathtaking ambience, a certain close knit coziness that leaves the first time visitor marvelling at God's wonderful work of nature.

The clement weather condition of the Mambilla Plateau, has been a source of attraction to tourists as well as a subject of literature over the years. Apart from its exhilarating climate coupled with its outstanding environment harmony, the Plateau which is located in Sarduana local government area of Taraba state is equally endowed with both human and natural resources. Some of these are tea, coffee, timber as well as agro based raw materials including large deposits of uranium and other minerals. It is also believed that the Mambilla Plateau has the largest concentration of livestock in the present Taraba state.

Little wonder that most of the big names in Nigeria, particularly retired generals, have acquired large parcels of land on the Plateau. President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Vice, Atiku Abubakar, are among those who own landed property on the Mambilla Plateau.

So much has been written about the scenic beauty and conducive weather on the Mambilla Plateau, but not much has been written about the history of the Mambilla people. Who then are the Mambilla people? What is their origin and who are their neighbours? Above all, how are their living conditions even in the midst of abundant natural resources? Our correspondent sought answers to these posers during a recent trip to the Mambilla Plateau.

The Mambilla are said to be the most populous ethnic group in Sarduana local government area of Taraba state. Located within the central zone of the North east state of Taraba, Sarduana local government area has its headquarters at Gembu. It is bordered to the North by Gashaka local government, to the South east by the neighbouring republic of Cameroon and to the West, by Takum local government area in the same state.

Apart from the Mambilla, other ethnic groups found in Sardauna local government area are: Fulani, Kaka, Tigun, Ichen and Ndoro. The main occupation of the people on the Mambilla Plateau is farming. They also engage in cattle rearing and trading in merchandise.

Traditionally, the people are agrarian. They live in segmented villages in the hinterland engaging in cultivation of food crops such as maize, guinea corn, sweet potatoes, yam, cassava, cocoyam, beans, groundnut and sorghum, among others.

Tea and coffee production is also common among the people on the Mambilla Plateau, particularly tea, which provides a veritable raw material for the popular Highland Tea located at the Highland estate, Kaka, some thirty kilometres away from Gembu, the local government headquarters.

Gembu, the present day headquarters of Sardauna local government area of Taraba state is said to have been founded by people who initially settled between Yambam and Ngeah alongside the inhabitants of the present day Nver and Yambam.

Oral traditions had it that a man named Jijah the father of Gelvnvu, from which Gembu derived its name, migrated to the present day Gembu with his family and neighbours. On arriving Gembu, they settled under a tree called "Bom" from which Bombo, a popular Mambilla culture derived its name. The settlement later grew into what is today known as Gembu. Gembu town is bordered to the East by Ninge and Warwar, to the north by Ngubin and Leme, to the West by Tep and Barup and to the South by Mbamnga and Vakkude people.

Origin of the Mambilla: Mambilla, according to a historical document exclusively obtained by Sunday Trust, is the name of a language (Mambilla). It also refers to the people who speak the language and could equally be a geographical expression referring to the area on the Mambilla Plateau. According to historical accounts, the name Mambilla derived its origin from the word Mang-bireghi, meaning "our group" in Mambilla dialect. But perhaps the most debatable question has to do with the original home of the Mambilla.

There are various historical accounts as to the origin of the Mambillans. One account holds that the people migrated from the Middle East; precisely Mecca. This account is predicated on the premise that "Mecca" is a word associated with the Mambilla culture and religion. The Mambilla presume that since the name Mecca was recognized in their dialect even before the advent of Islam on the Mambilla Plateau, it then means that there was a connection between the Arabs and the Mambilla people.

"Even looking at the hairy nature and their physical built up, one could conclude that the Mambilla might have blood connection with the Arabs," wrote Abubakar Kabir, erstwhile Dallatun Mambilla and one time Principal Development Inspector of Sardauna local government.

Another version holds that the Mambilla people migrated from Chad. This account is always supported through the theory that the Mambilla migrated from Mecca enroute Chad.

It is also believed that the original home of the Mambillans was located on the Mambilla Plateau at a forest called "Kwal". This account is usually supported with archaeological evidence and artefacts such as broken pots and grinding stones that were said to have been dug underground at the Kwal forest.

The cultural heritage of the Mambilla people is said to have found expression through various practices and ceremonies like: Tirim, Kati, Liter, Bol, Nebin and Mbasu. Other cultural activities of the Mambilla include poetry, Iron work and wood work.

Also, there are different cultural festivals that are performed on the Mambilla Plateau.

According to traditional sources, the cultural festivals are mostly performed to mark harvest, initiation to manhood, entertainment through wrestling contests as well as hunting expedition.

Before the 16th century, the Mambilla Plateau was said to have been characterized by a very thick forest called "Kwal." Great hunters on the Plateau were said to have settled at the Kwal forest from where they embarked on periodic hunting expeditions.

After each hunting expedition that usually lasted for a week or two, the best hunter was rewarded and honoured. Among the wild animals that were said to be found on the Mambilla Plateau were: buffalos, hyenas, hippopotamus, lions, tigers and elephants.

The middle of the 20th century was said to have witnessed seasonal visits on the Mambilla Plateau by nomadic Fulanis in search of greener pastures for their cattle.

This is said to have led to the mass exodus of wild animals from the Plateau, especially at the Kwal forest. Another factor advanced to have been responsible for the mass exodus of wild animals from the Plateau is the advent of the missionaries who were said to have come to the Mambilla area around 1947. They were said to have used modern weapons like guns in hunting the animals.

Oral traditions also show that the early Mambillans on the Plateau were engaged in idol worshipping before the advent of Islam and Christianity. The gods were believed to be in control of the good weather on the Plateau. They were also believed to be the harbinger of rich harvests, success in war, hunting, good health and happiness of the people. Whenever rules were broken, the gods became angry and visited misfortunes on the land such as diseases, bad weather or even death as punishment. During times of danger and difficulties such as war or lack of rainfall, the gods were said to be appeased through special rituals. Appeasing the gods took the form of prayers, incantations and offerings of sacrifices.

The present day Sardauna local government area where the Mambilla Plateau is found consists of the Mambilla and Kaka, as natives on the plains of the Plateau. On the other hand the Ndoro, Ichen and Tigon are also natives who resided at the foot of the Plateau. History also show that Sardauna local government formed part of the land then known as the Cameroon which was ceded to Germany as a colony at the Berlin conference in 1884. The colony was later shared between France and Britain after the defeat of the Germans in the First World War. France and Britain subsequently integrated their shares to their already established colonies of D'Afrique Centralle and Nigeria respectively. Later, a consensus was said to be reached at the 1962 Treaty of Versailles that each division of the Territory be administered as a mandate Territory under the League of Nations.

The early system of governance on the Mambilla Plateau was through chiefdoms and community system of government. In spite of the various historical accounts on the origin of the Mambilla people, their origin is still a subject of debate. Like one historian puts it: "The origin of the Mambilla people is a subject of historical metamorphosis."

Notwithstanding its natural endowment, life on the Mambila Plateau cannot be said to be a bed of roses. The Plateau has encountered problems of under-development ranging from economic, social and political, over time. Even in the midst of abundant resources found in this modern day, Eden, poverty and squalor conveniently co-exist at the Mambila Plateau. Apart from the colonization of land on the Mambila Plateau by the so called big names, there has been a geometric increase in the emergence of cattle herds, especially during the dry season when the low land losses grass and vegetation.

Consequently, tension and conflict culminating into periodic conflict between farmers and Fulani cattle rearers became an enduring social phenomenon. A typical example is the clash that occurred between 2001 and 2002 which resulted into mass exodus of Fulani herdsmen into the Cameroon Republic as refugees.

Lack of access roads linking the hinterland is also a problem associated with the Mambila plateau. Driving up the hills on the Plateau is not only Herculean but also very scary. This is because the Plateau is said to be the highest in the country.

"For development to reach all the nooks and crannies of the Mambila Plateau, accessible roads have to be constructed to facilitate free movement of people, goods and services" said Modibbo (not real name), a Gembu based merchant.

Like Modibbo, not a few other people who spoke to Sunday Trust in Gembu decried the deplorable state of roads on the Mambila Plateau. Mallam Kabiru Joda, a farmer, said: "An air strip as well as modern hotels should be constructed on the Mambila plateau to attract tourists and other vacationers from within and outside Nigeria."

Alhaji Ndotti Zubairu, the acting chief of Mambilla also underscored the need for infrastructural development, especially road network, on the Mambila Plateau. Speaking with our correspondent at his palace in Gembu, Zubairu called on both Taraba state and the federal government to do something about the bad state of roads in the area. He also appealed to the Taraba state government to provide agricultural inputs to farmers in the area such as fertilizer to enable them boost food production.

Another problem confronting the people on the Mambilla Plateau is the twin problem of potable water supply and electricity. In spite of the potentials that abound there, the people choke with thirst even as they grope in darkness.

Concerned by the plight of the people in this regard, the National Commission for Refugees (NCR) has risen to the occasion. The Commission is the implementing partners of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's office for the integration of the returnees to Nigeria.

Although the mandate of the Commission is to take care of refugees through rehabilitation, repatriation and reintegration, it has initiated some development projects on the Mambilla Plateau.

Mohammed Bare Birniwa, project manager of the Commission told Sunday Trust at his office in Gembu: "Our mandate here is primarily to reintegrate the returnees from Cameroon for peaceful development. But apart from this we have carried out a lot of development initiatives within the community." According to Briniwa, the NCR commenced activities on the Mambilla Plateau in September 2006 following the return of 5,000 refugees from Cameroon. "We started the projects for water, community centres and a training programme on the ills of HIV/Aids," he said.

The project manager further said: "We have also rehabilitated the Gembu water plant which had not been in use for the past fifteen years. Now Gembu is enjoying water supply. We also rehabilitated the Gembu power plant and Gembu is now enjoying light."

Although there was water supply in Gembu town as at the time our correspondent visited, there was no power supply as the town was enveloped in darkness.

Sunday Trust checks revealed that the lack of power supply to Gembu town is because the local government council has failed to play its role of providing diesel for the running of the power plant rehabilitated by the NCR.

Newly appointed Sole Administrator of Sardauna local government council, Jerry M. Bello, confirmed this during an interview with Sunday Trust in his office. He said the council could not afford to provide diesel for the power plant because "I inherited an empty treasury from my predecessor." The sole administrator whose mandate is to last for a period of one month, acknowledged the intervention of the United Nation's High Commi-ssion for Refugee's office through the NCR in Gembu but regretted that the local government council could not live up to its own bidding because it was financially bankrupt.

Perhaps, the utmost concern of the people living on the Mambilla Plateau is the return of lasting peace, especially in the aftermath of the clash between the Fulani cattle rearers and farmers in 2001 and 2002.

The concern was expressed by the acting chief of Mambilla, Ndotti Zubairu Kabri, during a chat with Sunday Trust at his palace in Gembu. "What peace cannot achieve violence cannot solve", Kabri said. Acknowledging that the aggrieved parties are now living in peace, the acting chief disclosed that he recently convened a meeting of various stakeholders to drum up the message of peace as a precondition for development on the Mambilla Plateau.

He said: "The cattle rearers should allow their animals to graze only on land designated for that purpose by the relevant authorities while farmers should also cultivate farmlands earmarked for farming. Animals are no humans. Therefore if one or two animals enter the farmland, the farmer should exercise restraint. By so doing there will be peaceful co-existence."

Jerry M. Bello, the Sole Admini-strator of Sardauna local gover-nment council who incidentally served on a Seven-man Committee for Peace and Conflict Resolution in the area in 2002, said poverty and hunger should be addressed beca-use, according to him, they were the major cause of the crises between farmers and cattle rearers in the area.

"I will ensure the stabilization of peace on the Mambilla Plateau during my short tenure," Bello said, stressing that women and youth empowerment schemes will be pursued during his tenure to address the problem of hunger and employment.

Sunday Trust gathered that with the return of peace on the Mambilla Plateau following the previous crises, nine united development agencies, among them UNIDO, UNDP and UNICEF, are working towards developing Sardauna for it to become a model local government in Nigeria. This, according to the project manager NCR, in Gembu, Mohammed Bare Birniwa, is aimed at achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs). Birniwa disclosed that the agencies were in Gembu earlier this year for an interactive session with the various communities after which they took back their report to UN donor agencies. "Before the end of this year many of them will show their presence on the Mambilla Plateau to invest in developmental areas of interest", the project manager said.

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