David-Chyddy Eleke recounts the tales and experiences of Ozubulu people of Anambra State on a day they had gone to worship their God but met their end in droves
The Nnewi people of Anambra State are regarded as among the wisest and most fearless people of the region. They are usually daring in business and highly successful too. Ozubulu people are their closest neighbours on the southern flank. They live with each other, such that one can hardly tell which compound in the boundary area belonged to the Nnewi or Ozubulu people. In mockery, a saying among Nnewi people always goes that, â€˜the wisest among the Ozubulu people is regarded as the least in Nnewiâ€™. Of course, the Ozubulu people never approve of this, but they get to hear it often. On their own, the average Ozubulu man cannot be said to be inferior to the Nnewi man, but one thing is sure, the nearness of Ozubulu to Nnewi rubbed off on them, and both communities can be said to be among the wisest and most successful in business in Anambra.
On a normal week day, Ozubulu is a bubbly town, with lots of commercial activities going on, but on a Sunday, the story is usually different when the streets are usually devoid of commercial activities; only human traffic can be witnessed at interval in designated areas. That is usually when one church or the other makes to start their mass or service as the case may be. Again, human traffic comes on when one church or the other finishes service and members begin to find their way home. This continues from the very early hours of the morning when churches begin their masses till 12p.m., when most churches dismiss their last mass or service. From that period, Ozubulu witnesses a lull as indigenes return home to prepare â€˜Sunday riceâ€™ or take a rest. By 4p.m., the town comes alive again, but this time it is in full force. People visit their relatives, others go out to enjoy themselves after the hustle of the previous week, and usually they seek refuge in the many drinking parlours in the town. The owners of such businesses all compete to make their best, and they blast music from loud public address systems until late in the night when fun seekers retire to take a rest to prepare themselves for the hustle of the coming week.
But, Sunday, August 6, was an unusual Sunday for Ozubulu people. Though the day started like every other Sunday with church goers streaming into the various churches in the town, it ended on a different note from what every other Sunday used to be, when the unthinkable happened.
St. Philipâ€™s Catholic Church, like every other Catholic Church in most towns is a beautiful edifice, painted in milk white and a touch of brown paint in a few places to bring out its beauty. Its gate is also a beautiful piece, a sign that the architect or the donors of the church building had taste for good things. The church was also well attended that day, and hopefully, the parish priest of the church, Rev. Fr. Jude Onwuasor must have spent time late in the night to prepare his sermon to impress and woo his audience to God. This is more so, when an illustrious son of the community who is seldom in town had come in, and was suspected to worship with his people on that day.
This illustrious son is also the donor of the church. Besides St. Philipâ€™s Catholic Church, the illustrious son has also built two other gigantic edifices for Catholic faithful; St. Aloysius at Eziora Ozubulu and St. Francis at Egbema Ozubulu. He is also a very generous giver in the society who is known to give out money to indigenes of the community each time he comes home. His philanthropy led him to registering a foundation, Ebubechukwuzo Foundation, which he used to grant scholarship to several indigent students of the community and beyond. He is also known to have constructed roads in the community, just as all houses within range of his palatial mansion (which is undergoing renovation) have been given a facelift. The church was thickly populated on that day because this illustrious son was in town, and would most likely put smiles on the faces of people who came to him after mass. That illustrious son is; High Chief Aloysius Ikegwuonu, an international business man based in South Africa.
Worship had only just commenced, when the happiness of the entire Ozubulu people, nay Anambra and Nigeria, was cut short. An eye witness, Mr. Samuel Ndulue, who was in the church on the faithful day told THISDAY from his hospital bed that, â€œI was sitting on the third row of the seat, right in front of the church when it started. It was only one man that entered the church, but I suspected that their members were maybe in a car outside. The car had driven down the road, reversed and returned, moving into the church, but halting at the middle of the gate, while just one man walked to the door of the church. The man was dressed in all black attire, with a fez cap. Immediately he entered, he did not say a word or make any enquiry, I was in front and he was behind. So he stood close to one of the three doors of the church. He started immediately shooting at everyone. I took cover, lying on the ground, but as the man continued to kill people, I decided to stand up and run towards the door because my thought is that the man may have enough bullets to finish everybody. It was while rushing towards the door that I sustained broken legs because the man was standing close to one door, leaving us with just two doors to use. I would have remained on the ground where I was, but the man was shooting randomly, and I became afraid that the man may have enough bullets to go round. I was on the ground hoping that he would run out of bullets, but he just kept shooting. I thought to myself that it would be better to run than wait as he may turn to the few people left in the church once others have run away. Most of the people that sustained injury were people who made to escape,â€ he recounted.
When the news first broke, figures of casualty rate were bandied around, with residents of the community saying that over 40 people died in the shooting. Some account even went as high as 100, while others stuck to 50. As things became clearer, with government agencies and the church taking stock, the figure was latter pegged at nine, and later 11, then 12. As it stands presently, the church has released the names of all victims of the incident and 13 are confirmed dead, while out of the over 27 wounded persons, some have been discharged, while others are now confirmed to be in stable condition.
At first, the worry was to ensure safety for wounded persons, and evacuation of the dead, so no one was sure what the real cause of the shooting was. As the coast got clearer, people began adducing reason for the shooting. While some said it was a terrorist attack orchestrated by the Boko Haram sect, others said it was from herdsmen. Then came the story of a reprisal attack on the community over one of its sons, who is resident in South Africa, who had a wrong business deal with another. This has long stuck, but there are still varying versions of it.
One of the versions, which was confirmed by the state governor, Chief Willie Obiano and Police authorities in the state was that the shooting was caused by two brothers who live in South Africa, both of whom are engaged in drug peddling, and one was believed to have outsmarted the other in a business deal, leading to a gang war that has spanned years. The rival gang who were seeking a pound of the otherâ€™s flesh came home after it got information that the leader of the other gang was home in Ozubulu, and on getting to his house and meeting his absence proceeded to the church and also was unlucky and decided to vent their frustration on the innocent worshippers. But what is more interesting is that the man they were looking for was Ozubuluâ€™s illustrious son, who also built the church where the incident happened, and he is High Chief Aloysius Ikegwuonu, popularly known as Bishop of Ozubulu. He was however said to have left the community after a brief stay, in which he played football at the community square with youths of the village, and also encouraging them with several pairs of football boots which he distributed. According to his childhood friend, secondary school mate, and chairman of his Ebubechukwuzo Foundation, Mr. Jovita Emeka Ofomata, Ikegwuonu left Ozubulu on Thursday for Lagos and flew to South Africa on Friday to attend to his businesses.
Attempts to unravel the real mystery behind the incident seems not to be at hand, as even the police has not provided enough information as to how far it had gone in unravelling the matter. Though the Anambra State Police Command had announced that three suspects have been arrested in connection to the killings, it refused to disclose the identity of the arrested persons or their level of involvement. The state Police Commissioner, Mr. Garba Umar told THISDAY that any further disclosure may mar the investigation.
Meanwhile, the President General of Ozubulu Community, Dr. Ernest Chukwuka, the Chairman of Ekwusigo Local Government Area, Engr. Ikenna Ofodeme and the Chairman of Ebubechukwuzo Foundation, owned by Ikegwuonu, Ofomata have all been invited and interrogated by the police. One of the invitees, Ofomata confirmed to THISDAY in a telephone interview that he, the President General of Ozubulu, and the Chairman of Ekwusigo Local Government were at the Police Command to honour the invitation of the police commissioner. He however denied that the invitation had anything to do with revelations made by arrested suspects, saying that the discussion with the police authorities was a friendly one.
On the other hand, members of Ozubulu Community have insisted that their illustrious son, Ikegwuonu, is not a drug lord, and could not have had a hand in the killings. The community believes that Ikegwuonu is too loving to be such a hardened personality as has been portrayed. Though the entire community was visibly devoid of people during our visit, some members of the community who spoke to THISDAY said no one in the community suspected Ikegwuonu to be a drug lord. They insisted he was an easy going philanthropist who has touched lots of lives in the community and beyond. Mrs. Dorothy Ikem, a native of the community said, â€œEverybody in Amakwa knows Ebubechukwuzo. He is a generous young man who is always willing to assist people. We do not know him to be a drug baron. He imports spare parts, and has also helped to train a lot of people.â€
Chairman of Ekwusigo Local Government Area, Engr. Ikenna Ofodeme also stated that the allegation of Ikegwuonu being a drug peddler was not true. He also said there was nothing like a gang war spilling from South Africa. â€œI seriously believe that this is a terror attack on our people, and people are hiding under false stories to cover up the attack.â€
Chairman of Ebubechukwuzo Foundation owned by the suspected drug lord, Ofomata said his principal is â€œAn estate developer in South Africa. He has built so many houses even here in Nigeria and sold. He is also into property management, and he is an importer. He deals with beverages, spare parts, which he imports from China. Ebubechukwuzo is not a drug pusher. Ebubechukwuzo has not complained about having problems with anyone. We have called to ask him if there is anyone he has problem with and he said no. We asked him if there is anyone he is suspecting and he said no. He was here just last week, and when he came back here he moved freely without security. So I do not know where the information that he is a drug lord emanated from. He played football with youths in the village, bought football boots and gave out to many footballers in the community before leaving. I know him very well, we attended the same secondary school before we joined our areas of businesses. I can tell you he is very close to me and I know a lot of things about him, and if he had problem with anyone, he would have told me. If he were into drug, too, I would know. I have told you all that I know.â€
The incident may have come and gone, but fear has not left residents of Ozubulu Community. During a recent visit to the community, the community seemed like a ghost community, with few of the residents found in their homes refusing to speak to press men. It was more like a conspiracy, and every indigene avoided speaking with strangers, especially on the life of their illustrious son, Ikegwuonu. Ugwu Oye junction, a popular junction that also has a market, which is the first point on coming from Nnewi to Ozubulu, was not the usual bubbly junction it has always been. The loud music from the public address system owned by those who sell music discs was obviously absent. Commercial activities were however going on normally, but it was clear that all was not well in the community. The church where the incident had happened looked deserted unlike Sunday afternoon when the church was besieged by sympathisers.
An indigene of the community, Mr. Calistus Ndukamma who lives not far from church premises said, â€œThose who witnessed what happened are still in shock, and we are still living in fear. Do you know that if you throw a knockout here, that people will take to their heels?â€
THISDAY learnt that the police authorities have moved into action, alerting the International Police (Interpol) in South Africa to possibly arrest Ikegwuonu in South Africa if he failed to turn himself in to answer questions relating to the incident. But his aide, Ofomata assured in an interview that Ikegwuonu would be back by next week. He said, â€œEbubechukwuzo would be back by next week. He just left Nigeria shortly before the incident, and I have called to tell him about it, and to tell him too that his father was killed in the shooting. He will be here to take possession of his fatherâ€™s corpse and to commence preparation for burial too. He has nothing to hide, and he will be here. If you know this man, you will know that this is an orchestrated plan to tarnish his image. I am still in shock up till now.â€
On the attempt to bring the perpetrators to book, most commentators have however insisted that Ikegwuonu though may have questions to answer to help the police in its investigation, but has not committed any offence as it has not been ascertained that he sent the gunman. Barr. Chukwudum Emeka said, â€œPolice should even be making plans to secure him (Ikegwuonu) when he comes back because some people want to eliminate him by all means. What the police should be doing, or rather what the public should be doing is to call for the arrest of the perpetrators, not castigating Ikegwuonu who would have been a victim if he had not travelled a day before the incident.â€
The police is however believed to be working, and especially now that the incident has gained international attention, it would be a good way to launder Nigeriaâ€™s image and that of the police to find the killers. Most Civil Society organisations have also called on the police to stop at nothing to find the killers, while also alerting the international community in case a shoddy job was done.