It was a mixed emotion at the Ibrahim Babangida Square, Makurdi, the venue for the funeral mass for the 73 persons massacred by Fulani herdsmen during the New Year celebrations.
The service, which commenced at exactly 12 p.m. on Thursday saw thousands of mourners cheering and clapping for speakers who stirred their spirit with moving words.
They, however, booed and disrupted one of the speakers who said he was delivering a message to the people from President Muhammadu Buhari.
The ceremony started with the arrival of the corpses of the victims in five ambulances and four trucks.
A police helicopter hovered around the venue of the funeral as dignitaries across the Federation, including the National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) , John Onyegun, arrived the venue for the burial.
Our correspondent reported that even the prayers that were offered at the service were drenched in anger, pain and frustration.
In his speech, the Governor, Samuel Ortom, challenged President Muhammadu Buhari, to arrest the leaders of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN).
He said the deployment of soldiers to the state has paid off with the arrest of three armed herdsmen who engaged troops in a shootout on Wednesday night.
Mr. Ortom vowed to continue with the implementation of the Anti-Open Grazing law in the state, saying before its passage, every stakeholder was given an opportunity to make inputs.
“These killings are all about land but we will not be cowed or intimidated. They said our people stole one thousand cows and I say that is an afterthought,” the governor said.
“The killings and destruction is a product of the vow they made to fight and take over our land. We insist that the President should order the arrest and prosecution of Miyetti Allah.
“Those who have killed our people do not hold the monopoly of violence. It is funny that people were conscripted and arms pressed on them and they said Benue Government sponsored them.
“If our Livestock Guards were armed, would they have been killed the way they were killed? If they want us to arm them, then we will consider arming them so they protect our people,” Mr. Ortom said.
He noted that if those in the position of authority failed to bring those responsible for the killings to justice, the blood of the victims will cry out to God for vengeance.
Mr. Ortom said no part of the state will be ceded for the proposed cattle colony announced by the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe.
The angry tone for the service was set by the Catholic Bishop of Gboko, William Avenya, who in a fire-spitting sermon, drew attention to the history of herdsmen attacks on the state.
“The Benue people in different parts of the state have been under siege from armed terrorists for a protracted period of time,” he said.
“These attacks have been unrelenting, brutal, bloody, gruesome, barbaric and indeed unjustifiable on innocent and vulnerable peasant communities.
“They have gradually carried the hallmark of genocide and led to the killings of our people in their thousands, several houses and farms have been destroyed resulting in high rate of poverty and despondency and many children out of school,” he added.
Out of the 23 council areas in the state, Mr. Avenya, said 14 have been ravaged by the killer herdsmen.
He berated the country’s leadership and the international community for keeping silent while thousands were being slaughtered in the Benue Valley.
The clergyman said Benue people voted massively for President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 when he came to the state and promised to protect the life and property of every Nigerian.
“Now, it seems the payback for this sacrifice is the silence and sometimes the seeming complicity in the senseless killings, the wanton destruction of the means of livelihood and impoverishment of our people,” the priest said.
Apparently referring to the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, the Catholic priest said, “What has happened in Benue State may be called anything expect a communal clash.
“It will be recalled that Benue people voted overwhelmingly for the government in power, yet what we get in return are the dead that are lying here.
“Lack of Federal presence is exemplified in the broken Federal roads from Makurdi to Gboko to Katsina-Ala, and Otukpo-Enugu, that cast doubt on responsible leadership or leaving one to wonder whether there is any leadership in this country at all,” he said.
In an emotion-laden speech, the Leaders of the Northern Elders Forum, Paul Unongo, criticized the Federal Government for allowing Fulani herdsmen to commit genocide in Benue State.
Mr. Unongo said Benue people fought in the World War II and thousands fought and died during the Civil War to ensure Nigeria remained one country.
“We contributed over one million fighting men to the Federal side during the Civil War. Now Fulani terrorists came to our homes and killed our people. They kill our women and open their wombs and bring out unborn babies and slit their throats,” he said.
“Our people cannot continue to be the cannon fodders of peace for Nigeria. If the people we voted for, fail to protect our people, we will rise up and defend our people.
“We give notice to the Nigerian Government that we will never support open grazing of cattle. When our governor was speaking to the president, he was speaking our mind.
“We will not accept a situation where people will come and continue killing Benue people. I give a warning and serve notice to the government. I am the spiritual leader of Benue people.
“If the Federal Government cannot protect our people, they should give us two weeks, we shall raise an army to protect every part of our state. We are not interested in anything called cattle colony. There will be no colony in Benue State,” Mr. Unongo said.
The Tor Tiv and Chairman of the Traditional Rulers Council in the state, James Ayatse, condemned the killings and described it as “genocide against Benue people.”
Apart from the 73 corpses recovered for the mass burial, he said scores of those killed by the herdsmen were buried in their villages while many others were still missing.
He noted that the Benue sons and daughters were being killed in Nasarawa and in Taraba states, and called on the Federal Government to stop the carnage immediately.
While the mourners clapped and cheered all the speakers at the event, it was not the same for George Akume, a former governor and serving senator from the state.
Trouble started for Mr. Akume when he said he has brought a message from President Buhari, that persons from the state will be considered for federal appointments.
Mr. Akume, who seemed to be playing politics with the continuous invasion and killings in the state, got the bad side of the crowd as he was roundly booed and asked to get away.
He, however, attempted to appease the people by saying a request was made to the president to proscribe Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association and the prosecution of its leaders and members.
As he continued speaking, the crowd got angrier and people started hurling insult at the former governor until he left the podium.
The crowd continued booing him until he got back to his seat and would not stop even when the next speaker came on board.
At about 3.15p.m, the service came to an end as the ambulances and trucks bearing the remains of the slain men, women and children, drove out of the IBB Square to a special burial ground created by the government to immortalise them.
A representative of the United Nations (UN), Martins Ezurike, urged the Nigerian government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks.
Mr. Ezurike said the government must do everything in its power to protect lives and property, which he said were fundamental to the rights to live.
He promised that the UN would soon announce an intervention to help the over 50, 000 displaced persons in the state.