It was a moment of agonising grief and heart-rending emotions Thursday in Makurdi, the Benue State capital, when the bodies of 73 persons killed by suspected herdsmen on new year day were laid to rest.
Before the mass burial organised by the Benue State Government, thousands of people had trooped out as early as 6 a.m. to the IBB Square to participate in the highly emotional requiem mass.
Reflecting the sadness of the occasion, several elders and politicians from the state expressed their bitterness over the slaughter of their people and decried the federal government's inaction in nipping the herdsmen's menace in the bud.
The governor of the state, Samuel Ortom, lamented that the state was looking forward to a better year when the herdsmen invaded and murdered in cold blood pregnant women, children and the elderly.
He said the state lost 73 persons to the attack, with many others sustaining various degree of injuries.
"For several years these attackers have turned our beautiful and endowed land into their killing fields and the main reason has been the clashes between herdsmen and farmers, but these attacks have intensified with alarming devastation since 2011," he said.
He disclosed that since the attacks started in 2011, 13 out of the 23 local government areas in the state had borne the onslaught of the cattle herders, adding that several lives had been lost over the years.
He also used the occasion to reiterate his opposition to the cattle colonies being proposed by the federal government, saying the ranches proposed under the Anti-Open Grazing Act enacted by his state had provided the right incentives to end the conflicts between herders and farmers in the state.
He said the herdsmen had failed woefully if they thought that by killing innocent citizens, his administration would be forced to repeal the law and again called on the federal government to arrest the leaders of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, a faction of the main cattle dealers' association.
He maintained that since the state does not have adequate land for farmers, there was insufficient land for colonies that map out grazing routes.
Also speaking, Chairman of the Northern Elders' Forum, Wantaregh Paul Unongo, said if the federal government continues to fail in its responsibility in protecting the lives and property of Benue citizens, Benue people will be left with no option than to train its own army in the state to defend themselves.
"Benue people have sacrificed enough blood for the unity of this country and would not allow a section of terrorists to come and kill our people in cold blood.
"I am begging Nigerians that my people cannot continue to be the canon fodder of this country. If government can't protect us, we will mobilise and train our people into an army to defend us.
"We are 100 per cent in support of what Governor Ortom has done. I am the spiritual leader and from the ancestry of the Tiv nation, enough is enough," he said.
Unongo stressed that the entire people of the state were watching President Muhammadu Buhari and have joined in the persistent calls by the governor that the federal government should take drastic steps to urgently address the killings and also arrest the leaders of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore who had openly threatened mayhem over the enactment of the Anti-Open Grazing Law in the state.
Another prominent Benue indigene, General Lawrence Onoja (rtd.), who described the killings in the state as a genocidal conspiracy against the Benue people, stressed that the killings must not continue.
"Some of us in 1966 fought the Nigerian civil war. Benue has contributed to the unity of this country. Therefore if the federal government refuses to address the killings in Benue, we would have to defend ourselves," he said.
He appeal to the federal government to replicate "Operation Python Dance" or "Fulani Dance" and urged the people of the state to rally round the governor for the successful enforcement of the Anti-Open Grazing Law.
A former member of the National Assembly, Senator J.K.N Waku, also said that the Benue people were known to be peace loving, saying that they had endured enough.
According to him, "It is unfortunate that someone would oppose a law that is legally enacted and begin to kill people and the federal government refuses to wade in order to end the carnage. This is enough provocation; nobody has a monopoly on killing. Enough is enough."
A former governor of the state, Senator George Akume, stated that the primary aim of government is to protect lives of the citizenry and urged the federal government to proscribe the Miyetti Allah faction and declare them terrorists, saying that their actions were treasonable.
He appealed to the Benue communities not to take the law into their hands, but to follow the path of peace and reconciliation, and continue to pray together as one indivisible family, in order to overcome the conflict.
In his remarks, the paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, Prof. Jame Ayatse, decried the fact that his people who are residing in Nasarawa and Taraba States were being murdered by the herdsmen on a daily basis since the Benue killings started.
"There is ethnic cleansing agenda going on. We must bring an end to these killings. This is the 47th time that herdsmen have attacked Benue people and killed them mercilessly," he charged.
He said Buhari must rise as a man of integrity to arrest the situation, adding that the people of Benue voted massively for him and so he must not allow them to be eliminated before his tenure ends.
He thanked those who came from other states to condole with the Benue people and prayed that such mindless and heinous killings should never happen again in the state.
The Tor Tiv enjoined the governor not to be weighed down by the herders' attacks, counselling that he must continue to do the needful in his bid to bring peace and tranquility to the state.
He assured Ortom that the Benue traditional rulers were solidly behind him.
Also, the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev Akpe Leva, commended the governor for his charisma and love, adding that the spirit of the departed ones and the God of Benue will rise up to torment the "suspected terrorists" who had brought tears and sorrows to the state.
Narrating his ordeal, one of the survivors of the attacks, Akaatenger Azinga, said he was in his house sleeping with his wife when the attackers came and knocked on his door and his wife went to open it, only for her to be captured and slaughtered by the attackers.
"I heard my wife scream because they came in the dead of the night and when I went to try and rescue my wife, I discovered that they had slaughtered her.
"The next thing, they started chasing me with machetes but I escaped narrowly to a nearby bush," he said.
Ishaku, Lalong Disagree
Just as the dead in Benue were being laid to rest, the governors of two neighbouring states - Darius Ishaku (Taraba) and Simon Lalong (Plateau) - held divergent views on the propriety of the Anti-Open Grazing Law enacted in Benue and Taraba States.
While the Plateau governor felt vindicated by the gruesome killings in Logo and Guma Local Government Areas of Benue State by herdsmen, saying that he had forewarned Ortom against enacting the law, the Taraba governor maintained that the state's anti-open grazing law was not targeted at any ethnic group or religious group.
Lalong, who made his remarks when he spoke to State House correspondents in Abuja after meeting with the president, said he told Ortom when the law was being enacted that he should consult widely and secure the opinions of stakeholders before going ahead.
According to Lalong, he deliberately ignored suggestions on enacting the same law in his own state because he knew it would be counter-productive to enact a law banning open grazing without preparing land for ranching.
He also said ranching involved certain policies which would require the federal government's interventions, hence, enacting any law on grazing would require stakeholders' consent.
He also said he warned Ortom while enacting the law to be cautious and ensure that he explored every option before proceeding to implement it.
"To be frank, I told them. Even the governor of Benue State, I told him when he was doing the law. I said he should just be careful and take other steps before implementing the law.
"But he said his own concept was different and for us in Plateau, our concept was different.
"I informed him that I would not have a law before consultations. If l stopped them (cattle herders), what is the alternative for them? You need to have consultations and allow people to buy into the concept," he said.
Speaking on how he achieved peace in his once volatile state, Lalong said whereas he inherited an endemic farmers-herdsmen crisis, he gave all stakeholders in Plateau a sense of belonging and in the end, both the herdsmen and the people of Plateau State resolved to embrace peace.
According to him, he carried out extensive consultations which lasted for three months. The bye-product of the meetings, he said, was the relative peace in Plateau State today as well as improved relations between the herdsmen and farmers.
"You take everybody as your own. In Plateau State, I did that because l inherited a protracted crisis when I came to office. Most of the lingering crises were between the farmers and herdsmen, we took three months to do consultations and the Plateau people agreed that we must embrace ranching even with the Fulanis.
"Today, you see a good relationship between farmers and herdsmen," he boasted.
Unlike Ortom who had distanced himself from the idea of cattle colonies being proposed by the federal government, Lalong described it as a welcome development, explaining that the colonies were broader than ranches because they will accommodate rearing of all manner of livestock farmers.
He also said having cultivated the habit of investigating any proposal before taking a decision, he opted to visit the Federal Ministry of Agriculture along with his team on agriculture, including the Commissioner for Agriculture on Wednesday, to investigate what the colony concept entailed.
According to him, at the end of the meeting, he found that the proposals on the cattle colonies were worthwhile and desirable.
"When I got the briefing from them, I was convinced about the colonies. They said the difference between colonies and ranching is that one is bigger than the other.
"You get a big field, get investors and demarcate it. Somebody will ranch sheep, somebody will ranch cattle. Government will develop the place, put grass there and anybody coming in must pay and you can't force any land on anybody. It's voluntary land," he explained.
Lalong also disclosed that the herders that lead the cattle were not the actually owners of the cattle and that most of the cattle belong to those he described as "big men".
"Nobody says that the idea of the colonies is only for Fulani herdsmen. It is everybody's business, either you are tending cattle, sheep, goat or even chicken. If a Fulani man is grazing 100 cattle, I'm definitely sure you'll find out that he is not the owner. You would find out that he owns only four or five cows while the rest belong to somebody else - a big man," he stated.
However, in a statement issued Thursday by the Taraba governor's media aide, Mr. Emmanuel Bello, Ishaku was quoted as saying that the state's Anti-Open Grazing Law was not targeted at any ethnic group or religious group.
The Taraba governor also said that the ownership of cattle was not the exclusive right of any religion or ethnic group.
The governor added that the "ancient method of nomadic voyages" had failed to produce good milk and beef, and called on herders to practise ranching as it was "nothing new".
"This is a step towards modernisation of cattle rearing and it is in keeping with the best traditions of cow production all over the world. Agriculture is undergoing a revolution," the statement read.
"Antiquated means of agriculture production is giving way to better methods with the use of tractors and better seedlings, among other things.
"This can happen to cattle rearing too. The ancient method of nomadic voyages has failed to give better milk production or even beef.
"Cows are leaner and less productive when made to go through the rigours of long distant treks. Elsewhere, ranching has since become the best form of attending to the need of cattle in the world.
"Even here in Nigeria, top cow owners have seen the wisdom in ranching. In Taraba, cow owners on the Mambilla (plateau) have been doing a form of ranching, dating to the past. It's nothing new to us and I enjoin all to key into it," he added.
Taraba State's Anti-Open Grazing Law was enacted in June and is expected to come into effect on January 24.
Land for Cattle Colonies
But even in the absence of a consensus among some governors on ranching versus cattle colonies, the Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello and his Plateau counterpart Thursday accepted to pioneer the cattle colony policy in order to stem the perennial conflicts between farmers and herdsmen across the country.
The two governors made the offer after they met with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, in Abuja.
They offered to make available large portions of land in support of the initiative that will allow cattle owners and farmers to co-exist peacefully.
Ogbeh said though 16 states had agreed to back the cattle colony concept, Kogi and Plateau had offered to provide land for the purpose.
Bello described Kogi as an agrarian state, noting that his government recently had a peace and security meeting with some herdsmen in the state and communities, traditional rulers, youths and farmers all agreed to live in peace.
He said the cattle colonies would provide a permanent solution to the crisis, adding that his state has resolved to pilot the cattle colonies programme initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture.
He expressed confidence in the ability of Kogi to drive the policy and make it a model that other states and even other countries will come and copy.
On his part, Lalong said after consultations with the people of his state, he decided to make land available for cattle ranching and the colonies.
He said more than two portions of land had been offered for the cattle colony policy.
Elaborating on the concept, Ogbeh said a colony is an area carved out for any species of animals, whether by nature or by human design.
He added that between 20 and 40 ranchers could share the same colony capable of holding more than 30,000 cows belonging to different individuals.
"The reason we are designing the colony is that we want to prepare on a large scale, take advantage of economies of scale, a place where many owners of cattle can co-exist, and the animals will be fed well, because we can make their feed.
"They can get good water to drink. Cows drink a lot of water. We can give them green fodder. Now, (the Plateau State governor) has started and the smaller ranches are working in Plateau. So, we intend to lend a hand to Plateau and 16 other states which have expressed interest by helping them to develop their colonies," Ogbeh said.
He said government would also embark on large-scale artificial insemination to improve the breed of cattle in the country, so that the yield of milk can increase once the colonies begin, adding that the proposal on the colonies was not premised on the appropriation of anyone's land.
"Cattle colony is not about using herdsmen to colonise any state. It is going to be done in partnership with state governments that will like to volunteer land for it.
"The federal government will fund the project and those wishing to benefit from it will pay some fees.
"While ranching is more of an individual venture for the herdsmen and those wishing to invest in the livestock sector, cattle colonies are larger projects where up to 40 ranchers can share the same facility that will be provided by the government at a reduced rate.
"Already, 16 states have volunteered land," he said.
The minister said the federal government will soon hold a stakeholders' forum with the herdsmen and other stakeholders on the implementation of the new policy.
'Stop Politicising Conflict'
Meanwhile, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, the umbrella body for cattle breeders in the country, has called on Nigerians to stop politicising the conflicts between herdsmen and farmers in most communities.
A leader of the group in the South-east, Alhaji Gidado Saddikie, Thursday said the issue of herdsmen/farmers' feud should be addressed with all sincerity, devoid of sentiment, politics or religion.
Saddikie, who was probably reacting to the allegation by the Chairman of the Northern Elders' Forum, Mr. Unongo, that a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, was the chief financier and most influential member of the cattle breeders association, said the matter had assumed a political dimension.
He said politicising the issue was no way to find a solution to the problem, but would instead stir bad blood among those involved.
Saddikie identified the wrong government approach and lack of sensitisation as some of the major causes of herdsmen/farmers' conflict in most communities.
He said: "People play politics with this issue. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar is a Fulani, but he is not a member of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association. He has not attended our meeting before, so how can he be a financier of the association?
"Let me tell you, it is the wrong government approach and negligence that is causing these conflicts. How can somebody say Atiku is our financier?
"Most state governments think that herdsmen and farmers are commoners that should not be heard. But you must hear them because they are human beings who are contributing to the economic growth of our country at their own level."
He said a synergy exists between the herdsmen and farmers in the South-east because governors in the zone have been proactive.
"We have this understanding and synergy in the South-east on how to handle this issue because the governors here and other leaders are proactive.
"We have agreed that any herdsman that destroys the crops of farmers should pay for such damage, and if any farmer kills any herdsman's cow, he must pay for the cow. We understand ourselves here in the south-east, but in some other places, it is not so.
"We have told our people that they should not consider their cows more important than any human life. If they kill your cow, report to us. We'll know how to handle it amicably. Don't take the law into your hands," he said.