Bloodbath In Owo: A Black Pentecost Sunday – By Reuben Abati
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place/Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from Heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting/They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them/All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” – Holy Bible (NIV), Acts of the Apostles – 2:2
It was Pentecost Sunday on June 5, the day Christendom celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles as seen in Acts of the Apostles: 2:2 – but in Owo, Ondo State, Nigeria, it was Black Sunday, as demons from nowhere descended on St. Francis Church, Owa-luwa Street in that historic town. It was 12 noon. The Mass for the day had just ended, but as the congregation filed out of the Church, they were confronted by a team of daredevil assailants who first detonated an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) – so the Police Command says, before turning their guns on the hapless, unsuspecting worshippers. In broad daylight, the House of God became a war zone and an abattoir. More than 38 persons including the aged, children, men and women were mowed down, massacred. It was a most heinous scene of mass murder. Church officials quickly shut the doors to the church, and began to work their phones as the massacre continued outside. The people were helpless. No help came. It turned out that the police unit in the town did not have operational vehicles! By the time the madness was over, the floor of the church had turned crimson red. It was a gory sight of blood, tears and sorrow. St Francis Church is less than 200 metres away from the palace of the Olowo of Owo, the town’s traditional ruler. The dead and the injured were taken to the Federal Medical Centre and St. Louis Hospital, from where doctors sent out distress calls to the public, begging anyone with blood in his or her veins to rush down to donate blood, in order to save lives.
This happened a week after the Prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, Bishop Samuel Kalu-Uche and two others were abducted in Abia State. They regained freedom only after paying a ransom of N100 million. On Saturday, June 4, at the Lugbe market in Abuja, a 30-year old member of a local vigilante group was killed for committing what was called “blasphemy”. The same day, gunmen invaded the home of a Catholic priest at St. Mary Immaculate Church in Aho Community, Owukpa in Ogbadibo Local Government Area of Benue State. The priest was not at home at the time of the attack, so his cook was abducted. It would be recalled also that in May, Deborah Samuel, a 200 level student of Shehu Shagari College of Education was also lynched and set ablaze for blasphemy. In the last two months alone, there have been reports of attacks on churches and abduction of priests and church-goers including Saint Patrick Catholic Church, Gidan Maikambo in the Kafur LGA of Katsina State – two reverend fathers and two boys, also at Saint Pius X Parish, Ikot Abasi Akpan in Akwa Ibom State – a catholic priest, and at Solid Rock Kingdom Church where the founder, clergyman John Okoriko was kidnapped.
Also, on March 28, over 100 persons travelling by train between Abuja and Kaduna were attacked by terrorists. Many died. Many were injured. Over 60 persons were abducted. More than 70 days later, they are still in the custody of their terrorist-abductors. In the South East, violence has become routine – in Anambra, in particular, where an emergent group that goes by the name of UNKNOWN GUNMEN has developed a signature style of attacking Local Government headquarters, police stations, and army formations, in open defiance of the rule of law. They also decapitate their victims, after killing them. The North East, the hotbed of terror and insurgency for more than 12 years remains unsafe. The North West is not safe either. Ethno-religious violence in the Middle Belt has reignited old animosities and sentiments. The South West which has been relatively safe in more contemporary times, has now been thrown into a regime of fear and confusion. Owo which had been a peaceful community, for example, has been robbed of its innocence forever. There are parts of the Northern flank of Yorubaland that are now regarded as the den of kidnappers. Fears have been expressed that there are sleeping cells of terrorists who have infiltrated every nook and cranny of Nigeria waiting to pounce and attack whenever their puppeteers give them orders them to do so. These narratives as reported have been horrifying: whole families have been wiped out, a couple visiting family friends was slaughtered, dreams have been shattered, hope has been damaged.
What is happening in Nigeria? The Pope has prayed for the victims of the Owo massacre and for Nigeria. Yesterday, the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Owo Local Government Area held a prayer session at the premises of St Francis Church, Owo and also held a protest over the “evil” occurrence. Owo Council CAN Chairman, Revd. Joshua Oladapo said: “This is a clarion call, to not only the Nigerian leaders but the international community that these incessant attacks on, most especially the Christian body, the peaceful communities in our nation, should not continue.” The point needs to be reiterated that nobody deserves to die or suffer the way Nigerians die, get killed, massacred, beheaded, displaced, assaulted, crushed, and endangered in a mindless manner that throws up a gory spectacle of man’s inhumanity. Human life is the cheapest commodity in Nigeria. Listening the other day, to an interview with Methodist Prelate, Samuel Kalu-Uche and his graphic description of his encounter with his abductors and their glittering, well-sharpened blades of death and the evil in their souls, was scary enough. Nigerians are taken like lamb to slaughter in the North, the East, the South and the West, because the state has failed the people. The state stumbles and falters and the people pay the price for its inefficiency, incompetence and lack of will power to do good in the form of body bags and unending jeremiad. It is ironic that even those who visit mayhem on the land justify their actions on the grounds that they too are angry with government or politicians. There can be no justification, however, for the reign of evil that we have seen. Even the unborn is no longer guaranteed any dignity in Nigeria. In the March 28 attack on the Abuja-Kaduna train, two pregnant women were abducted along with others. One of them gave birth while in captivity. The terrorists even invited their own doctors and midwives to attend to her! Terrorists in Nigeria run medical services and have access to medical consultants. The woman and her child are still in that space. The other pregnant woman was released on “compassionate” grounds. Sad.
While both Christians and Muslims have suffered the pain and misfortune of being Nigerian, living inside Nigeria – that would seem to be the collective burden we all share, in other words, the thingi-fication of our citizenship, it is curious that Christians, Catholics in particular are the main targets of the hoodlums wreaking havoc on the country. The Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right to life (Section 33), right to the dignity of the human person (Section 34), the right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Section 38) and the freedom of assembly and association (Section 40). In Borno, Anambra, Kaduna, Plateau, Sokoto and Owo, these rights are violated with utter impunity, and yet nothing happens until the same rights are violated again.
The pattern is poignantly familiar: some demons show up and inflict injury on our collective psyche, the Nigerian government at all levels, issues statements of condolences and commiseration, and prayers, threats are further pronounced to the effect that the perpetrators of the “heinous, evil, grievous, dastardly, callous, inhuman act will be brought to justice.” In fact, “the government will spare no effort and leave no stone unturned, and will make sure that all resources of state are deployed to address the security challenge in the country.” Everyone says more or less the same things. The vocabulary for addressing mindless killings is so limited that it now sounds like fancy semantics. After a few days, the government and the professional mourners move on with their lives. Nobody learns any lessons. Nobody makes any effort. Shortly after, another violent event occurs and we go through the same routine again, like a perpetual Mobius Strip, in a cyclical bind. If it is possible to even benefit from the misfortune, Nigerian politicians would take advantage of it.
Empathy is important. Politicians must identify with the people whose votes they believe would bring them to power. When the same people are in distress, leaders must stand up to help them. On Sunday, June 5, when the Owo massacre occurred, leaders of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and the Presidential aspirants on the platform of the party had been invited to a dinner with the President at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, ahead of the party’s National Convention scheduled for June 6 – 9, 2022. The dinner could have been rescheduled. But it was not. It went ahead. The usual, standard argument is that the business of the state cannot be hampered by any adversity or that the Leviathan must refrain from showing fear or panic. Except that this could be an academic thing to say. The truth is that politicians tend to consider their own matters more important than the people’s interests unless they can exploit the latter to promote the former.
Nonetheless, I consider the reaction of the Governor of Ondo State, Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu to the Owo massacre noteworthy. He left the peppersoup and jollof rice that had been prepared for the dinner with the President at the Villa and rushed back to Ondo State, upon hearing that there was tragedy back home and in fact, in his home town and local government. Some other stomach-centred leader could have stayed back and give the excuse that it was better to have dinner with the President. Akeredolu rushed home to share in the grief and lamentations of his people, and shed a tear or two. More importantly, he struck the right notes when he told the people of Ondo state not to engage in any retaliatory attacks. Religion and ethnicity are combustible issues in Nigeria. A week earlier, it had been said that those who attacked the Methodist Prelate were Fulani. The Prelate even accused the Nigerian Army of complicity, an allegation that was promptly and robustly denied. It would have been disastrous for any responsible leader to encourage an ethnic labeling of what happened in Owo. It was such divisive politics that caused Nigeria’s civil war of 1967 -1970. With its current fragility, and the expansion of its centrifugal joints, Nigeria is in a delicate situation. It cannot afford another blow-out because it cannot survive it and that is why Nigerian leaders must begin to wear their thinking caps.
It was certainly not strange that the Governor and the people of Owo and Ondo State received so many political visitors on Monday, June 6, yesterday. The timing was auspicious. It was the eve of the ruling party’s Presidential primary in Abuja, an event that had been thrown into confusion with the party Chairman’s alleged announcement of a consensus candidate who was diplomatically thrown back into the fray by the Presidency, disowning the deed, thus raising the stakes, in what would be a make or mar Presidential primary for the APC. Owo suddenly became a last minute PR space for the gladiators. Four Presidential aspirants abandoned their last minute campaigns and rushed to the town: Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, former Lagos State Governor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former Ogun State Governor, Ibikunle Amosun and Ekiti Governor –Kayode Fayemi.. Amosun and Fayemi arrived together like twins – they have been twinning for a while in the public space- but Tinubu and Osinbajo arrived separately. Out of the lot, only Tinubu reportedly dropped “something” – a tidy, small change of N75 million – N50 million for the victims, and N25 million for the Church. Small change, yes, and you know why. But how come nobody else donated “something” as Nigerians would say? Osinbajo, Amosun and Fayemi could at least have donated blood at the Federal Medical Centre and St. Louis Hospital to help save lives. Nobody from other political parties, not even the PDP, was on the guest list in Owo, at least not yet. Those who visited have since returned to Abuja for the unfolding epic battle over the election of a Presidential standard bearer for their party. The APC clearly faces an existential dilemma. Even the delegates are bewildered.
Whatever the politicians of the APC decide today is their business. Those who win or lose do not deserve our tears or plaudits. It is not an accident that the APC holds its Presidential primary against the background of more bloodshed and pain in the land: it is a sad, graphic, reminder of the agony to which Nigerians have been subjected. It is why the main subject of engagement by any presidential aspirant should be the security and welfare of the people, and their happiness. Money – no amount of naira or dollars, can buy happiness for the people of Nigeria. But good, quality, responsible and responsive leadership can. The man for the job of Nigerian President must be that person who can put an end to the reign of murder, impunity and madness and make this land, whole in pursuit of the common good.
– Abati is a respected scholar and columnist