BusinessDay

Murders in the Cathedral: Innocent blood spilled in Owo

…Government plays down death toll; Catholic kicks, confirms 38 deaths …FG fingers ISWAP as Ndigbo convey dead bodies to South-East for mass burial

Even the famous Murder in the Cathedral, a verse drama written and dramatised by American-British poet and dramatist, Thomas Stearns Elliot, popularly known as T.S Elliot, who narrated the story of King Henry II and assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury Cathedral, Thomas Becket in the 12th Century of Great Britain, was not as brutally daring as that of murders overtook the Catholic mass at the St Francis Catholic Church, Owa-luwa in Owo, penultimate Sunday.

While only Archbishop Thomas Becket was killed in what looked like a state killing traceable to King Henry II, having fallen out with the Archbishop over severe and consistent pulpit criticism of the State, the Owo killings was a massacre as the souls of pious Christians who were participating in Sunday Catholic Mass were brutally taken and innocent blood of righteous people was spilled by marauding death emissaries whose mission to attack and exterminate fellow humans is still unclear and unknown to nobody.

 

Owo, before the attack

Owo is a typical ancient Yoruba settlement which is one of the 18 Local Government Councils that make up Ondo State. Owo is the Local Government that produced the first Civilian Governor of Ondo State, Pa Adekunle Ajasin in 1979; a home to one of the prominent Monarchs in Yorubaland, the Olowo of Owo. Owo was the birth place of the first Nigerian Emeritus Professor of Law, Pa David Ijalaye; Sola Momoh, wife of John Momoh, Chairman of Channels Television was born and bred in Owo; the incumbent Governor of Ondo State, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu is of Owo, Yoruba extraction as well as the host of eminent sons and daughters.

Owo is a Yoruba city that is populated by well-educated, sophisticated and eminent Nigerians, who are farmers, civil and public servants, university professors and public sector players. Owo had been largely agrarian and peaceful until the calamities struck at the Cathedral of St Francis, the largest Catholic Church in the City, where women and children were largely targeted and killed during Sunday Mass.

Read also: How gunmen attacked Owo church, by priest, other eyewitnesses

BusinessDay reports that the deadly attack occurred in the Sanctuary of St Francis Catholic Church, Owa-luwa Street in Owo with reckless detonation of explosives and subsequent shootings of innocent souls in a commando-like attack that lasted for 30 minutes which involved 127 persons, killing about 40 innocent worshippers in the early hours of the morning Mass.

The Ondo State government tried to manage the situation by playing down the number of casualties. In a press conference addressed by Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu last Tuesday, the number was put at 22. The Catholic Church countered the state by saying that the death toll is 38 persons so far.

Eyewitnesses  accounts

The Diocesan Bishop Jude Arogundade, who spoke with a section of the Media, countered the government’s figure and disclosed that 38 Catholic Church members died so far, saying that the confirmed dead bodies that were in mortuaries at St Louis Catholic Hospital in Owo and the Federal Medical Centre, Owo were 38.

Also, some eyewitnesses who escaped with their lives recounted their ordeals in the attack.  The gunmen struck as the church service was coming to a close, the eyewitnesses said. The close to 40 worshippers who died that day were largely women and children, who had come to worship their creator on that fateful Sunday. They fell lifeless in the pool of their own blood.

While speaking with BusinessDay in Owo, Father Andrew Adeniyi Abayomi, the Assistant Parish Priest, who conducted the Mass before the Sunday attack, said with strong emotions, “from what I can still recall, towards the close of the Mass, in fact, I had told the people, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended’, and they responded. It was at that moment we heard a loud noise.  Within me, I thought somebody fell but when I looked at the Sanctuary, I saw one of us who could have seen the gunmen from outside.

“So, he quickly closed the door. From that moment, a message got to me in the Sanctuary that armed gunmen were around. From that moment, I told the people to enter the Sacred; it is a place behind the Sanctuary, to have an escape route. I ran to the inner room with some children and they were saying, ‘Father, pray, pray!’ And I told them to calm down. So, in that moment, I heard about four explosives.

“I didn’t see their faces because already, some of us had moved inside the other part of the church where people were using as escape. After over 20 minutes, where I was, I was able to pick up my phone, then called the Parish Priest (the Pastor in-charge), because I am an Assistant. ‘Father where are you?’ He said he was still at this other place where he had gone to celebrate Mass. I told him, ‘This is what is happening, if you have the contact of Security Agencies, please call them.’ Then, I called the first assistant too.

“So, after 20 minutes, I got to know that they had gone. That was when I came out and I saw the casualties lying on the floor. So, I called members who still have courage, ‘Let us drive our brothers and sisters to the hospital.’

“When I was going to the Federal Medical Centre, Owo, I was told that St. Louis Catholic Hospital, Owo is already filled and rejecting people. Even when I got to FMC, they were already rejecting people and I had to beg them that even if it is to attend to them outside.”

Another eyewitness who was in the Church, Ezenma Kingsley, one of many Ibos speaking worshippers that attend St Francis Catholic Church in Owo, said most of the victims were women and children.

“I was in the Church and I heard gunshots along the gate; I came out from the Church and I saw a tall man with a long face cap, he shot the gun at my side but I guessed he didn’t see me. He shot another one again, then I told myself, who is this foolish man shooting a gun here? He shot another one; so, I knew there was danger.

“So, I went back inside and I locked the entrance door. Before I could peep through the window, the man was already going through the right side of the Church and entered through the other door and he started shooting a gun. The shooting was too much.

“Then, I heard another sound like bomb, after I regained myself, I looked up and I told myself that the Church has not fallen because I was thinking that the bomb will bring it down. They repeated it again and were also shooting. I wanted to jump through the window but I thought some of them could still be outside”, he said.

Naming victims of Owo terror attack

Rotimi Akeredolu
Rotimi Akeredolu, Ondo State governor with security operatives

But, our correspondent, Jacob Akintunde, who visited the scene of the incident twice could see the blood stains littered the floor of the Church as corpses were moved to the Federal Medical Centre, Owo and St Louis Catholic Hospital, Owo.

For the children and husband of Theresa Ogbu, the bad memories of the deadly attack could linger on. Theresa Ogbu, who took two of her five children to Mass on that Sunday morning to celebrate Pentecost, a joyful occasion for a devout Catholic, lost her life, as the two boys came home without a mother.

Ogbu, 51, BusinessDay gathered that she was shot in the head as she tried to escape from the Church, so were several others who had tried to escape the attack, but ended up in the massacre of innocent souls.

Reacting to Owo attack, the Pan-Yoruba Socio-Political Organisation, Afenifere, a body that joined other well-meaning Nigerians to condemn the attack, said, “the massacre in Owo Catholic Church is a direct attack on Yoruba land.

“It is directed at Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu for his unflinching support for security in Yoruba land by championing the Amotekun security outfits, his stringent upholding of the open grazing law, and for his ‘big mouth’ about Southern co-operation for equity and justice in Nigeria. We will not succumb into terrorist threats or attack.

“They will not be allowed to bring down our civilisation. We will hunt the killers down. Citizens should not take law into their own hands by attacking innocent northerners. Only the terrorists, who are mostly foreign Fulani, should be fished out and finish off by the security forces.

“This attack is to cause confusion and cause war in our land. We should not play into their hands. This evil is condemned in the strongest term.

“We commiserate with the government and people of Ondo state, the Catholic Church, the Olowo of Owo and the people of Owo. May the soul of the departed rest in peace.”

In the search for the killers

Owo massacre

Although, some Owo residents, pundits across Nigeria and even one Catholic Bishop, whose name is withheld, had suggested that the attack might be linked to conflict between nomadic ethnic herdsmen and local farmers over land use, the sad attack took another dimension on Thursday as the Federal Government said that the incident was allegedly carried out by the deadly Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) militants.

Rauf Aregbesola, the Minister of Interior, who briefed State House Correspondents on Thursday in Abuja, the FCT, alongside the Inspector General of Police, Alkali Baba, after the security meeting presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari, noted that Government had seen the footprints of ISWAP in the attack, adding that government was on their trails.

The Minister, who said that the Security Agencies were yet to arrest any of the perpetrators, added, “We need to let our people know this, because we know that what happened at Owo had neither ethnic nor religious motives”.

Aregbesola stated that the Owo attacks were “consistent with ISWAP style in the North East, North West and North Central where we have pockets of bandits operating there.

“We are very close to getting the perpetrators, there are ethnic agenda.”

The Minister however called on various communities across the country to be vigilant adding that “we must mobilize ourselves to defeat their efforts to stoke ethnic violence and cause anarchy in the country.

“The Council understands the violent attacks in the Owo Church were perpetrated by the ISWAP and we are zeroing in on these people who are bent on using such attacks to bring attention and recognition to themselves.

“We have asked all the security agencies to go after them, identify and apprehend the attackers.

This statement credited to Federal Government didn’t however go well with Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu as he queried Federal Government’s claim on the attack, saying on his Facebook Account tagged, “Oluwarotimi Akeredolu Aketi” that the comment is too hasty and therefore asked the National Security Council to provide evidence to back its claims.

A befitting burial

Meanwhile, Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Owo Local Government Area of the state has said that they had begun the preparation for the purpose of taking corpses of their members who were killed in penultimate Sunday terror attack, to the South-East for burial.

Chairman of Ohaneze in Owo Local Government, Anayo Okorie, who spoke with BusinessDay in Owo said they had commenced meetings to discuss how to convey the bodies to their various States of the South-East Region.

Okorie said; “We are here to discuss the way forward for those that died. We cannot give you the actual figures of the Igbos that died because they were many.

“We are planning on how to take the bodies back home. It affected everybody that is why you see shops are still not open.”

He, however, said the meetings would soon reach a conclusion on burial arrangements for the Igbos.

Also, the Yorubas are also preparing for mass burial for the dead as Governor Akeredolu, has also directed that land be provided in good environment for the mass burial of the victims of the terror attack.

According to Akeredolu, while playing host to a team of Catholic Bishops from the South-West led by Most Reverend Leke Abegunrin at his Ijebu-Owo residence in Owo said; “what we witnessed in Owo on that Sunday, I have been looking for a word to describe it, but I’m not too sure I can find one because it is indescribable. There is no word to describe it.

“If you say horrific, dastardly, horrendous, all those ones are common words and we use them for many things.

“But I have been looking for a better word to use because we have witnessed barbaric elements, animals in human skin. If they are human, they would not have done what they did. May be there are areas where they will do such a thing and they would not be worried. But here, we are worried because it is not something we are used to. Human life means a lot to us.

“That is why one is moved. We will have a Memorial Park here where those who died in the attack will be buried. My Bishop sir, we will find a good place as a Memorial Park. It will also be my suggestion that even if there are people who have retrieved their family or members of their family, we must still have a symbolic grave there for them. And it will be there forever, it is not something we can forget and we should never forget it.”

Similarly, the Catholic Bishop of Ondo, Jude Arogundade, stated that the Church is planning to organise a befitting burial for the lost souls.

Arogundade said; “It has been very difficult and painful not just because the incident happened in Owo, but in Ondo Diocese. We are preparing for the funeral of the people who died at the incident.”

Meanwhile, business activities were still paralysed in some parts of Owo Community, especially on Owaluwa Street where the Catholic Church is located as fears and trauma were still perceived among the residents and traders within the Community.

Unlike Archbishop of Canterbury Cathedral, Thomas Becket who had foretold his death and martyrdom during early morning Christmas sermon to Christians and of course, his killing operations by King Henry’s Knights-turned Assassins, nobody saw the deadly attack on St Francis Catholic Church in Owo coming and as of now, nobody can pinpoint the masterminds of the attack.

Except the Federal Government’s claim on ISWAP and count claim from Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, what is sacrosanct is that massacre did occur in St Francis Catholic Church in Owo and Nigerians and the entire are watching as events unfold on the reckless and brutal killings of innocent souls – the Murders in the Cathedral!

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