Taraba Crisis: The Case of a Thorn Bird?

Justine John Dyikuk

Justine John Dyikuk

The intractable conflict between Jukun and Tiv ethnic groups in Wukari, Donga, Takum, Bali and some parts of Gasol (Dan Anacha) Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Taraba State and other neighbouring LGAs in Benue State fall within the larger picture of the activities of armed bandits, kidnappers, header/farmer conflicts, communal conflicts between rival ethnic groups and insurgency. The large scale pig-headed insecurity in Taraba has left over 10 thousand people dead with more than 200,000 people displaced (ACCORD/UNHCR, 2002). This has resulted in the breakdown of law and order leading to absence of government services, human rights abuses, disruption of economic activities, arms circulation, smuggling, mutual looting and armed banditry. The crisis has increased poverty in the land as people are becoming vulnerable to various vices.

What could be termed as the zenith of the bloodbath was the killing of a Catholic Priest, Reverend Father David Tanko on 29 August 2019 around Kpankufu village along Wukari road on his way from Takum where he attended a peace meeting. He was murdered by unknown assailants who set his body and car ablaze. The gory photos of his mortal remains packed in a polythene bag which saturated various social media handles puts the Taraba crisis as a human catastrophe. One year after, the perpetrators of this dastardly act are roaming round the streets as free citizens. His death would have taught parties to the conflict some lessons in sanity and respect for the sanctity of human lives but no! More lives are being lost and property wantonly destroyed.    

Sadly, there are indications that the crisis in Taraba is fought based on the four assumptions of conflicts – Competition for scarce resources, structural inequalities in power and social structures, abrupt revolutionary changes and Problem Reaction Solution (PRS). While pacifism and militarism are considered as important theories of conflict, it is crucial to note that in the case of Taraba, the latter seems to hold sway as reciprocal gestures of attack are commonplace.

The state which was created on 27 August 1991 from the old Gongola State by General Ibrahim Babangida has 16 Local Government Areas and is named after the Taraba River which transverses the southern part.  The state which has about 80 indigenous people who speak different languages has “Nature’s gift to the Nation” as its motto. This is premised on the rich arable land and natural endowments in Taraba. The Jukun and Tiv have enjoyed mutual respect and peaceful coexistence until 1959 when the first conflict took place. From that time, the crisis has reoccurred in 1980, 1990, 2001, 2019 and 2020.

Unfortunately, it has been reported that there seems to be a balance of terror between Jukun and Tiv militia (Mac-Leva, Emmanuel, Hunkuyi, 2019 & Ihyongo, 2019). Little wonder the following Jukun villages were destroyed: Chonku, Fyayi, Kwatan Tsufa, Rafinkada, Passoki, Gidan Wurbo, Gidan Adamu, Adakenjo, Komuto, Assa, Fyayi, Nwusen, Nwukan, Riti, Wanna, Numa and Gankwe. In the same vein, Tiv villages in Wukari, Ibi and Dunga Local Government Areas which include Ikyaior, Gbor Gbor, Lorlumun Nege, Ioryina, Tor-Musa, Tor-Orshi, Tor-Iorshaer, Tse-Tor-Luam, Ananum, Toho Abanyo, Ibua, Gborocha and Nbaju were sacked including Vaase (an area still in contention between the two states – Taraba and Benue) and Tse-Atsenga settlements in Benue State.   

There are unresolved underlying assumptions such as indigene/seller problem, fear domination, failure of power sharing formula, land and boundary disputes, chieftaincy tussles, criminal elements making material gains out of the situation; poverty and youth unemployment, primordial sentiments, lack of political will, lack of managing diversity and biased reportage which are at the heart of the conflict. This has resulted in loss of lives and property, loss of homestead, diminished religious and commercial activities, fear and suspicion as well as poverty and hunger.

Unfortunately, journalists from the warring tribes give ethnic coloration to the crisis. The distance between Jalingo, the state capital and most of the Local Government Areas also militate against effective reportage of the crisis. Merchants of hate speech and fake news are often quick to spread negative narratives about what is happening in Southern Taraba. This has not helped both the victims and other peace-loving Tarabans. Therefore, the onus lies on the Commissioners for Information and Re-orientation, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Environment as well as Culture and Tourism in the state to act as image-makers to change the negative narrative. The Governor Ishaku Darius led administration must make concerted efforts to reverse the recent battered image of the most backward state in Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) across the country.

Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) Jalingo Channel 6, Taraba Television Corporation and other private media firms in the state should be on their toes as regards advertising the untapped potential of the State to the world. The rich tea, livestock and nice weather in the Mambilla Mountain/Plateau regions of the state makes it a number one tourism destination in Nigeria. This is in addition to Gumti National Park and Chappal Waddi hill, the country’s highest point at 2,419 meters. Through the Taraba State Festival of Arts and Culture (TAFEST), fish and farm products like yams could be showcased to the world like the Argungu fishing festival. Without peace and security, these endowments are nothing but relics of Timbuktu.   

Apparently, the crisis in Taraba is similar to the legend of a thorn bird which sings once in its life but more melodiously than any other creature on earth. It is believed that as soon as it leaves the nest, it searches for a thorn tree and doesn’t rest until it finds one. It then begins to sing on the vicious branches as it pierces itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. Upon dying, the bird rises above its own agony to outrun the lark and the nightingale. “One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend.” 

Commenting on the thorn bird legend, Colleen McCullough explained that “each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, its self-knowledge can’t affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it’s the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it.” Enough of the pain! Could be have thorn birds in Taraba that would out-sing the nightingale in the superlative song of love, unity and peace without hurting?

Since the security apparatus of this country is centralized, the Federal Government must be proactive in providing security in the state and other volatile areas across the country. Tackling problems of illiteracy, youth unemployment in the state is critical to ending the crisis. The press also has a role to play in providing media education, encouraging inter-tribal marriages and stakeholder initiatives which would bring the people, governors of the two states (Taraba and Benue), traditional leaders (Aku Uka and Tor Tiv) and religious leaders to a round table for meaningful engagements.

The efforts of the Archbishop of Abuja, Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, Catholic Bishop of Jalingo, Most Rev. Charles Hammawa and Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Most Rev. Matthew Kukah whose center co-sponsored the Taraba Peace Summit in collaboration with the Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Management, Taraba State University with support from UK Department for International Development, must be commended. This piece is the fruit of the lead lecture the writer presented on behalf of The Kukah Centre at that summit which held at the Taraba State University Auditorium on 14 November 2019. Let’s keep the conversation. May permanent peace return to Taraba. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!

Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.

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