Nigerians reel after attack on church in Owa

The quiet town of Owo, in Nigeria’s Ondo state, is at the intersection of roads from the major towns of Akure, Kabba, Benin City and Siluko. 

Usually the residents deal in cocoa, for which the town is a major collection point, or buy and sell yams, cassava, corn, rice, palm oil and kernels, pumpkins and okra. But last week, the air was thick with grief, shock and anger.

On 5 June, Pentecost Sunday, gunmen stormed St Francis Xavier Catholic Church and opened fire on congregants, leaving 40 people dead and 87 others injured.

“I first saw a dark man. He shot twice and I ran into the church, shut the door and shouted that everyone should lie on the floor. Shortly after, they came into the church and started shooting indiscriminately. They also used explosive devices. I was on the floor till they left,” said a witness, who asked not to be named.

A 12-year-old, who went to church with her grandmother, said, “We had almost ended the service. The Reverend Father was about to say the grace when we started hearing gunshots.” 

The girl joined other congregants who fled the church. “People were going out through the window and jumping the fence. I joined them and I ran to Iloro before I remembered my grandmother was still in the church.”

After the shooters left, the girl ran back to the church and found her grandmother near the door. 

“I called on one man to help me lift her so we could rush her to the hospital but he said she can’t make it. A few minutes later, she died,” the girl recounted.

Inside the church, 48 hours after the attack, charred body parts, debris, abandoned shoes and Bibles were strewn about. The lectern and the pews were broken and the smell of blood filled the church.

Many residents have left the town to stay with friends or relatives elsewhere. Business activities are paralysed, especially around Owaluwa Street, where the church is located. Some of the shops on the street were owned by victims of the attack or their relatives. 

On Tuesday, the women of the Owo marched through the streets, raining curses on the attackers. Their procession ended at the palace of the area’s monarch, Oba Ajibade Gbadegesin Ogunoye III. 

He asked the people of the town to remain calm, saying the government and the traditional authority are doing their best to bring the terrorists to book. 

Many authorities, local and international, have released statements condemning the attack. 

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, urged Nigerian authorities “to spare no effort in bringing the perpetrators to justice”. 

The Pope said it was an “act of unspeakable violence” by “those blinded by hatred”. 

In a broadcast, Ondo state governor Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu called the attack “vile and satanic”. 

And Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, called the attack “a heinous crime” and vowed, “Nigeria will eventually win” and that “darkness will never overcome the light”.

But it’s scant relief for Ademola, a resident who ran to the scene immediately after the attack. 

“I was at home when I saw a girl running and shouting, ‘They are killing people in the church, they are killing people!’ I ran to the church. What I saw was unbelievable,” he said.

Some $360 000 has been donated to the victims and the church, the state governor said during a broadcast. 

Akeredolu also said the government would commit every available resource to hunting down the assailants.

So far, no arrests have been made and nobody has claimed responsibility for the tragedy, which Akeredolu described as “an attack on the collective psyche”. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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