This August, President Muhammadu Buhari should at this moment, have an important memo on his table. The brief should be on the fear and trembling among nine indigenous peoples of Abuja, the seat of power. If he has none, then, some people are definitely not doing their job or are treating the President’s authority with absolute contempt.
If Nigeria works effectively, the President should be having a memo telling him to take a number of actions on the boiling grievances of original inhabitants of the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT). He or his top officials could visit them or at least send a fact-finding mission to ascertain their grievances, which may soon find a violent outburst if nothing is done. But I doubt if this has happened. I doubt if it will ever happen, at least, not so soon, judging from the tradition of Nigerian authorities that are notorious for ignoring warning signals.
Let history be a witness: If the Federal Government does not address the growing concern of Abuja indigenous peoples, the ancestral owners of Nigeria’s most honoured city, the government may not be able to sleep soundly in the nearest future. On August 9, 2022, I was a witness to their hues and cries, to their passion and to their bottled up disenchantment. They are alarmed that their history and civilisation flounder in their very eyes, a sordid scene they can no longer continue to watch in silence. Many times the youths have threatened to block all the Abuja highways, but are calmed by their elders.
They complain that in 1976, the military government asked them if they would wish to stay on the land or quit. Out of fear, many of them left their homeland. Those who stayed back, the leaders said, were given stipend. One leader said the government would pay some N5,000 for crops on a piece of land but sell the same plot for N50m. They are worried that their shrines, sacred groves and burial sites have been usurped. They said the Aso Rock and the location of the
Abuja National Stadium used to be ancient territories for traditional worship.
At the Abuja old pack on August 9, the nine indigenous peoples came together for the first time through the Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education with the support of MacArthur Foundation.
I have always known about the indigenous people, who now refer themselves to as the Original Inhabitants of Abuja, but I honestly was ignorant of how rich their culture is and less aware of the level of deprivation and the seething rage and anger. On this day, myself with many visitors from across Nigeria and the world stood in awe as the indigenous people exhibited civilisations dating back to 1300s when their forebears first occupied today’s FCT. Masquerades of different types and shape, drum men, locals with time ancient costume came out with ancient harp, lire and flute. It was the first time many of us were seeing Abuja in its raw, original. “Our history was deconstructed in 1976 by the Nigerian central government. Our children are asking questions. They are worried that their land have been taken away and their civilizations almost extinct” one of the participants, who was born in 1976 told me.
Overwhelmed by industrialisation, skyrise buildings, a rainbow of people from diverse culture, the original people are deeply troubled about what they now consider as the complete lost of their treasure and humanity. Some of the nine indigenous ethnic groups in Abuja are: Koro, Gbwari, Gade, Nupe, Gwandara, Dibo, Bassa and Ebira. In 1976, the General Murtala Mohammed military administration issued Decree 6 that took away the Federal Capital to Abuja following the recommendation of the Justice Akinola Aguda Panel. The people under the FCT Original Inhabitants now argue that their history was deconstructed with the movement of the Federal Capital from Lagos to Abuja. The movement led to dramatic changes in the sociology, land ownership, control and management. All over the world, indigenous peoples are recognised by their own history and values backed by international instruments like the International Convention on Indigenous Peoples, the ILO Convention 169 all of which emphasise the protection of indigenous peoples, including their intellectual and cultural property.
The UN, as far back as 1982 had started to affirm the rights of indigenous peoples following protests across the world. On December 23, 1994, the UN General Assembly resolution 49/214 adopted the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Nigeria is a signatory. The UN went further to establish the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples and the first decade of indigenous people in 1995. The Forum encourages leaders of indigenous peoples all over the world to meet at the UN where their address world leaders using their native languages. I was the West African Regional Secretary of International Alliance on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forest, (IAITPTF) based in Chiangmai, Thailand and have had the privilege to attend the Forum at the UN Headquarter in New York and also their regional meetings in Europe and South East Asia.
The UN describes the indigenous peoples as “holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and posses invaluable knowledge for sustainable management.” UNESCO says there are 4,000 to 5,000 of the 6,000 languages in the world spoken by indigenous peoples. The UN also classified them as those “having historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that have developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories or parts of them. They form at present non dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ethnic identity as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.”
Nigeria should not only meet her international obligations, it should domesticate the various international conventions that will strengthen the indigenous communities in Abuja, protect their culture, include them in the political and economic development processes, so as to avoid upheaval and outburst of the growing social discontent. This may include the FCT allocating, for a start, five percent of its yearly budget to the education, health, cultural preservation of indigenous peoples of Abuja.”
It will mean giving them access to political and economic opportunities on their land, which they had held for centuries only to be taken over by the whirlwind of our own concept of civilisation, which annul the identities of the original owners of the land. The Federal Government should also immediately open up a window for constructive engagement to address all grievances before it is too late.
Adeoye writes from Lagos