I am up at 4am (GMT) giving you an update on today’s mass burial of victims of the St Ignatius church massacre so please pardon the brevity and incoherence (after three days of non-stop travel to get here.)
- Nigeria’s Vice President Osinbajo came though he arrived late. He offered general platitudes and said this is not the first time church killings have happened in Nigeria, citing incidents before their government came into power. Priests at the graveside commented to me that he was the regime’s Cicero and his remarks were poetic. Unlike the president’s visit where he never actually said sorry to the people of Benue on their loss, the priests I spoke felt the Vice President did so on this occasion.
While activists I spoke to were pained that the president did not come himself, I for one was relieved that at least the VP came. It’s the first of three mass burials this year in Benue State that such a high level federal government representative has attended.
Incidentally the VP was also here last week where he was pointedly challenged on his Christian faith amidst the persecution of believers.
Interestingly, Benue is the first state to elect a catholic priest as governor in the 90s. VP Osinbajo is the first Pastor to transcend that threshold.
The crowd received him politely.
It was a miracle. I experienced serious rainfall that slowed me on my 3.5 hour trip for the funeral this morning. When we got to the burial ground, not one drop of rain fell there. One speaker said it was a miraculous sign from heaven.
3. The shock of the day was Cardinal Onaiyekan who came to US and declared that there is no persecution in Nigeria to undercut our advocacy efforts, who today declared that Christians may have to defend themselves as a last resort.
4. Bishop Anagbe exposed how a few days ago, he got a call from an archbishop that people were saying the priests were not murdered in the church. He said he replied that “sure they must have been wearing cassock and collar as pajamas and nightgown.” He queried why people will be spreading such nonsense. Besides persecution, the church in Nigeria faces propaganda as well.
For years, this administration has variously claimed that it was just a communal clash between communities in Benue instead of overwhelming evidence to the contrary including claims of responsibility by the Fulani Herdsmen themselves!
FUNERAL ORATION BY THE GOVERNOR OF BENUE STATE, DR. SAMUEL ORTOM, ON THE OCCASION OF THE MASS BURIAL OF 2 CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND 17 OTHERS, KILLED BY ARMED HERDSMEN AT MBALOM, GWER EAST LOCAL GOVERNMENT AREA, BENUE STATE HELD AT SESUGH MARIA PILGRIMAGE CENTRE, AYATI ON 22ND MAY, 2018
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.
2. This is the second mass burial we have the misfortune to organize in the last 5 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 attacks by armed herdsmen in Guma and Logo Local Government Areas of Benue State. We never expected another such day. But we were wrong. From January1 to date, Benue is being 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.
3. In the early hours of April 25, Rev. Father Joseph Gor, Rev. Father Felix Tyolaha and 17 other worshipers were again 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.
4. The Reverend Fathers are 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 of grass to other obvious motives.
5. 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 Fulani herders in all of West Africa and beyond to reject the state law on Ranching and to come into Benue to help them reclaim their land. They swore that, “more blood will flow in Benue” if the 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 Libyans, ISIS or any mercenaries. 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.
6. Our Ranching Law which prohibits open grazing is an instrument of development. It launches Nigeria into the 21st century where open grazing is extinct in many other countries of the world. India has 303million cattle, Brazil has 226m, China has100m, USA 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.
7. Implementing Ranching policy in Nigeria has great positive implications on our food security. Both the National Economic Council (NEC) and 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.
8. Ladies and Gentlemen, 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. A future where there will be freedom of worship and no ethnic or racial discrimination.
9. 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. The Representative of His Grace, The Pope who is the Head of Catholic Church worldwide is here. The Catholic Church is widely known for championing justice, peace and equity around the world and will not turn its back on any incidence of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
10. Benue State and especially Mbalom community was blessed to have such great Catholic Priests serving with us. They deeply loved the community and the community also loved them.
11. Your Excellency the Vice President, My Lords, distinguished Ladies and gentlemen, please join me to commend the Catholic Church in Benue and indeed in Nigeria for their giant strides in social development. We commend them for providing good and quality education, outstanding health facilities and charity work across the state. Above all, the Catholic Church remains a loud voice for the voiceless, for the powerless, the downtrodden and the undisputed champion of crusaders for peace and Social Justice.
12. We are determined to stand for truth and justice:
i. Though armed herdsmen have killed over 492 of our people since January 1, 2018,
ii. Though many of our homes, schools, and health centres are destroyed.
iii. 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
iv. 80,000 of our children of school age are now in IDP camps with no education,
v. 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.
13. The Rev. Fathers dedicated their lives to love, justice and spiritual service to fellow human beings. They died actively doing just that. The 17 worshipers died along with their beloved Priests. It is pain to us but we know, that they are now in a better place where there will be no ethnic cleansing. They are all in a place of comfort where armed herders will never kill them. Our people are being tested again, but as we mourn, our detractors should know this: we have unbroken spirit and have remained committed to our faith in Christ and in our mission to evolve a peaceful Agricultural community through the Ranching Law.
14. I want to commend the President of Nigeria and the Federal government for the recent deployment of troops and security agents to Benue. We hope that they will drive away the killer-herdsmen to allow our people leave IDP camps to their homes. Permit me to one again welcome our father and leader, the Vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof Yemi Osibanjo, SAN. We have many troubles but our father is not tired of us. He has not abandoned us. Only last week he was here to visit with us and brought message of comfort and hope for men, women and children and he personally visited them in IDP camps. We deeply appreciate you sir for beefing up security here, and indeed for the assurances you gave the people. Above all we appreciate you for identifying with us at this very difficult time.
15. Finally, your excellencies, my Lords, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, let us all admit that we are in excruciating pains, and the passage of time never really heals the tragic memory of the great loss. But we will carry on:
i. Because we have to,
ii. and because our loved ones would want us to,
iii. and because it is In God we Trust,
iv. and God never fails.
God bless you.
Dr. Samuel Ortom
At #14 people started laughing because he thanked the president for deploying troops.
As God would have it, one of our colleagues in Diaspora who got an appointment with VP Osinbajo came with him. I saw him as he was walking right by the caskets and greeted him. He had apparently claimed that I was “exaggerating” the situation in Benue. Today he saw the caskets himself. I stand vindicated.
It was intriguing though sad that two voices that had undermined our US advocacy for the persecuted - the Cardinal and the Vice President - were both at this funeral today. I pray that this is a turning point at the foot of the grave.
- 6. All social amenities in Mbalon were donated by the current Catholic Bishop of Makurdi. Father Joseph was the first priest posted to Mbalon. Father Felix had been displaced from his prior station and was visiting Joseph when they were both killed.
A 6 year old was the youngest victim. She was killed alongside her mother.
The church proclaimed that they have been ministering to victims since 2001. Now that priests are being killed, who will tend to victims and who will be left?
Just for context, Benue is the most Christian State in the north with less than 1% Muslim percentage. Growing up here for about a dozen years, atrocities like this in north central Nigeria were unheard of.
- 7. On the whole it was a Powerful, sad day. Walked over 5KM today after traveling non-stop all week. I didn’t know them in life but I honor them in death. It was a Tuesday morning 4 weeks ago that I cried for them in Washington. Today I came to their graveside to salute them. May we be found doing what God wants us to in our hour of reckoning.
Here are a few links: