Stories By Danusa Ocholi, Editor, in Makurdi with John Shiaondo:
Anguish, wailing, distress and anger may not even properly describe the mood of sympathizers who thronged the IBB Square, Makurdi for the “Black Thursday”, January 11. It was the third and final date set aside by the Benue state government to mourn the brutal killing of innocent farmers between January 1 and 6, in well coordinated attacks by suspected invading Fulani Herdsmen in Logo and Guma LGAs of the state. The attackers left on their trail over 100 people dead among them children, women, and the aged. However, only the bodies of 73 were recovered at various points of the attacks for the mass burial while several others As early as 7.00AM the sea of sympathisers adorned in black and wearing painful moods began to file into the IBB Square-venue of the Requiem Mass for the victims of the latest Fulani Herdsmen attacks.
Though in the open, the arena had every trapping of a Church setting. The Makurdi Catholic Diocesan Tiv Choir provided the solemn music that drew the attention of sympathisers to the inevitability of death and the reality of life in the hereafter. The Clergymen in their dozens moved back and forth to fine- tune arrangements for the solemn occasion while thousands of security personnel spread through the large arena to establish security presence in case of breakdown of law and order.
The real moment of grief came by exactly 12.00Noon when six wailing ambulances pushed through the capacity-filled IBB Square venue for the solemn event. The ambulances heralded the arrival to the venue of five low-bed trucks bearing the coffins of 73 dead victims of the horrendous attacks. As the trucks meandered through the sea of smypathisers to the arena, the over 200,000 crowd of mourners kept a pin-drop silence as requested by the officials on microphone with almost all of them standing to pay the last respect to the “Heroes of the Anti-Open Grazing Law” as aptly described by the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, who was the Chief Mourner. For over three hours that the Requiem Mass lasted, everybody was enveloped by grief, and anger as tears ran through the cheeks of many. The hordes of media men, especially photographers had a field day trying to get exclusive shots of dignitaries at the ceremony.
The huge crowd easily filled up the chairs provided in the canopies and the stairs of the Square while another crowd of sympathisers lined the streets outside the expansive IBB Square. When the Revd Mike Angou, Benue State President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) called the congregation to worship, there was pin-drop silence as the the congregation halted movement around the arena except the government and CAN officials who had a role to play or a responsibility to discharge. The police and hundreds of other security officials deployed to the arena to maintain security were almost idle at this point as everybody behaved himself all in respect of the dead throughout the nearly four hours that the programme lasted. Three Police helicopter which hovered the skies around the venue of the event for obvious show of strength, turned a nuisance as the engine noise obstructed the speeches being rendered by the speakers lined up for the event.
Benue Leaders Converge to Honour the Victims
It was a gathering of Benue leaders from all all walks of life who put aside political and religious differences to assemble at the IBB Square to honour the departed. The State Governor, Samuel Ortom, his wife, Dr. Eunice Ortom, Deputy, Engr Samuel Ortom, Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Terkimbi Kyange and the State Chief Judge, Justice Adam Onum, led the top government functionaries from the three arms of government to the event which was attended by civil servants and the business class who heeded to the government directive to close their shops and business premises.
Other leaders of the State at the event were Senator George Akume, Senator Barnabas Gemade, Members of the House of Representatives from the State, Senator Chief JKN Waku, Elder statesman, Wantaregh Paul Unongo, Major General Lawrence Onoja(rtd), former Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Michael Aondoakaa(SAN), Chief Edward Ashiekaa(SAN), vocal lawyer, Dr. Agbo Madaki, Academics, labour leaders, Inspector of Police, Ibrahim Idris, the Clergy, senior military, police and para-military officers both serving and retired, Traditional Rulers led by the Tor Tiv, HRM, Prof. James Ayatse, students, youth and market women leaders among other groups formed part of the crowd.
Arrest Leaders of Miyetti Allah Now- Ortom
Speaking at the funeral service, the State Governor, Samuel Ortom, in an emotion-laden voice recalled that the people had looked forward to start the new year with renewed hopes when Benue was invaded by the mindless Fulani Herdsmen on the New year day. He said from the beginning of the year to January 6, more than 73 people were killed, with several others missing while many who sustained various degrees of injuries were receiving treatment. Ortom, said the names of the victims who he described as “heroes and heroines” would continue to be remembered as “martyrs of the anti-open grazing law”. He announced the arrest of 3 of the suspected killer Herdsmen who, with their cohorts, he disclosed had again on the eve of the mass burial engaged security operatives in a fierce gun battle before they succumbed to superior firepower. Governor Ortom reiterated his call for the arrest of both the President and Secretary-General of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore who had, at a press conference in November last year, threatened to mobilise their members against implementation of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law 2017.
The Governor said failure to arrest them would amount to getting away with impunity which, in turn, would lead to lawlessness in the society. According to governor Ortom, people of the state have been pushed to the wall and will no longer tolerate the killing of its people. “We have been killed, we can no longer tolerate this, the federal government and security must protect us or the blood of those killed will cry and God will listen and fight for them.
‘’We took the decision to collectively mourn for those killed in the current attack and also accord them mass state funeral to under score the fact that their blood was spilled after a formal declaration of war on Benue state. “Our sons and daughters, pregnant wives, children, fathers and mothers were slaughtered like animals. “What is happening in Benue state should be a lesson to all. The problem is surely not in our law, it is with the green grass and water where ever found in Nigeria. “Our law is progressing steadily as 20 persons caught contravening the law have been charged to court. States including Zamfara, Adamawa, Cross River, Niger, Kaduna, Abia, Ogun among others have not enacted anti-open grazing law but are under attack by the herdsmen.
“Our hearts goes out in sympathy with all families who lost loved ones, orphans who lost parents and bread winners, parents who lost children as well as wives and husbands who who lost their beloved spouses. “We pray for God’s comfort at this difficult time of grief and that God’s judgement will be swift,” he said.
Killings An Attempt at Ethnic Cleansing- Tor Tiv, Prof. Ayatse
The Tor Tiv V and Chairman Benue Council of Chiefs Professor James Ayatse, in his funeral oration said what was happening was not just in Benue, but against the Tiv in the neighbouring states of Nasarawa and Taraba too. Describing the killings as an agenda at ethnic cleansing, te Tor Tiv urged the federal government to rise up and end the criminal activities of the Fulani Herdsmen. ‘’The president has no courage to do the right thing let him arise and end these killings. “On behalf of the Benue council of chiefs I pray for the bereaved , we mourn with them and the governor. “I will assure the governor that the people of the state are behind him,” he added.
Unongo Threatens to Raise One Million Local Army
In his oration, Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, Wantaregh Paul Unongo, who claimed to be speaking in his personal capacity said the state had suffered too many attacks by the Herdsmen. He regretted that President Buhari who the people had voted believing that he will protect them has rather left them to be killed by his kinsmen.
He said apart from the Fulani-Hausa, the Tiv people where he belongs were the second largest ethnic group in the north and if the two tribes were allowed to fight, the economy and political dominance of the north will suffer.
The elder statesman noted that as a Tiv man he would never fold him arms and allow his people to be killed, adding that if the killing was not stopped, he would personally raise an army of one million people to protect territorial integrity of the his people.
Unongo recalled that the Benue people had sacrificed a lot to fight for the unity of the country during the Njgerian civil war and warned that he would allow his people any longer to be “ canon folder” for the unity of the country.
Gen. Onoja Offers Command of Local Army to Confront Herdsmen
An angry Major General General Lawrence Onoja (rtd), has offered to Command a Local Army for the Benue State should the need arise to fight back the marauding Fulani Herdsmen . Onoja who spoke on at the mass burial of the victims on behalf of the people of Benue South Senatorial District described the killings in Benue as a “genocide and conspiracy” against the state. He said Benue had paid her dues to ensure that Nigeria remained united and wondered why the reward for the sacrifices made by Benue people would be the killing of their people by people suspected to have a strong backing of the state. Onoja noted that if the murder of the innocent lives in the state did not stop, Benue would raise an army of its own and he will volunteer to command the army. “We have sacrificed enough for the unity of this country and if this killings do not stop, and if an army is to be raised, even as an old man now, I will command the army,” he said.
Blood of the Victims Should Bring Peace- Bishop Avenya
Bishop of Catholic Diocese of Gboko, Williams Avenya who delivered the sermon at the mass burial of the victims of Fulani Herdsmen attack in Benue has said the blood of those killed should bring a lasting solution and offer a new dawn of peace in the state. He said the victims, who were to be buried suffered the fate of dying gruesomely, dying under intense and inhuman torture, dying in an undignified manner for no fault of theirs. “Our deceased brothers and sisters have suffered the fate of dying gruesomely, dying under intense and inhuman torture, dying in an undignified manner for no fault of theirs.
“We also remember not only those lying here before us today but by extension all those who have been killed since the beginning of these attacks perpetrated by diabolic, criminal terrorists. “May the blood of these martyrs bring healing to our land, may their death usher in a new dawn of peace in Benue State, may the excruciating torture they experience unite the people of Benue sate more than ever, and usher in a culture of civilization of love, true justice, peace and end the culture of impunity in our land. “We also in a special way remember all those who are affected directly or indirectly due to the orchestrated massacre, but particularly those who are recovering from the injuries sustained due to the unwholesome attacks. We pray for healing and spirit of forgiveness. He lamented the continuous silence over the attacks by herdsmen on unarmed farmers across the country describing it as a conspiracy. According to the Bishop, Benue state had sacrificed for the unity of Nigeria, but what the state had received was killing of its people .
Ortom Bows to Pressure, Cancels Live Television Coverage
Elaborate arrangements for live coverage of the event by Channels TV were cancelled less than 24 hours to the event on the insistence of the Federal Government. DAILY ASSET leant that as soon as information got to the presidency that the event would be shown live on TV, the State Governor, Samuel Ortom was bombarded with calls from the State House, conveying the concerns of the President, Muhammadu Buhari about the “grave security implications” of live television coverage.
A source close to Government House Makurdi informed that the Presidency was also vehemently opposed to the idea of holding the Requiem Mass altogether and actually asked the Governor to cancel the event.