Two Nigerian priests and 17 worshippers were buried on Tuesday, nearly a month after an attack on their church, as Catholics took to the streets calling for an end to a spiral of violence.
White coffins containing the bodies of the clergymen and the members of their congregation were laid to rest in central Benue state, which has been hit by a wave of deadly unrest.
The April 24 attack has been blamed on nomadic cattle herders at loggerheads with farmers over resources in a conflict that has taken on a wider ethnic, religious and political dimension.
The battle for land has been characterised as Nigeria’s biggest security challenge, with the potential to eclipse even Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo — himself a Pentecostal preacher — told thousands of mourners that the dawn attack at St Ignatius Church in Mbalom was “despicable”.
“We can ensure justice… by apprehending and punishing their assailants. We must rebuild places that have been damaged and heal wounds that have been caused,” he added.
Benue governor Samuel Ortom, who has banned open grazing by herders, said 492 people had been killed in the state so far this year and those responsible needed to be brought to book.
But the head of the ethnic Tiv people, Tor Tiv James Ayatse, called for calm despite rising tensions, saying “two wrongs will not make a right”.
– Prayers and protest –
Meanwhile, Roman Catholics mobilised across Nigeria to call on the government to do more to end the resurgence of the long-running conflict in Nigeria’s restive central heartland.
In the capital, the Archbishop of Abuja, Anselm Umoren, led about a dozen priests dressed in white and thousands of parishioners wearing black in a march through the streets.
With the farmers Christian and the herders Muslim, many believe the attacks are religiously motivated. The church attack sparked riots in the Benue state capital, Makurdi.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who has ordered in troops to keep the peace, has been accused of failing to act decisively as the herders are his kinsmen.
Some demonstrators held placards reading “Government must stop sleeping” and “Let the killings stop”.
The issue is likely to become a key election issue as Buhari seeks re-election at nationwide polls in February next year.
Umoren called on Buhari to bring those responsible to justice and said the protest was an occasion “to pray for all those who have been victims of barbaric and satanic killings”.
There were similar sentiments in Lagos, the country’s commercial hub in the southwest, where thousands of worshippers gathered for mass under tight security.
The Archbishop of Lagos, Alfred Adewale Martins, called those responsible “nothing less than terrorists”.
“The Christians were doing nothing wrong but serving their God when they were murdered,” he told the congregation.