By Peter Duru, Makurdi
Tears flowed freely on Tuesday as the two Catholic priests and 17 lay faithful murdered by suspected herdsmen at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, Ukpor-Mbalom Quasi-Parish, Benue State on April 25 were buried at the Se Sugh U Maria Pilgrimage Centre, Ayati Ikpayongo in a mass burial.
The burial saw over 200,000 Christians from all denominations converging on the hilly pilgrimage centre to pay their last respects to the victims.
While the mass ahead of burial, which started a few minutes to 11am, lasted, many faithful were seen scooping sand and picking leaves from trees that beautify the massive centre, believing they had supernatural healing for all ailments.
“This has become like a sacred ground. Whatever sprouts from there will definitely heal divinely”, one of the faithful, Joseph Benjamin, who spoke to Sunday Vanguard, said.
Many others could not fight back tears over the fate that befell the victims who were sent to their early graves.
In fact, at every point that the Catholic Tiv choir sang sorrowful songs, many, including Governor Samuel Ortom, became emotional.
The governor was seen at intervals wiping his tears.
He set the tone during the oration that preceded the interment when he called for the arrest of the leadership of Maiyetti Allah Kautal Hore for allegedly masterminding the attacks that had claimed over 492 lives since the beginning of the year in Benue.
“I am here today with members of my government to say to all of you that the state deeply shares in your sorrow. We remember not only one moment of tragedy but 19 lives of great purpose and promise”, Ortom said.
“This is the second mass burial we have the misfortune to organize in the last five months. On January 11, 2018, we had the mass funeral and burial of 73 of our patriots who were slaughtered in the 2018 New Year day attacks by armed herdsmen in Guma and logo local government areas.
“We never expected another such day. But we were wrong. On March 15, 2018, we held another mass funeral for 26 victims of herdsmen attack in Omusu, Okpokwu local government area of the state.
“From January 1 to date, Benue has been attacked by herdsmen nearly every day not only in Guma and Logo but also in Ukum, Agatu, Okpokwu, Kwande, Gwer west, Gwer East and even Makurdi LGAs. At least 18 of our 23 LGAs have been attacked.
“In the early hours of April 25, Rev. Father Joseph Gor, Rev. Father Felix Tyolaha and 17 other worshipers were brutally killed by armed herdsmen at Quasi Parish Ukpor, Mbalom in Gwer East local government area. They were in early morning prayers in the church when they were gunned down.
“The Reverend Fathers were not farmers. They were not in the farm. The church where they were holding the mass has no grass. It is therefore curious why Reverend Fathers who do not have a farm and parishioners who were worshiping God would be killed by herdsmen in the church. By so doing, the armed herdsmen have moved the narrative of the current crisis from search for grass to other obvious motives.
“On this very difficult day, in this difficult time for Benue and for Nigeria, it is important to ask our country: what kind of nation are we? What direction do we want to move to? Are we going forward or backward? Are we also in the 21st century? People are killing us. We know our killers, but they are neither questioned nor arrested.
“In two separate press conferences, which were widely reported in the media, the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore and Miyetti Allah Cattle Herders Association called on herders in all parts of West Africa and beyond to reject the state’s ranching law and to come into Benue to help them reclaim their land.
“They swore that ‘more blood will flow in Benue’ if our ranching law is not rescinded. We are continually being killed not because we do not know our killers. It is because we know our killers that we are being killed.
“Our concern is not with herdsmen militia, Libyans, Boko Haram, ISIS or any mercenary. Our concern is those who hire them, who bring them and show them the killing fields. The arrest and prosecution of Miyette Allah Kautal Hore and Miyetti Allah Cattle Herders Association will be the beginning of elementary practice of justice for the 492 people so far killed in Benue by herdsmen.
“Our ranching law, which prohibits open grazing, is an instrument of development. It launches Nigeria into the 21st century as open grazing is extinct in many other countries of the world. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, India has 303million cattle, Brazil has 226m, China has100m, US has 93m, European Union 89m, Argentina 53m and Australia 27m.
“All these countries ranch their animals. Nigeria has only a little less than 20 million cattle which should be ranched. Ranching provides an avenue for both crop farmers and those involved in animal husbandry to increase production using modern technology.
“Implementing ranching policy in Nigeria has great positive implications on our food security. Both the National Economic Council (NEC) and the Forum of 19 Northern Governors have already endorsed ranching as the only sustainable solution to the current invasion by herdsmen.
“The idea of ranching cattle in Nigeria cannot and should not be ignored. Those involved in the profitable cattle rearing business need to go beyond endorsement to establishment of ranches.
“We cannot know how long we may have these avoidable trials and pains. But we know God’s plan for us: Good plan with a future where herders and farmers will live in peace, where there will be no cattle rustling, a future where there will be freedom of worship and no ethnic or racial discrimination.
“God uses good people to do great things. The blood of good people like Rev. Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha and 17 others will not be in vain.
“Their death and burial may mark the beginning of the end of political instability and the killings across the nation. With their death, the whole nation, indeed the international community is now aware of this calamity.
“We are determined to stand for truth and justice. Though armed herdsmen have killed over 492 of our people since January 1, 2018, though many of our homes, schools, and health centres are destroyed, though we have over 180,000 of our people in 8 IDP Camps and over 500,000 displaced people living with relatives or uncompleted buildings. 80,000 of our children of school age are now in IDP camps with no education, though we have 2,442 of our pregnant women and 2,766 nursing mothers in IDP Camps, all these because of armed herdsmen attacks and invasion, we are determined to keep on crying until justice comes. The night is long, very long but we are now at dawn, and morning will soon be here.
No to jungle justice
“We appeal to our people not to take the law into their hands, for vengeance belongs to God and two wrongs do not make a right”.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who attended the mass burial, on his part, said, “It was early in the morning of April the 21st that Rev. Fr. Joseph Gor and Rev. Fr. Felix Tyolaha were in the very safest place, the early morning mass at St. Ignatius Quasi Parish at Mbalom, which was violated by those who never feared God nor man. Within minutes of gunshots, 19 men and women lay dead in the premises of the house of God.
“They killed the flesh but they could not touch the spirit; that belongs to God. There was nothing they gained, nothing as achievement.
“Yes, they caused grief to the family, friends and the entire country but what treasure is there or what good is there in causing pain or anguish?
“What manner of man is he that wakes up in the morning determined to kill innocent men and women? Surely such a one has lost his peace. He is to be condemned and cursed but perhaps, deserved our pity even more.
“But what do we owe the dead today? What do we owe these 19 who died in Benue and very many others who have been killed here? We cannot bring them back but we can provided succour and comfort for those that they left behind.
“We can ensure justice for them by apprehending and punishing the assailants. We must rebuild the many places that have been damaged and heal the wounds that have been caused.
“We must rebuild and revamp our security system of law enforcement to ensure that all that live and work in this land are safe, most importantly, we must and will stop these senseless killings.
“Sometimes evil seems to be winning but as night follows day, this evil will be defeated and good will triumph.”
In an oration, the Paramount Ruler of Tiv tribe, Tor Tiv, Prof. James Ayatse, said, “Our enemies that would not allow us to rest, God is on the throne and He will handle it himself.
“I call on all my subjects, that nobody should go out to retaliate; two wrongs will not make a right. We remain in peace and in peace we will have our victory because we believe in God. We believe in God who will defend us”.
‘Nation’s survival at stake’
Delivering his homily earlier, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja Archdioceses, had rebuked the Federal Government for not doing enough to protect lives and property.
“To keep us safe is the primary responsibility of government. There can be no excuse for failure to perform in this regard. If the present state of affairs is the best that this government can give us, it should be clear that the best is not good enough”, Onaiyekan said,
“We need radical change for the better. It is imperative. There is already conspiracy theory making the round and ugly rumour of a grand and mischievous plan for territorial conquest, ethnic cleansing and religious imposition but only concrete and visible step by government can change it.
“It is then for government to put to rest such rumour which is dangerous for the peace of our nation. This must go beyond politicking before the coming elections. It is the very survival of our nation that is now at stake.
“Polarization of lives and differences especially ethnic and religious will only play us into the hands of the clique of those bent on throwing our nation into chaos anarchy and doom.
“We can rescue our nation if we are united in truth, justice and determination. If we are united in prayer to God, it is only then the killing of our brothers and sisters will not be in vain.”
On his part, the President of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, Most Rev. Augustine Obiora Akubeze, said, “The Federal Government must stop the killing of our children and women. We are all tearful because these killings have continued.
“Government must also ensure the arrest of all those responsible for the heinous killings”.
The Bishop of Makurdi Catholic Diocese, Most Rev. Wilfred Anagbe, who also spoke, recalled the trauma the people of the state had been subjected to due to by suspected herdsmen and accused government of shielding the perpetrators of killings.
According to Anagbe, the Church was standing with Ortom in the travails the people and government of Benue were facing but cautioned that the Church would abandon him if he derailed from the wishes and aspirations of the people in the face of adversity and conspiracy against the state.
“All we demand is that those committing the crime should be arrested and brought to justice while those behind it should also be prosecuted”, he said.
“Our question is, why is the leadership of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore not being arrested despite the allegation that they are masterminding the attacks? It seems the Federal Government is protecting them.
“Until they are brought to justice, we will not believe the sincerity of government in this matter.
“My question also is that if government can make and change policies for the good of the people, why are they not embracing ranching which is the best option for improved animal husbandry?
“Until we see that the perpetrators of these killings and their sponsors are brought to book, justice will not be seen to have been served.”