Catholic church bloodbath

  • The full story by an ex-drug lord

Barbarism, descent into the pit and sacrilege. That was the mass murder that took place at St Phillips Catholic Church, Ozubulu, in Nigeria’s southeast state of Anambra on Sunday, August 6, 2017.  While bedlam and bloodletting had become a national daily diet, the church massacre was unprecedented.  Nigerians may seem to have become inured to horrific deaths in the past few years, but the St Phillips slaughter was one too many and a jab in the solar plexus. The bloodbath left 13 dead––mostly children––and 18 hospitalised, and it raised a caterwaul of condemnations from all people and the Pope.

The big question: What, in the name of God instigated those hounds from hell to unleash that Armageddon on a church?

The answer was scanty: They came for Bishop.

Bishop, real name Aloysius Ikegwuonwu, is the 36-year-old local magnate and philanthropist who is credited with vast influence over the church, in the community, with the police and the politicians.

He is recognised by all as the pillar of the church for his role in the building of the local cathedral. But a big cloud hovers over his source of wealth. That creates room for wild guesses, the most resonating being the drug war theory and the gangland vendetta hypothesis.

Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano lends credence to this thinking when he said: “We are dealing with a dangerous gang war that has spilled over to Anambra State from another African country.”

The murky backdrop to the senseless slaughter of that black Sunday obfuscates a clear theory.  What is clear, however, is that the answer lies in going backward––to unveil Citizen Ikegwuonwu. South Africa-based Ikegwuonwu has rebutted allegations that he is a drug lord and had denied any premonition of the attack that claimed his father’s life.  But his name and affinity to the community invited the cruel visitation on the church. The killers came for him, and failing to find him, at home and in the church, killed his father and then desecrated with multiple homicides the church he helped build. Without any prejudice, the key to the senseless massacre lies in unravelling the Bishop Conundrum. While on the trail of Bishop in Ozubulu, Saturday Sun’s team stumbled on one of the indigenes of the community who had been involved in the drug cartel’s operations in South Africa.  He exposed the cartel’s modus operandi to our undercover reporter and what led to last Sunday’s killings in the Cathedral.

Road to Ozubulu

The Onitsha-Owerri Expressway runs down east, cutting through a series of communities into halves, doing so in the manner a master baker slices loaves of bread. You begin to notice this as you hit the road headed for Ozubulu from Onitsha.

If you are conversant with the area, you might connect Ozubulu through Nnewi, which appears a lot shorter. For Nnewi and Ozubulu share common boundaries. The journey takes a little less than 10 minutes through the old Owerri Road, which is paved but narrow. You struggle with its numerous turns and bends on it; you struggle with the women of Nnewi riding their motorbikes but get rewarded with the sight of architectural pieces scattered all around and the breath taking beauty of wooded hills that lie in the country side. Then you hit Ozubulu, only knowing so when the environment begins to change to semi urban.

You can also access Ozubulu from Onitsha, going through Oba, Akwukwu, Oraifite and connecting from  Ekwusigo Junction.

Ozubulu and its people

Ozubulu is one big community. According to one its elders, Anthony Onumonu, a retired civil servant, “Ozubulu is made up of four big villages: Amakwa, Egbema, Eziora and Nza.

“We are surrounded by Oraifite, Ihembosi and Ichi. All of us are under Ekwusigo Local Government Area.

“Our people are mainly traders and businessmen largely known for trading in clothing materials. We are acclaimed cassava growers too. In fact, I’m the Chairman, Apex Farmers Cooperative Society in the community.”

Ozubulu, Saturday Sun was told, equally has well-read people. One of them was Chief Jerome Udoji, formerly Chairman, Federal Civil Commission, whose name swiftly went into the books as a good man for giving handsome rewards to civil servants many years ago. You remember him? There is also Professor Linus Amobi Ilika, former Commissioner for Health in Anambra State and many more like them. Ozubulu has people of means and taste. And this reflects in the quality of houses they have built in their community most of which are exceptional engineering masterpieces.

Over the past days, all roads had led to Ozubulu because of the mindless shooting of worshippers inside St Phillips Catholic Church, Amakwa in the area. This has led to an endless stream of visitors coming to see things for themselves. So both human and vehicular traffic to the town has been spectacular, with the number on a steady climb.

 

Ofufe, Amakwa village where the killings took place

According to Saturday Sun investigation, Amakwa is the eldest of the four Ozubulu villages. Ofufe is the kindred where St Philips Catholic Church is located.

From the old Nnewi-Owerri Road, one turns into another road said to lead to Ihembosi. You begin to descend endlessly and then go up and up again until you see what appears to be a summit. It is a popular bus stop in the area called Dallas junction. That is close to Amakwu Health Centre. From there, you gain an enthralling panoramic view of the region.  Then, you turn to the left and begin to descend endlessly again before arriving at St Philips Catholic Church. The road to the area is paved and was said to be partly built by the Anambra State government and partly by Mr Aloysius Ikegwuonu aka Bishop – the man on whose account it is alleged that the shooting incident took place.

Quiet at Amakwa, Ozubulu

On this mid morning of Wednesday, everyone and everything in the kindred were still pensive. They were firmly in the grip of grief. It was clear that the area was still distraught. But who will not be in grief after all? Who will not be shaken after witnessing last Sunday’s gruesome slaughtering of 13 worshippers inside the auditorium of the church, forcing proceedings at the highly revered Catholic Holy Mass to an unceremonious end after which tens of people are still lying prostrate on hospitals’ beds still on danger list.

The Chairman, Ekwusigo Local Government, Mr Sylvester Ikenna Ofodeme, had declared that12 people died – nine women, a baby girl and two men. But shortly after, one more person joined the number following the severe bullet wounds he received.

 

On this occasion, the air around Amakwa kindred was still, the temperature cool yet humid. Hardly anyone was seen around except five fully-armed mobile police men sitting a few strides away, keeping vigil over the church. The residents hardly ventured out since the sad incident happened. And the few seen were not in any way prepared to talk to anyone about the dastard incident. They appeared to have collectively resolved to do so.

In their souls, there was this seeming admixture of pain and agony still storming like lava inside the belly of an active volcanic mountain. But they kept carrying on with stoic patience wishing that what befell them never was.

On this occasion, everywhere was calm; even the breeze seldom blew. When it did, its pace lacked that usual potency to ruffle the green leaf vegetation that dotted the area. Even the sun was shy to shine as it was deeply buried somewhere in the clouds up above the area. It was approaching noon but the sun was not releasing that life-giving energy which sustained animals, plants and crops growing in the meadows and farmlands. The reason was that the kindred was still convulsing with shock.

Somewhere at the Dallas Junction, a number of shops belonging to a certain Mr Peter Ubadiagha, a resident and retired civil servant were all under lock and key. Reason? A lady identified as Pauline, a mother of two, was among the victims of the shooting. She was waiting to go abroad to join her husband soon and was merely keeping herself busy passing time at the shop. So the occupiers of other shops closed for business apparently as a mark of respect for the dead.      

     Atmosphere around the church and ‘Bishop’s house

The church in which the massacre took place is imposing. The Parish Priest’s house behind it is simply magnificent – it looks clearly like an outfit built for a prince only. Both buildings sit magnificently on a plot of land averaging the size of a football field; the two are separated by a close. On this occasion, they wore coats of beautiful colours. Both churches were said to have been built and donated to the church by Bishop.

The police watching over the church had cordoned off the church with a ribbon that has the inscription “crime scene, do not cross.” Only the priest’s gate was open but no visitor dared go in. 

Then to the left, a close is seen with a number of mansions on it. One of them is said to belong to Bishop. From afar, this house stands glittering like gold; a security gate keeps many from going anywhere near.

Everywhere around was as quiet as a graveyard with the stillness of the afternoon only occasionally broken by intermittent chirps of song of birds and mid-day crows of domestic fowls.

Victims recall ordeals

Listening to the accounts of the survivors of the gruesome shooting, one is tempted to believe that they are relaying extracts from a box office movie. They drip with blood as the narrators themselves even wonder how they made it alive.

The lone attacker ruthless – Nonyechukwu Eloka

“We were attending 6am Mass on that fateful Sunday. I sat on a pew close to one of the exit doors. The church’s generator had malfunctioned. On three occasions, spirited attempts were made to restart it but every effort was futile. So the parish priest abandoned the generator and carried on.

During the homily, the priest came out in front of the altar; he was shouting his words so that the worshippers would hear his voice from behind. When he was done with his sermon, we began reciting the Catholic ‘I believe in God. ’ Then I heard what sounded like shooting. Initially, I concluded it was some form of electrical spark somewhere, which I didn’t know where it was coming from.

Then, I saw people falling. That was when I saw a young man around the central isle wearing a black T-shirt and faz cap, shooting in all directions. I stood watching. When he exhausted the bullets in the first magazine, he brought out another one and started shooting again. Every part of the church received a fair share of his shooting. People were falling wailing and weeping.

In the ensuing confusion, Bishop’s father was shot dead. We learnt that his step-mother was wounded too.

When the shooting grew more intense, I ran out and escaped.

Those who saw the gunman escape said he came in company with two people who sat in the vehicle waiting. When he was done, he returned to the vehicle and they fled. 

My neighbour here,  Chinasa was shot. Her one year and five month-old child was killed, the elder, six, received a shot in the head. Both mother and child are in hospital now receiving treatment.”

I held my intestine, preventing it from gushing out, then I rushed home and collapsed – Mrs Catherine Ndubueze, 65

“When I heard the shooting, I felt something hit me on my right hand. I didn’t realise that it was serious until I saw blood gushing out. The bullet hit me and broke my hand. It instantly began to swell. That was when I noticed that the bullet after hitting my hand had also pierced my tummy from the right hand side and went straight to lodge in my abdomen.

“So with my left hand, I held my tummy to prevent my intestine from gushing out. I fell twice on the road as I ran until I reached home where I finally collapsed. From there, my son rushed me to the hospital on a motorbike.

So far, the doctor has extracted the bullet from my tummy after two major operations. My arm has been on POP. Since last Sunday, I only tasted water today (Wednesday). I have been transfused with three pints of blood. I’m happy to be alive; I thank my God for sparing me.”

Bullets battered my buttocks – Adaobi Akpukekwu    

“We were busy reciting the ‘I believe in God’ when all of a sudden, I heard the cracking sound of gunshots. When I raised my head, I saw people falling  so from where I was, I docked because it was difficult for me to run away from there. Then there was some quiet. We thought the man had ended the shooting but we were wrong. “When he resumed, he was firing intensely in all directions. Even where I was, I received a bullet in my buttocks.  I only managed to make it outside after he was gone; I was bleeding profusely; I was in severe pains. I couldn’t walk. It was here at the hospital that it was discovered that a bullet was lodging in my buttocks. I have been waiting for the doctor to extract it.”

Amakwa lost the most – Sylvester Ndubueze

“I was not in church that Sunday morning but our home was very close to the church. When I heard the shooting, I had thought that it was coming from Bishop’s security men. When it became sustained, I came to the conclusion that something was amiss. Then I heard the commotion; I saw survivors running home. Of course, no one dared to venture out.

But I gathered that the people came in a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). Out of the people who had died, nine are from Ofufe, three from Umeze kindred while one person is from Ihembosi town. It is very sad.” 

What Ozubulu residents say about the incident

Residents of Ozubulu are united in their grief, collectively declaring the development as sad and unfortunate.

 

Bandits committed the act – Igwe Nnamdi Fidelis Oruche, Igwe Ozubulu

The monarch of the troubled community told Saturday Sun that bandits carried out the dastard act.

According to him, “I was home that Sunday morning when I received a distress call to notify me about what was going on, that a great thing had happened at that part of my community.  Bandits invaded a church and while worship was in progress, killed some people in cold blood and the bodies of my subject were strewn here and there.

I quickly called the head of Igwe in Council to come over and we quickly notified the state governor about the development.

The only time people from this community were killed was years ago when some security men were abducted and later killed somewhere around Awka. But we have never had such gruesome massacre of this dimension.

We count that government is on top of this. We have called on the Federal and Anambra State governments, the police to help us. We have old, cultural way of resolving things like this; we shall get to the end of it; we shall ensure that the right things are done so that this kind of thing never happens again.

Describing the incident as a tragedy, a prominent businessman in the community, Engr Peter Ubadigha, owner, Dallas Bakery said     “Everyone is gravely saddened because of what happened here last Sunday. The woman who rented this shop was my tenant. She was called Paulina, the daughter of Christopher Udeze, a well known person in this community. She was a mother of two aged about 48 years.

The husband lives overseas; she was waiting to join him and was using this shop to keep busy. And now look at the turn of events.    

 

SOURCE: SATURDAY SUN

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