by Patrick Egwu
One week after the bloody attack at St Phillip’s Catholic Church in Ozubulu, Anambra left 13 people dead and more than 20 injured, YNaija carried out an investigative report on the attack – the motive, victims and the story beyond what we know right now.
It was 5:45am – a rainy Sunday morning.
Jehoshaphat Okoye’s wall clock rang an alarm that woke him up. He looked at the time. He had only fifteen minutes to get ready and be on time for the mass at St Phillips Catholic Church where he worships.
It was just a five-minute walk from the semi-detached bungalow which he shares with his mum, sister and extended family members.
He arrived church at 6:07am and took one of the back seats as the front pew he often sat had been taken over by other worshippers. The opening procession was already underway. He joined.
Jehoshaphat, who rides a motorcycle for a living, lost his wife two years ago and sees the church as the only place to comfort his soul and seek peace of mind. Except on this day, he was about to meet a pool of blood.
At 7:05am, the presiding priest had finished his sermon. While prayers before offertory and thanksgiving were going on in front of the altar, a black Sports Utility Vehicle pulled over in front of the church, almost blocking the entrance gate. The driver of the car held firmly to the steering as the other occupant of the car slowly came down and headed towards the entrance door. Once inside, he walked down the aisle towards the altar, rolled his sleeves and pulled an AK 47 riffle.
The shooting spree had started.
After about thirty minutes, eleven worshippers were dead while more than twenty others were injured according to police reports.
Jehoshaphat’s right hand was hit by the gunman’s bullet which tore part of his flesh. Nobody was spared.
Jehoshaphat, 55, was in shock when the gunman opened fire on worshippers in the church
“At first I thought it was a rumbling thunder because of the rain until I saw people screaming and blood everywhere. I was shaking,” Jehoshaphat said, recalling how the attack happened.
“I was in the 6am mass and people were standing and facing the altar. All of a sudden we started hearing heavy sounds repeatedly. I was hit, I fell down and saw other people on the ground too, hiding under the seats. The blood soaked my cloth. A woman outside removed her head scarf and tied my hand to stop the bleeding. But it continued,” he said leaning back on his hospital bed.
Jehoshaphat’s mother, Rose Okoye in her 70s who attends the church with her walking stick, was also caught in the shooting spree. She never survived.
Jehoshaphat showing YNaija his swollen right hand which was hit by the gunman’s bullet
“When I came outside, I started looking for my mother because she attended the mass too,” he told us.
“A little girl standing there told me ‘look at your mother over there’. I went to where her corpse was lying on the ground, touched her and said ‘go well mother,’ ” he said sobbing while rubbing his reddish eyes.
He didn’t stop shooting
Forty-three-year old Adaobi Akpujekwu had come to take care of her sick mother in the community. She is a mother of two, married to Cornelius Akpujekwu from the neighouring village. On Sunday morning, she decided to attend the 6am mass so she could come back early and prepare food for her mother.
She sat at the back – her favourite spot. She turned out to be one of the first people to be hit.
“The building was shaking. I thought it was about collapsing when I heard the deafening sound. Everybody was confused,” she told YNaija. “When I saw people running at different directions, I became confused and hid under where I was sitting.
Adaobi had to undergo a surgical procedure to remove the gunman’s bullet from her buttock
When the gunman had exhausted his bullets, he paused for a while to reload. To complete his mission, he bent down on the aisle and started shooting at those who were hiding under the seats.
“We thought he had finished shooting because of the silence,” Adaobi said of the gunman. “We never knew he was trying to reload and continue. He bent down his gun where we were hiding and continued shooting. It was then that one of the bullet hit my buttock. I was in pain. I was taken to the hospital where the bullet was removed through surgery,” she said.
Adaobi showing YNaija the bullet that lodged inside her buttock during the shooting
Catherine Ndubeze, 64, is a widow. She had her intestine ripped out when a bullet pierced her lower loins and struck her right hand.
“The priest had just finished his sermon and was climbing the altar for the offertory prayer. We all stood up. It was then that the shooting started and the bullets hit me in my stomach and right hand. I fell down and blood was gushing out. I was unconscious. I only woke up to see myself at the hospital,” she said.
Catherine, 64, never knew she would survive after the bullets ripped out her intestines
“I can’t pay my bills,” she said, referring to the surgical procedure that was done at a local hospital to remove the bullets and fix her intestine. I have nobody to run to. The government said they will only pay the bills of those who were taken to the national teaching hospital,”
Two brothers at war
The shooting at the church was related to two kinsmen who are based in South Africa. Aloysius Ikegwuonu, 36, is the man in the middle of the storm. He is widely known as Bishop. The story is that the gunmen who carried out the shootings in the church were contracted to kill him over issues related to drug deals.
Surprisingly, those in government know him.
“Everyone knows Bishop and what he does. Even the South African government and the state governor know him. In fact, it is alleged that the governor (Obiano) is the godfather of one of his children,” one of the residents of the community who begged not to be mentioned said. “The problem started when someone from this community he sent to South Africa to help him in his business (drugs) started misbehaving and began showing superiority. They have been killing themselves for a long time now in South Africa. I was surprised to see them bring it back home,” he said.
When the governor of the state, Willie Obiano visited the community, he dismissed rumours that it was herdsmen or Boko Haram terrorists that attacked the church. Instead, he admitted it was a drug war between two drug gangs from the community which they brought back home.
“Brothers and sisters, what happened in Ozubulu was neither a terror attack as we know it, nor a violent action by some agitators. We are dealing with a dangerous gang war that has spilled over to Anambra State from another African country. But this is the last time it will happen under my watch,” he was quoted saying.
The gunmen’s first place of contact when they entered the community was Bishop’s house, a few meters away from the church. But they didn’t meet him there.
“While leaving, they saw his car parked outside the church. They stopped and thought he was there but he wasn’t. His father was the one who came with the car. I believe they went inside the church just to leave a message with their killings,” the source said.
“I was shocked to hear this tragedy. It is strange to our land. I heard this might not be unconnected with drug business and that the main target (Bishop) they came for left the community two days before the attacks,” said Dr Ray Udeajah, a senior lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and an indigene of a neighbouring village where the shooting took place.
Bishop’s father, Cyprian Ikegwuonu was among those killed in the attack.
Bishop: the philanthropic drug lord who loves God
Four years ago, Aloysius Ikegwuonu popularly known as Bishop decided to build a church in memory of his late mother, Calista Ikegwuonu. This was not his first spiritual philanthropic gesture. He has built two other churches for different communities.
On December 26, 2013, the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi Diocese, Most Rev Hilary Paul Odili blessed and commissioned the church in a glamorous ceremony attended by the high and low of the community.
Bishop is not only a charitable contributor to the church but also the community and beyond through handsome donations.
St Phillip’s church built and donated to the community by Bishop four years ago
He is very influential to the church in his community.
“I wonder why the Catholic Church in the state should accept the donation of a church built with drug money,” said Azubuike Mbamalu who was away when the attacks happened. “It is wrong to accept such gifts from people with questionable character,” he said.
He also asphalted many roads in the community, built schools, offered scholarships to indigent students and sent some of his kinsmen abroad to search for greener pastures.
A sign post showing one of the roads built by Bishop which was named after him. Ebubechukwuzo, another name for Bishop which is popular in the community
This has endeared him to many in the community.
Afraid of going to church
When we arrived the community, it was silent. People were hardly seen around the vicinity of the church.
We later learnt that some have resolved not to go church again after the incident. Though, security was tight and strengthened. One white police patrol van, blaring its siren had driven past as wr rode in a taxi going to the community.
At a sloppy junction leading to the church, just five minutes away, a police post was stationed there. In front the church, five police officers were seen keeping guard of the church and the community.
Signpost showing the activities and time at St Phillip’s Catholic Church
Ifeanyi Chukwu, 27, a seminarian from Imo state had come to visit his uncle who was among one of the victims of the church shooting. He led a group of four teenagers on a voluntary work to clean up the church so that church activities could resume. The police had earlier cordoned off the scene of the attack while embarking on investigations. But it was just re-opened. When we arrived the church, Ifeanyi and his team were gathering the victims’ belongings – blood stained clothes, shoes, umbrella, wrist watches which littered everywhere into a trash can. The stain of the blood of victims was still visibly seen – on seats, tiled floor and stench of the blood filled the atmosphere. Maggots and flies were feasting on the congealed blood.
Police has removed the cordon which they had placed in front of the gates and around the church to prevent people from entering the scene
“We need more hands. This thing is too much for us,” Ifeanyi said removing a white handkerchief he used to cover his nose and mouth. “We have gone from house to house looking for people to help us in cleaning the church but everywhere is locked. Maybe they are inside, they are all scared. Some of them said they won’t come to church again. You wouldn’t blame them,” he said picking a water bottle which was under one of the seats inside the church and putting it in a small rubber basket.
“I can’t enter that church again. I’m scared. I’d rather worship in my house than die over what I know nothing about,” Chisom Nnamdi said lifting a blue bucket filled with rain water and turning it into another brown bucket. “What’s the need of going to church again if we can’t find protection there?” he asked turning away from where we were standing in his compound.
“This attack has showed how low we have degraded as a people to the extent of coming inside God’s house to kill innocent people,” said Rev Fr Fidelis Ogbonnaya Asogwa, a catholic priest and communication scholar at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “We have lost our sense of sacredness and sanctity. I just saw where the Catholic Bishop was sanctifying the church again. They will celebrate mass there tomorrow,” he said.
On Saturday, six days after the attack, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese, Most Rev. Hilary Paul Odili, led other priests, seminarians and religious to re-dedicate the church to God because of the atrocities that were committed by the gunmen. The house of God had been desecrated. The re-dedication was to sanctify it and pave the way for religious activities to commence. The Bishop told the congregation who had summoned courage to come out not to be discouraged or lose faith in God that mass would hold tomorrow (Sunday).
Going to Church
After the re-dedication on Saturday, we were in the church on Sunday to observe the situation and attendance of worshippers. The mass held – this time around it was 9am mass. Fear and tension clearly written on the faces of worshippers who decided to come – even the priests. As the mass was going on, people could be seen looking at different directions – back and forth, observing every escape route.
The church which has a sitting capacity of about 600 to 800 worshippers was almost filled – men, women, youth and children defiled the threat on their lives by the gunmen. They had committed their souls into God’s hands. They believe it was safe there. Catholic Bishops from the state and more than twenty reverend fathers, sisters and religious were in attendance. Soldiers and mobile policemen were there, providing security to worshippers and the church.
The biggest surprise of the day was yet to come. Bishop, the target whom the gunmen had come to kill was there too with heavily armed security personnel following him at every step. After the mass, no one was allowed to come close to him as he was quickly escorted into his house. The big metal gate was shut. While some left immediately after the end of mass, some were seen in small groups of three, four or five – discussing, chatting and whispering to one another in muffled voices.
The secret silence
Silence was everywhere in the community after the shooting. Nobody wants to talk about it. They feared they would be arrested by the police. The people and even the government became silent. Nobody wants to give a lead to help in the investigation.
The governor was accused of not doing enough. He was said to be having a romance with Bishop – the man in the middle of the storm. The poster of the governor and Bishop have been seen at strategic positions in the community. The governor had on several occasions, come to commission some projects – roads, water projects, buildings, scholarship foundations initiated and completed by Bishop.
“Since the attack on a Catholic Church on Sunday, there has not been any pro-active action on the part of the state government or the federal government to arrest the terrorists who launched the dastardly act on the innocent citizens of this country,” said Barrister Olu Omotayo, president, Civil Rights Realization and Advancement Network (CRRAN).
Barrister Omotayo has just started a campaign, demanding for justice and calling for the extradition of those responsible.
“In the present case, the governor of Anambra state who it was stated has strong friendship with the said drug baron who built and presented to the Catholic Church, has not deemed it fit to state his own version of his relationship with the drug baron,” Olu said.
He said the governor would have resigned in a normal setting and the Catholic Church stop using the church.
“In a normal clime, the Anambra state governor would have resigned voluntarily for his disgraceful romance and association with the said drug baron and also the Catholic Church would have come out openly to reject the gift and stop using the building. But because of corruption, greed and prevailing economic hardship, we have abandoned the voice of reasoning and truth in the land”.
“We were told not to say any negative thing about the person of Bishop,” said Chisom. “They said we should speak about the good things he has done like water supply, roads, education. I think they are protecting him from bad image,” he told YNaija. When asked who said they should keep quiet on the attacks, he refused to talk.
“That’s all I can say for now.”