…and 13 worshipers lay dead – Rev Father
• ‘Why attackers struck’
• Survivors: We still live in fear
• How natives’ battle for Town Union leadership spilled over to Anambra – Igwe Nnamdi Oruche
By Vincent Ujumadu
AUGUST 6, 2017 remains green in Amakwa village, Ozubulu in Ekwusigo local government area of Anambra State as it was a day worshippers at St. Philip’s Catholic Church in the community were traumatized following the invasion of the church by gunmen during an early mass. The attackers left in their trail 13 people dead and pools of human blood on the floor of the church auditorium. Several other worshippers wounded during the shooting inside the church were treated in various hospitals in the state.
That church invasion was the climax of a battle of supremacy among natives of Ozubulu based in South Africa, where their actions had led to the loss of over 30 fellow natives. The battle is still raging in that country, even as some suspects are facing trial in Nigeria.
The incident that took place at St. Philips came as a surprise to many people in Anambra as the community is populated by Christians of the Catholic denomination. For instance, Ozubulu is the only community in Anambra that boasts of two natives who are Catholic Bishops namely, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, who was appointed by Pope Francis as the Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador) to Ireland, and Most Reverend Martin Uzoukwu, the Bishop of Minna Diocese.
The area is also one of the communities that have produced the largest number of Reverend Fathers in Anambra and is one town where an indigene singlehandedly built three gigantic churches. It is also one of the communities in Igbo land where church missionaries first settled. Incidentally, the person who built the three churches, Chief Aloysius Ikwgwuonu, also based in South Africa, is very much at the centre of the crisis that had become synonymous with Ozubulu. Ikegwuonu lost his father during the attack as information had it that the gunmen had to kill his father when they could not find him in the church as he was believed to be their main target.
After the mayhem, St. Philips Church was closed down for some time and had to be rededicated by the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi Diocese, Most Reverend Hilary Okeke, before it was reopened. During the August 6, 2018 anniversary, some of the relatives of the victims and those who sustained injuries during the shooting were present. Some of them sobbed uncontrollably as the priest of the church, Rev Father Jude Onwuaso, recounted what happened on that black Sunday.
Fr. Onwuaso said: “We were reciting ‘I believe in one God’, to which the congregation chorused amen and, immediately, as I introduced the prayer of the faithful, huge sounds like volcanic eruption filled the church. Initially, there was total silence, but moments later, pandemonium set in.
“At first I thought I was in a dream, but it was real. There were sporadic shootings inside the church and people started running in different directions. In fact, satanic agents and enemy of Christ entered our church for the purpose of killing innocent children of God. What we had left behind were pools of blood of fellow human beings inside the church.
“For months, our parish became a hot zone as people from all parts of the world came to see the atrocity committed in our community. However, I am deeply touched by God’s care and love this past one year, as He has shown us love through the diocese and beyond the shores of Nigeria”
He commended parishioners for putting the incident behind them, expressing happiness that it never discouraged them from attending masses and worshiping God as they had always done. The Rev Father also thanked the police and voluntary agencies that came to assist the wounded and the dead by conveying them to hospitals and mortuaries, until the burial service that later took place.
Some of the worshipers said they lacked words to relive what they went through during the past one year, but pleaded that God should intervene and touch those involved in the crisis to sheathe their sword in the interest of their families, many of whom, they observed, were still living in fear. Mr. Augustine Udechukwu, a native of the community, told Sunday Vanguard that some people, who fled the community in the heat of the crisis, were yet to return, leaving their homes desolate.
Udechukwu, who regretted that the incident had portrayed Ozubulu in bad light, prayed that the people, especially those living in South Africa, should realize that the on-going battle for supremacy would not achieve any good in the long run. “It is unfortunate that our people are shedding blood because of earthly things, which are vanity. In the past 10 years, about 30 people from this place have been killed in South Africa and it had to do with one deal or the other,” he said.
The traditional ruler of Ozubulu, Igwe Nnamdi Oruche, who hosted peace meetings for his subjects in South Africa for the purpose of resolving their differences, observed that it was the struggle for who would become the President – General of Ozubulu Development Union, ODU, in South Africa that triggered the problem in the community, recalling that there was an incident in 2007 when four members of the town’s vigilante group were murdered under questionable circumstances at the neighbouring Ukpor in Nnewi South local government area.
Over time, the Commissioner of Police in Anambra State, Mr. Garba Umar, detailed his men to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter and, eventually, four people suspected to be involved in the killings were initially arraigned before an Anambra State Magistrate’s Court, sitting at Ozubulu. The suspects — Great Chinedu Akpunonu, 44; Vincent Ike, 57; Chukwudi Ugwu, 30, and Onyebuchi Mbanefo, 46— were arraigned on a 37-count charge bordering on conspiracy and murder, while three others declared wanted then are still at large.
Umar said the Nigeria Police had to establish contact with Interpol on the need to extradite the suspects from South Africa to Nigeria. The case was later transferred to the Nnewi High Court, but due to the frightening tension in the area during court sittings, as the opponents were challenging each other at the court premises and almost attacked each other physically, the sitting was later moved to Awka.
Attempts to grant the suspects bail at the Magistrate Court failed before the case was transferred to the High Court. Mind-boggling stories had also been told during the sittings in Awka. For instance, a witness, Mr. Nkwado Onyeka, told the court that the suspected perpetrators of the killings were demanding $1m to stop further attacks on the community.
Onyeka also told the court that two suspects, owned up to the crime and were still being held in South African prison, alleging that they demanded the amount as part of their conditions to stop further killings.
Another witness, Mr. Chukwuemeka Obi, during one of the sittings, told the court that the masterminds of the massacre had vowed to kill some Ozubulu indigenes living in Brazil and South Africa if the charges against those facing trial in Nigeria were not dropped and the suspects released.
Obi said: “The killers have threatened to kill my father in Ozubulu, attack four other families in Ozubulu; kill my younger brother who is living in Brazil and me living in South Africa.
“They are demanding one million dollars from us or they will wipe out all of us. We have been receiving strange phone calls from these people. They accused me of being a traitor because, on one occasion, I travelled with Bishop (Aloysius Ikegwuonu), the key target of the attack, from South Africa to Nigeria and rode in his (Bishop’s) car from Lagos to Ozubulu.”
He alleged that one of the suspects, Chinedu Akpunonu, standing trial in the case in Awka was working with two persons he called Gozila and Afam, who were in jail in South African prison to terrorize the people of Ozubulu at home and abroad.
Another witness from South Africa, Emeka Nzelu, told the court that another suspect standing trial in the case, Onyebuchi Mbanefo, called him on phone and threatened to deal with “Bishop” for abandoning him at a point in need.
Nzelu said: “Mbanefo told me that he would join forces with Akpunonu (another accused) to deal with Bishop for failing to assist him to foot his bill for surgery, despite the fact that it was because of Bishop that he sustained the wound during an operation.
Despite the pleading by the defense counsel, Mr. Festus Keyamo, SAN, to grant bail to the accused persons, Justice Aniukwu said the risk of releasing them outweighed their freedom. They are still cooling off at the Nnewi Prison.
Although the main reason for transferring the sitting from Nnewi to Awka was to reduce the number of people coming to the court, the premises of the Awka High Court is usually jam-packed on every adjourned date.