“In Taraba, Politics, Religion Don’t Mix”--Emma Bello
In this interview, Taraba state’s commissioner for information, culture and tourism, Emmanuel Bello, noted that the state is best suited for tourism activities giving the peaceful ambience of the state. He said all the religious and ethnic groups have learnt to remain peaceful and united in the face of provocations from some quarters, stressing that politicians can’t use religion to divide the state. Excerpts.
How has Taraba state managed religious harmony, especially in these testy times when there are crisis elsewhere in the North?
Well, to be honest with you, we have grappled with other clashes of culture in the past, but religious disharmony is not one of those types of crises. In fact, I can boldly say that religious crisis is alien to us in Taraba. We’ve had our fair share of ethnic battles in the past. But somehow God has been kind to us in that we don’t have serious religious challenges. This is due largely to our cultural, ethnic makeup in the state. There is hardly a home where you would not find members of the two major faiths as family members co-existing. In my household, for example, which may be seen as a Christian home, many of us are still Muslims. In short, we all live together and we won’t understand anyone coming to ask us to have a fight because of differences in religion. It would be a strange invitation to us.
You can come and start telling me I should look at the other fellow religion. It won’t work because I grew up together and we have come to see ourselves as one. Even a smooth-talking politician cannot campaign on the grounds of religion. He would be ridiculed and chased out because religion is not an issue in Taraba politics. Also, a religious crisis in Taraba will mean one brother is fighting another. It would mean families are torn apart. I give you an example. You know, my colleague the commissioner of health, Prince Gabdo, told me the other day that he is on the advisory board of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Gashaka-his local government! Can you beat that? A muslim in CAN? Now, this is a blue blooded fulani prince. Yet, he is in CAN. During the campaign, I watched as he sang many Christian songs at the rallies in his local government. The way the zumuntan mata easily sang with him, you would think Prince is a choir master.
So we are like that. As I speak with you, many journalists especially from the South still think our governor is a Muslim judging by his name. Many letters to my office directed to him will often add the prefix “Alhaji”. The governor’s name is Danbaba Danfulani Suntai but he is a Christian. Yet, he is very much at home with Muslim, just like everyone is at home with every other person. We really don’t make any thing out of these in Taraba.
Beyond this, what other deliberate policies are in place to stave off ethnic or religious tension?
First, the governor himself is detribalised. I already told you that even in his family, Islam features greatly. So as a person, he is at home with Muslims, as well as Christians. Then in his appointments and other distribution of the dividends of democracy, he ensures everyone is carried along. Let me tell you something that happened only recently. The governor constituted a board but had to quickly change it when someone observed that a certain segment of our society wasn’t represented on it. Some arrogant fellow would have spurned all entreaties and stick with his or her decision. But, not Suntai. He hurriedly amended it to for balance and to carry everyone along. In fact, he even apologised for the oversight because he is a human being. When last did you see a chief executive of even a chemist shop who apologised to his subjects? So, we are all learning from him how not to show what Hausa people call “babanchi” i.e discriminations based on any indices.
He shocked the whole state recently when he cited the federal university in Wukari. Remember that many of his colleagues were moving the facility to their villages, even when the place has no access road. But a detribalised soul that he is, he took the university to Wukari. It is gestures like this that endears him to everyone.
He has also built both the Christians and Muslim centre in the state capital to serve as multi-purpose centres for the faith. Then he appointed both a Christian and Muslim adviser to counsel him on the religions. In Taraba, Christians celebrate sallah, just as Muslims fete with Christians on their festivals. Like I told you, we are together twenty four hours and now it is hard to tell the difference. So as a Christian, you must have a Muslim as a member of your family, a friend, a colleague or a neighbour. And if you are a Muslim, it is the same thing. No segregation! We should be exploring these relationships to foster unity amongst our people in other parts of Nigeria. It is mutual suspicion that breeds religious acrimonies. Even in the current budget, the governor has made provision for a huge sum that would go to servicing both religion. The money would go into building and m,aintaining places of worship, centers, pilgrimages and others. Everything would be on equal basis. The governor recently gave out hilux vans to all the sixteen local governments. In each local government the CAN got a hilux van. The Muslim Council got one too. Again, it is about balance and not showing any form of discrimination to anyone.
What about political offices? Your governor has been accused of filling his cabinet with more Christians than Muslims?
That is an erroneous notion because like I told you, Taraba does not consider religion in any political decision. We just do our thing based on conscience, competence and geographical spread. In our history as a state, religion has never featured in our allocation of the resources of power. So for instance, at various times, Muslims or Christians have occupied all the “sensitive “positions in the state like that of the SSG, Head of Service or commissioners of all the portfolios. We have had Muslim SSG’s. The current one is a Christian. It never bothers anyone. All we need is good governance. There was a time when all our senators were Muslims. We didn’t see them as Muslims, but rather as Tarabans who are occupying positions. We have had ministers, ambassadors, and other federal appointment who were either Christians or Muslims across the years. All that is not a problem to us and no one has ever made it an issue. So for anyone to fall back to religion in addressing these issues, it is mischief at its best. People who talk like that have run out of cogent points to criticise our governor.
What about cultural fusion?
Taraba, probably, has the largest ethnic group in Nigeria. We have over 50 ethnic groups speaking close to a hundred dialects. Yet we live in peace because we have learnt to joke about our differences. For example, the Tiv and the Fulani have an ancient joke between them. According to the lore, the Fulani once gave the Tiv man a cow to keep. The tiv then killed the cow and ate it up. The next day, the Fulani guy asked the tiv for his cow. The answer he got from the tiv is the basis for the joke they have between them till today. We have such jokes all over the country. We must bring them back and learn to laugh rather than fight. In Taraba, we have an abundance of such play among the people. My ministry would soon make a compilation of such jokes. We also have shared values and many of the ethnic group can find common grounds in what they eat; what they drink; or some common bond in history. Intermarriages have also solved many of the crises, just as other forms of interaction are helping to douse tensions.
Also from time to time, we come together as a people in cultural fiestas. In such events, we appreciate each other: our dances, songs, costume, masquerades, history, cuisine, implements, and every cultural artefact.