LAGOS—The subject was Pentecost, but the message was bullets that killed more than 40 people in a Catholic congregation in Nigeria’s relatively serene Ondo State.
The priest had just given the benediction at the end of a Mass to celebrate Pentecost Sunday when at least four gunmen detonated a bomb and began spraying bullets among the trapped worshippers.
The scene of the horrific attack was Saint Francis Catholic Church in Owo, a quiet town in Ondo State, about 170 miles west of the capital Lagos. Unidentified gunmen attacked on June 5, killing and injuring nearly 50 people.
Eyewitnesses said the attackers detonated explosives inside the chapel which ripped plaster from the ceilings and left many seriously injured.
Governor Rotimi Akeredolu told media at the scene that the killers were foreign fighters from Mali.
“Most of those carrying out these attacks are foreigners who were trained in Libya,” Akeredolu said, according to multiple media. The governor did not explain his opinion in detail.
Kehinde Ogunkorode, a congregation member who visited victims at morgues and blood collection hospitals across the state, told The Epoch Times that he was told of “over 40 dead and injured.”
Speaking anonymously, a devotee described one of the shooters as “a young Fulani man who pulled an AK-47 rifle out of a bag”.
“As he cocked the gun, he started firing.”
The Nomadic Fulani are a large, predominantly Islamic, ethnic group in West Africa with over 20 million members living in Nigeria. They are accused of murdering tens of thousands of people since 2001.
A member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God across from the Catholic Church saw one of the shooters during the attack.
Damilola Olufemi, another resident of the town, said he heard gunshots three times before deciding to go to the scene of the massacre.
“I saw a bloodstain on the fence of the church,” he told The Epoch Times, confirming the other unnamed speaker’s testimony of the indiscriminate shooting behind the besieged church fence.
Multiple sources confirmed to The Epoch Times that the attackers were inside the church shooting for 20 minutes.
Police near the division headquarters did not arrive until after the attackers had left, according to locals, who said the station was only 10 minutes away by car.
The traditional ruler’s palace, Oluwo d’Owo, is about 200 meters from the Catholic Church.
Funmilayo Odunlami, the state police public relations officer, told The Epoch Times that no arrests have been made but that “further updates will be given later.”
Church attack ignites social media
On social media, random Twitter users whose families live in Ondo or neighboring states feared that insecurity was already hitting their home.
Southwest Nigeria has been relatively peaceful compared to the northern region.
A bereaved Olaide Ajanaku mourned the loss of her parents in the church attack, tweeting: “Nigeria’s audacity to take my parents away from me. I will always hate this country. It is a promise!”
Adesina and Olabimpe Ajanaku were both retired teachers and devout believers in the Catholic faith.
Ogunkorode confirmed to The Epoch Times that Olabimpe Ajanaku taught him in high school.
During a Twitter space held on June 5 after the incident, Dipo Awojide, a British speaker and Nigerian social commentator, maintained the position that “South West Nigeria will not be given up for open cattle grazing” .
His stance aligns with Governor Akeredolu’s commitments over the past two years.
The prominent lawyer-turned-politician led the region’s six governors to establish the western Nigeria security network, dubbed Operation Amotekun, to help the overstretched Nigerian security forces put an end to the armed violence that has surfaced in the southwest.
Akeredolu has also banned open-air grazing in his ruled state. Others have followed suit.
Tunji Adeleye, Amotekun’s commander in Ondo, has not responded to calls about the force’s activities since its inception.
Ladi Thompson, a Lagos-based conflict resolution expert, warned that the attack signals a new front in Nigeria’s southwestern states aimed at bringing down the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Thompson told The Epoch Times, “Ondo State is not the first hotspot to be attacked in the Southwest and the development is another phase in a streak of displacement.
He recalled warning southwestern governors in 2018 about the dominance of armed militias in various forests in the regions.
Thompson said after the latest attack Nigeria needed to reform tough gun control laws that have left churches helpless in a country where crime has crippled travel and the economy.
While some have opposed arming Nigerian civilians to fight off such attacks, Thompson said he was proposing the country adopt gun ownership laws similar to those protected by the states constitutions. -United.