THE BENUE, NIGERIA’S second largest river, and twin of the Niger, with which it merges to give our country that stretch of water upon which so many lives and livelihoods depend and thrive. The Benue is source of reinvigoration of the habitat, of the fortunes of many, and not the least of all, the sustenance of those who barely hang on to it for life. But the Benue is not just the river; it represents a people who have nowhere else to call home, a shared heritage, and a common destiny. A land and a people etched in our consciousness by their history, by the tears and blood they shed to be where they are, the journey that brought them thus far, and will take them where we know not. A river, a people, a state; fused in an identity of pride and of promise.

The Benue is a land that serves the whole country. It is from the bowels of its soil that much of the yam, potato, cassava, beans and other staples come. The Tivi, Idoma, and Igede peoples of the Benue are all over this nation, in various capacities of technocrats, professionals and service providers. Many of their young men can be found in other parts of Nigeria, where they have popularized improved methods of farming. Theirs has been a quiet revolution in the art of putting brain and hands to use in the quest for self-sustaining engagement.

Benue is not just a land of strong men, but a land of strong faith, and of men of strong faith; men and women who serve God, their fellowmen and their country, men of faith who put their faith to the service of the people and in whom the people willingly place their faith and their fate. Benue people put their faith in the Church so much so that apart from the many lay Catholics who serve in public office, priests have held prominent positions in the affairs of the state. Before he became Bishop of Markudi, Msgr. Athanasius Usuh was Chairman of the Benue State Football association, and Chairman of Benue Pilgrims Welfare Board. A few years after he became Bishop, his Vicar General (with whom he was ordained priest the same day at the same ceremony) Fr. Moses Adasu was elected as governor of the state.

The Benue as we have come to know it is being despoiled under our very eyes. The gradual, yet systematic destruction of the Benue is becoming a metaphor for our inability to even just pretend to be decent beings. The New Year 2018 was ushered in with an orgy of violence in Benue land. Seventy five persons were murdered on New Year’s Eve. In January, Governors of Northern States visited Makurdi in solidarity. The killings did not end. President Muhammadu Buhari visited Benue State last month, yet there is no end to killings in Benue.

Benue State Government has kept the alarm sounding that the state is under siege. Residents, who are mainly farmers, are having their farms destroyed, their houses burned down, and their brethren murdered by overmatching armed invaders – Fulani Herdsmen. These alarms have gone unheeded by those who have superior capacity and the duty to act to protect the people. Or so it seems.

Gwer West and Gwer East are only two of the twenty three local governments in Benue State.The Catholic Bishop of Makurdi, Most Rev. Chikpa Anagbe CMF is from Gwer West, but it is Gwer East that is now in focus. For it is in the town of Ayar Mbalom in this Local Government that the ‘unthinkable’ happened last Tuesday. For it is unthinkable that armed men would go into a Church during Morning Mass and murder priests and worshippers. But they did. Armed cattlemen descended on surrounding communities, setting houses on fire. Not satisfied, they entered St. Ignatius Church where they killed Fr. Joseph Gor and Fr. Felix Tyolaha who were officiating at Mass.

Now we have heard from President Buhari, and we agree that “This latest assault on innocent persons is particularly despicable. Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.” What is more despicable is that we have had similar incidents in the past, we have been promised that those behind the acts would be found, that victims will be reprieved, perpetrators found, tried, and punished. Mere words, that would soon be forgotten as soon as another ‘despicable’ act occurs, which usually is not long after the last one. The Diocese of Makurdi has raised the banner of Christ in their prayer.

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