CROWDS of people in black dresses, weeping women, frightful kids and 73 polished mahogany caskets. Benue State was in pains yesterday.
It was all at the funeral of the victims of the herdsmen killings that have sparked a big outrage.
The sober ceremony, to many, marked the 41-year-old state’s most tragic moment.
The herdsmen invaded villages in Guma and Logo local government areas at night and dawn on January 1, killing people on farms and in their homes.
Many bodies were not found until one week after.
Thousands of people, including prominent citizens of the state, led by the paramount ruler, the Tor Tiv, His Royal Majesty Prof James Ayatse, were at the IBB Square, venue of the mass burial.
The burial was preceded by an interdenominational service.
Manny shed tears, women rolled on the ground as trucks bearing the caskets snaked into the arena. Vigilante members in black tee-shirts and black trousers accompanied the vehicles.
Makurdi’s streets were deserted.
Governor Samuel Ortom had declared yesterday a public holiday after the two previous days were observed as mourning period.
The Catholic Bishop of Gboko Diocese, Most Rev. Williams Avenya, prayed for the repose of the souls of the dead and called for prayers for the survivors of the attacks.
Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Benue State Chairman Rev Akper Leva praised Ortom for his charisma and love for Benue, having passed the Anti-Open Grazing Law, adding that the spirit of the departed ones and the God of Benue would rise up to torment the terrorists who brought tears and sorrow to the state and the people.
After the admonition came the grim task of laying to rest the dead in a row of graves dug and paved with blocks. One by one the 73 caskets were lowered. Before then, the atmosphere had been charged with relatives of the dead wailing as they crowded around the row of caskets.
A survivor, Akaatenger Azinga, told reporters that he was asleep in his house with his wife when the marauders came and knocked at the door. His wife went to open the door but was captured and killed.
He said: “I heard my wife screaming because they came in the dead of the night and when l went to rescue her, I discovered that they had killed her and the next thing, they started chasing me but l escaped narrowly to a nearby bush.”
Ortom led the moving speeches. He said he was ready to lay down his life to implement the Anti-Open Grazing law. He was supported by the leaders of thought.
The Tor Tiv said the attack was the 47th in five years by Fulani herdsmen. He likened the killings to genocide.
He said: “I, therefore, call on the Federal Government to act swiftly by putting an end to these killings; this act of impunity must stop.”
He encouraged the governor to stand firm in his resolve to implement the anti open grazing law, no matter the threats from the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore – the umbrella body of the cattle breeders.
The paramount ruler called for prayers for the dead.
Ortom restated his opposition to the cattle colony proposed by the Federal Government.
He said the suggestion was not acceptable to Benue people.
He said since the state did not even have adequate land for farmers, it would have no space to give herdsmen for grazing.
He insisted on ranching, saying “it is the best way to go and it is in conformity with global best practices”.
Ortom said if the recent killings were meant to intimidate the state government to repeal the law, the herdsmen had failed woefully.
He blamed the killings on the silence of the Federal Government and others responsible for the security of lives and property.
•The bodies being lowered into the graves…yesterday
To Ortom, if the Federal Government had acted on the reports he gave it on the threats of attacks by the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, the killings would have been averted.
He urged the Federal Government to arrest the leadership of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, which he accused of making inciting statements against the state.
He condoled with the families of the dead and the injured as well as those who lost their property.
Ortom’s wife, Eunice, Deputy Governor Benson Abounu and his wife Mary as well as APC national Chairman John Odigie-Oyegun attended the ceremony.
Also there were Northern Elders Forum (NEF) Chairman Dr. Paul Unongo, Gen. Lawrence Onoja, Senator George Akume, Senator Kennedy Waku, religious and traditional leaders.
Former Governor Akume noted that the Federal Government had failed in its responsibility of protecting lives.
He urged President Buhari to proscribe the faction of the Miyetti Allah as terrorists whose actions are treasonable.
Unongo said the state would not hesitate to raise its own army if the herdsmen attacks persisted.
He said a huge number of Benue indigenes fought the Nigerian civil war to keep Nigeria one.
”Benue people sacrificed enough blood for the unity of this country and would not allow a section of Fulani terrorists to come, kill our people in cold blood.
“I am begging Nigerians that my people cannot continue to be canon fodder of this country. If government can’t protect us, we will mobilise and train our people into an army to defend us. We are 100 per cent in support of what Governor Ortom has done. I am the spiritual leader of Tiv Nation; enough, is enough“
Unongo said the entire Beuue people were watching President Buhari and had joined in the persistent calls by Governor Ortom that the Federal Government should address the killings and arrest the leader of MAKH.
Talking tough, Unongo said: “If the Federal Government cannot stop or arrest those behind the killings, in two weeks, we shall raise an army of our own. We cannot allow people to colonise us again. We have all it takes to do that.”
A former Katsina State Military Governor, Gen. Onoja, who described the killings as genocidal conspiracy against Benue people, said it must stop.
Onoja said: “Some of us in 1966 fought in the Nigeria civil war, Benue has contributed to the unity of this country. Therefore If the Federal Government refuses to address the killings, we will decide to raise our army as advocated by our elders to defend ourselves, l will not mind to command that army, despite my age.”
He appealed to the Federal Government to replicate “Operation Python Dance” or “Fulani dance” in Benue as being done in other states. He urged Benue indigenes to support Ortom for the successful enforcement of the anti-open-grazing law.
Senator Waku said: “It is unfortunate that someone would oppose a law that is legally enacted and begin to kill and the Federal Government would refuse to make arrest in a quest to end the carnage. This is enough provocation; nobody has the monopoly of killing. Therefore, enough is enough”.
A representative of the United Nations (UN), Dr. Mathins Ejibike, who attended the funeral, condoled with the government and people. He said the situation demanded international attention.
“We want an enlightened approach to this matter. We should continue to pray. This kind of killings should be the last in the Benue state”.
Ejibike promised to look into the case of the over 50,000 displaced persons.