About a year ago, 13 persons were killed in a Catholic Church in Ozubulu, Anambra State, and scores were injured, but justice is yet to be delivered in the case, as attempts to bring the perpetrators to book have been shrouded in controversy. David-Chyddy Eleke reports
In Amakwa, Amaofe community of Ozubulu in Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State, Sunday, August 6, 2017 broke normally, like any other Sunday. As usual, the Catholic faithful trooped for the morning mass at St. Philips. In Amakwa, a predominantly Catholic community, as expected, the church was already filled up by 5.30am.
Deep into the mass, the unthinkable happened. A Hilux truck drove by, went down the road, turned and parked. According to eyewitness accounts, a tall and firmly built man, dressed in all black, with a jacket and a fez cap, marched into the church with a rifle, and without uttering a word, opened fire on worshipers, spraying them with bullets recklessly.
Initially, it was thought that hundreds of people had lost their lives. But after the hullabaloo, the Anambra State Police Command made an official release, which put the death toll at 13 dead and 22 others injured.
Ripple Effect from South Africa
At first, the incident was attributed to herdsmen attack, but the Anambra State Governor, Chief Willie Obiano, who had cut short his Abuja trip to attend to the crisis, debunked that. After an extensive meeting with stakeholders of the area, Obiano said the attack arose from a drug war between some indigenes of the community who lived in South Africa.
THISDAY further gathered that the war between the groups had been on for a while, and had also cost some of the gang members their lives. A source from the community who refused to be named told our correspondent then, that the genesis of the killing was a business deal which went sour, resulting in the incarceration of a member of the opposing gang in South Africa.
“Since then, there has been no peace because the opposing gang are saying that our son, for whom their gang member went to work for, before he was caught and jailed cannot be abandoned in jail. As a result of the feud, the gang members have been killing themselves, leading the traditional ruler of the community and other prominent members of community calling the groups for settlement, all of which never worked,” he said.
At the centre of the entire fiasco, is a young international business man, Mr. Aloysius Ikegwuonu, who is popularly known as Bishop in the area and beyond. Ikegwuonu had in the church attack lost his father while his step mother escaped death with a bullet wound. According to sources, the gunmen had first gone to his house, which is not far away from the church, which he also built, furnished and donated in the name of his father, Chief Philip Ikegwuonu. The men were said to have been told that he was in church, and when they got to the church and could not find him, they were infuriated and also provoked to carry out the killing.
Another actor in the incident, who though is said to be in jail in South Africa was identified as Obrocho. A source in the community said Obrocho who is the leader of the opposing gang, suspected to have carried out the killing is a supposed business colleague of Ikegwuonu. Though he is serving a jail term in South Africa, THISDAY gathered that he is so powerful that even from prison, he still issues directives to his boys on what to do, and is suspected to have coordinated the attack on St Philip’s Catholic Church from prison.
After the incident, it turned Ozubulu into a pilgrimage centre, as politicians and prominent businessmen cashed in on it to show love to the people. A federal government delegation led by Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige was immediately dispatched to condole with the people. Ngige’s delegation first visited the government house, Awka, where they were joined by the deputy governor, Dr. Nkem Okeke. They also stopped by at Nnewi to condole the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi, Most Rev Dr Hillary Okeke, under whose diocese the parish fell. At St Philip’s Catholic Church, the delegation spoke with the priest in charge, Rev Fr Jude Onwuaso, after they took a walk around the area before heading to the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, Nnewi, where the gunshot victims were receiving treatment.
Ngige briefed journalists on behalf of the delegation, which comprised Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama; Minister of State for Environment, Ibrahim Jibril; and the Minister of State for Education, Prof. Anthony Anwukah. Ngige said the federal government would ensure help for victims of the attack, while also promising to beef up security in all the churches in the South-east to forestall further attacks.
The minister said the federal government will make adequate arrangement for security around churches in the Southeast, and ensure that the perpetrators of the crime were brought to book.
But one year after the attack, THISDAY checks revealed that none of the two promises made by the federal government has been fulfilled; no security has been provided for churches in the South-east, or even St Philip Catholic Church, Ozubulu, nor have perpetrators of the very heinous crime been brought to book.
THISDAY recently embarked on a visit to Amakwa Ozubulu on investigation on Sunday morning, and found that as porous as the parish was on the morning of the attack in August 2017, it has remained the same, with no even an unarmed police officer stationed there.
Attempts with speak to Rev Fr Jude Onwuasor on how the parish has been coping without security proved abortive as he immediately moved into a second mass, but a parishioner, Mr Emma Eze said, “did they(government) say they will put security here? We have not seen any. We are not even entrusting our security in their hands, it is God that secures one. As you can see, there is no security here, yet people are coming to mass without fear.”
Eze told THISDAY that Ikegwuonu, who donated the church, comes to worship in the church anytime he is in the country, and that he usually comes with his personal security, and that when he leaves, the church becomes porous again. He condemned the federal government for making promises that they cannot keep, adding, “We are not asking them to come and secure us, we are only asking that the perpetrators be brought to book as justice for those slain in the incident.”
Another failed promise of government is the promise of ensuring that the killers were made to face the law. Even though the matter is still in court, not much has been done to ensure justice for the slain worshippers; instead the killers had allegedly once threatened to strike again if their terms were not met.
The matter first commenced in an Anambra State Magistrate Court sitting at Ozubulu, where four persons; Great Chinedu Akpunonu (44), Vincent Ike (57), Chukwudi Ugwu (30) and Onyebuchi Mbanefo (46), were arrainged. The four were arraigned on 37-count charge bordering on conspiracy and murder. Ikegwuonu, whose father was killed in the attack, the Parish Priest of St Philip’s Catholic Church, Rev Fr Jude Onwuaso and six others were called as witnesses.
Their charges read in part, “That you Great Chinedu Akpunonu, .M. Vincent Ike .M. Chukwudi Ugwu .M. others now at large on or about August 6, 2017 at St Philip Catholic Church Amakwa Ozubulu at about 0600hrs in the Ekwusigo Magisterial District did conspire to commit felony to wit: Murder. You thereby committed an offence punishable underSection 494 of the Criminal Code Cap 36 vol. II revised laws of Anambra state of Nigeria 1991.
“That you Great Chinedu Akpunonu ‘m’, Vincent Ike m’, Chukwudi Ugwu ‘m and others now at large on the same date, place, time and within the aforementioned magisterial District did unlawfully kill one Anthoni Ufondu ‘f’ by shooting her with a gun which caused her death. You thereby committed an offence punishable under’Section 274(1) of the Criminal Code Cap 36 vol. H revised paws of Anambra state of Nigeria 1991.
“That you Great Chinedu Akpunonu ‘m’, Vincent Ike ‘m’, Chukwudi Ugwu ‘m’ others now at large on the same date, place, time and within the aforementioned magisterial District did unlawfully kill one Anurika Obunadike ‘f’ by shooting her with a gun which caused her death. You thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 274(1) of the Crnal Code Cap 36 vol. H revised laws of Arian-144ra state of Nigeria 1991.”
The matter however advanced considerably before threats tartes pouring in on the magistrate. Besides threatening the magistrate, some of the witnesses told the court that they have also been threatened by some of the gang members living in South Africa. The development led to the court being moved from Ozubulu to Awka, where it is believed that security would be more available.
Diabolic Approach, Arrest
As a result of what has been described as shoddy handling of the matter by the state government and the police, recently the villagers decided to handle the matter their own way. THISDAY gathered that youths of the village, backed by some elders who became worried that the spate of killing was still yet to abate as members of the community who were linked to either of the gang were secretly being killed, approached a dreaded deity of the community, asking it to avenge the death of the innocent ones killed.
The youths met the chief priest of Ndiekwulu deity, Anazo Ilomuanya, asking that the deity strike anyone who had a hand in the church shooting with madness and subsequent death.
But in what seems a panicky move, the Anambra State police command has moved in and arrested the chief priest and five others from the community.
However, a rights group, International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety), has waded into the case calling on the police and Anambra State Government to immediately commence the process for their release. The chairman Board of Trustees of Intersociety, Mr. Emeka Umeagbalasi, who spoke to THISDAY called for the immediate release of the chief priest and others who are detained alongside with him.
The group said the youths violated no known law by approaching the deity to settle what is perceived to be a drug war between sons of the community, based in South Africa, who have been killing members of the opposite gangs and members of their family. It added that the chief priest of the deity had the right to worship his deity, and that it fell under his fundamental human right of freedom of association and worship.
“Intersociety is specifically calling on the Attorney General of Anambra State and Commissioner for Justice to as a matter of urgent public importance and inexcusability, file a motion for withdrawal and discontinuation of the said phantom charges of trial by ordeal. The six incarcerated innocent citizens especially the Chief Priest of Ndiekwulu Deity, Ozubulu, must be released unconditionally and discharged and acquitted,” the group stated.
When contacted, the Police Public Relations Officer of the state command, SP Haruna Mohammed, said, “The matter is before the court, it would amount to pre-empting court process if I comment further.”
The Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Uju Nworgu, could not be reached for comments.
Meanwhile, as the quest for justice remains elusive, given that the killers of the worshipers continue to enjoy their freedom, most worrisome is that the government is yet to fulfil its twin promise of enhancing security in churches and the bringing perpetrators to book.