John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Ombatse: Disenfranchisement and Violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
August 21, 2013

People stand by a damaged vehicle at a church, the site of a bomb blast, in Nigeria's central city of Jos February 26, 2012. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, and a contributor to the West Point CTC Sentinel.

Amid the ongoing trial of Kabiru Sokoto–the alleged Boko Haram mastermind of the Christmas Day and Abuja police headquarters bombings in 2011–other testimony relating to “Ombatse” has been largely overlooked. Ombatse means “Time has Come” in the language of the Eggon people who inhabit Nasarawa and Benue states. Ombatse was reportedly formed as the result of a revelation received in the leader’s dream that called for male Eggons to “purify society and rid it of social evils such as promiscuity, adultery, crime, alcohol consumption, and smoking.”

The government commission hearing the testimony on Ombatse learned that over 1,000 members of the Ombatse militia invaded Nasarawa villages where they killed dozens of Fulanis and members of other ethnic groups in late 2012, and 2013. Ombatse members are also notorious for their role in the ambush of between thirty (according to the government) and ninety (according to Ombatse’s “chief priest”) Nigerian troops in April 2013, in Nasarawa–a higher death toll than any single Boko Haram attack on Nigerian troops. This ambush–indeed a massacre–has rarely made it to mainstream international media, possibly because of the Nasarawa’s remoteness and the lack of a “jihadist” news angle (as with Boko Haram) or an oil-related angle (as with MEND).

The Ombatse spokesman explained the purpose of the movement in December 2012, when he said, “the invasion of the Europeans, Christianity, and the Islamic jihad changed the status quo. Our forefathers had their own way of worship… Now, what led to us to bring back this traditional worship is the complaints we receive from our people about the evil and vices that have pervaded our society and our state. These things were not there according to what our fathers told us. The society used to be serene and orderly till the advent of the foreigners.”

Boko Haram, as well as one of its ideological predecessors, Maitatsine, also have the “purification” notion in their ideologies. Boko Haram also has the notion that a return to the pre-colonial era–and restoration of Usman dan Fodio’s Caliphate–is necessary to restore the “dignity” of the Muslims of northern Nigeria.

The ideological similarities between these disparate violent extremist groups may reflect the influence of pre-colonial belief systems and colonial-era experiences on present-day Nigerians. There is also a common belief that the federal government has not been able to provide sufficient services for people on the margins of society, and as is so often the case among disenfranchised populations, a return to the past is somehow seen as the solution to today’s ills.

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  • Posted by Chike

    It’s good that Jacob Zenn picked up on this. Many people in the West don’t realise the deeper issues in Africa and even more don’t understand that Nigeria’s fissures go beyond the “war on terror”.

    Modern Africa is the result of World’s most obviously destructive social studies experiments (US intervention in Iraq doesn’t come close).

    There is very little continuity between the culture context most Africans were familiar with and the imposed post-colonial state structures. So these tensions are bound to persist.

    Western scholars/analysts are all about “can we get Africans to behave like Western society”, but that will not fly. When you arbitrarily impose artificial boundaries on ancient societies, tensions are bound to persist and some of these artificial constructs will not survive the test of time.

    And many of them will not – that is Africa’s future.

    A lot of Western scholarship is geared towards “preventing history from happening in Africa”. This is nonsensical, history is clearly telling us that many of the artificial constructs that constitute Modern Africa are unsustainable, ANYWAY on the long run.

    Back home, the Eggon people have consistently been denied access to power in Nassarawa state; this in part, is a consequence of that. The problem with artificial colonial constructs is that certain groups automatically emerge winners.

    As resources become scarcer, competition heats up. Virtually no Africa state south of the Sahara has developed a working social contract with its citizens in the past fifty years; so it is unlikely they ever will. (And no, USAID cannot create a working social contract in Africa).

    At the end of the day, Africans will form nations based on shared identities (could be religious or ethnic – the two most powerful forces in Modern Africa). These nations will not be based on artificial colonial boundaries. It might be bloody, it might be messy, but that will be the most important story out of Africa this century.

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