BEFORE she left for church that Sunday, Caroline Agboola did not know that would be the last time she would be setting her eyes on her son, Ibidowo Tope, and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Fagbeun Ayomide, who she passionately doted on.
Until her horrific death at St. Francis Catholic Church, Owo Ondo State, Agboola was a petty trader producing beans buns, known in Yoruba language as akara.
Tope told The ICIR that his 65-year-old mother was killed by one of the dynamites thrown into the church by the assailants. He said his mother’s head was instantly decapitated from her body due to the impact of the explosive.
Ayomide, who was at the children’s section of the church, gave a gory description of the drama that ensued when the incident happened. According to her, barely had the church’s Mass ended when the shooting started.
She said she was waiting beside the altar alongside other children for hands to be laid upon her by the priest, who was already coming down from the altar, when the pandemonium broke out.
The seven-year-old girl said she only survived from being killed by a mere chance and luck.
“They immediately led some of the children into the Sacristy,” she said.
From there, Ayomide said, someone started lifting them to the back of the church so that they could run and escape.
The Owo shootings, which resulted in the death of more than 38 people, including women and children, have continued to attract condemnations and sympathisers from within the state and all over the country.
During their separate visits to sympathise with the church’s leadership, the Catholic Church and the state Muslims described the incident as “horrific and barbaric.”
When The ICIR visited the scene of the incident on Tuesday, it could still see parts of human flesh and bloodstains all over the tiled floor of the more than 400-capacity church auditorium.
‘I survived by mere miracle’
Narrating what he saw, the church’s head of Man of Order and Discipline (MOD), James Anagu, who was at the main entrance of the building, told The ICIR that the gunmen, numbering about four, entered the compound through the main gate.
Anagu said when the first shot that killed a petty trader that was waiting to sell his candies to children coming out from Mass at the entrance of the church’s gate sounded, worshippers thought it was the usual cult clashes in the town.
His efforts to shut the thick wooden door of the church’s main entrance were not enough by the time it dawned on him that the worshippers were the target. He said that the only thing that prevented him from being killed was that he immediately took cover under one of the benches close to the entrance.
Anagu said, “When we heard the first shot, we thought it was the activities of cultism because that is how they usually clash with each other.
“However, immediately after the first shot, I saw two young guys with guns shooting directly towards the church, so I quickly rushed to close the door because I was very close to the entrance.”
He noted that two of the gunmen had immediately positioned themselves by the side of the church from where they were shooting indiscriminately towards worshippers, who had already gathered themselves at the church’s altar.
According to Anagu, he next heard a loud bang from an explosive thrown into the midst of the large gathering at the altar.
The MOD head, who is from Anambra State, told The ICIR that by the time the shootings, which he said lasted for more than 20 minutes, were over, scores of people had been confirmed dead.
“I have been in this town and church for more than 40 years. My entire family and I worship here. I have not seen and experienced this terror attack all my life. Until the last Sunday, I only heard and read about terror attacks of this magnitude on the pages of the newspapers.
“I am happy I survived. I am also glad that my mother-in-law and my children, that were with me in the church that day, survived. But some people were not as lucky as I am,” he said.
He lamented that about five persons from Ihiala Local Government Area, where he hails from, had been confirmed dead.
‘My life is shattered but God will sustain me’
Forty-three-year-old Atah Magret will have to start learning new survival skills by the time she is discharged from the Orthopedic and Trauma Department of the Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Owo.
Magret, who works as a nurse at the state’s General Hospital, Owo, lost both legs to one of the explosives thrown into the large gatherings that converged on the church altar. The explosive also affected one of her eyes.
The mother of four told The ICIR that although her life has been shattered, she believed that God would sustain her.
“My life has been shattered. Yes, but my God will sustain me,” she murmured.
For Nwanyi Florence, she would forever remember that Sunday as the day her husband, Neveginus, and her only daughter, Chidugor, were brutally snatched away from her. When The ICIR spoke with her at the house of her late husband’s younger brother, she was still weeping and hoping that what has become a sad reality was a dream.
She said she heard the news of the shooting from a concerned neighbour as she was not in church due to body pains, but her late husband went with her late daughter and Victor, his only 15-year-old son to Mass.
She noted that when the gunmen started shooting inside the church, Victor was lying down flat in a pool of blood so that if the attackers saw him, they would think he had already been shot. He was there till the assailants left.
Florence said that by the time Victor stood up, he discovered that his father had been shot. He then began to look for his sister and, at the same time, sought help for his wounded father because he was still breathing. When help eventually came, and her husband was taken to the Federal Medical Center (FMC), he was rejected for lack of space.
He was then taken to St. Louis Hospital, a Catholic facility in the town, where he was confirmed dead.
Her son would later carry his dead sister on a motorcycle to deposit her at the mortuary.
Until his death, the 57-year-old Neveginus was the Bursar at Technical College, Owo.
Christopher Nwanyi, the deceased younger brother, corroborating what his brother’s wife said, expressed worries that she had been crying and threatening to take her life.
Nwanyi also lamented that her blood pressure had risen beyond normal since the news of her husband and child’s passage.
Sunday Idowu, an indigene of Benue State, said he escaped from being shot by sheer luck. When The ICIR visited and spoke to him at his workshop on Wednesday, Sunday narrated, he ran through one of the building’s windows and jumped through the fence separating the church from the palace.
He narrated, “I lay down at the altar together with some other panicky worshipers, but somehow, my survival instincts set in and I felt should stand up and run. I immediately stood up and jumped through a narrow window to the back of the church.
“Fortunately for me, there was a ladder resting on the high wall of the parameter fence that separated the church from the king’s palace. I used the ladder to escape. I sustained some bruises and injuries during the process, but they didn’t matter then because the only thing on my mind was survival.”
Idowu said he left his shoes and some valuables in the church. When asked if he would return to take them and worship at the church when it resumes Mass, Idowu responded no.
‘Gunmen were not putting on military uniforms’
Contrary to claims that those who carried out the dastardly act were putting on military uniforms, Edwin Mary said those she saw shooting at them were only wearing black shirts and jeans trousers.
The 20-year-old student said she saw the face of one of the assailants before taking cover on the floor.
“They don’t look like Fulani herdsmen. Neither did they look Yoruba nor Igbos. But I can’t categorically say that they were Fulani herdsmen.”
Multiple people interviewed by The ICIR all corroborated Mary’s testimonies on the kind of clothes the shooters were wearing. Most of them could not also ascertain the assailant’s tribes,” she said.
The Chief Medical Director of the FMC, Owo, confirmed to The ICIR that 17 persons were brought dead to the facility on the day of the incident. He added that 13 other persons who sustained injuries but made it alive to the hospital died on Friday when this reporter spoke with him in his office.
He cited inadequate personnel as one of the challenges the hospital faced in attending to the victims.
The Chairman of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Owo Local Government Area, John Ogwebuka, told The ICIR that by Wednesday, the Igbo community had been able to identify, at least 24 persons from the South-East that lost their lives in the course of the shootings.
Ogwebuka said, “For now, we have confirmed that 24 of our people died on Sunday. About 48 others, including women and children, were still receiving treatments at various hospitals they were taken to.”
He added that yet-to-be-identified five corpses were discovered in nearby bushes almost 48 hours after the incident occurred.
This reporter made several attempts to get comments from the parish priest, Reverend Father Andrew Abayomi, but he was rebuffed.
Abayomi said, “Please, leave me alone, I don’t want to speak to the press again. I am traumatised.”
Several efforts by The ICIR to speak with the ancient town’s traditional ruler, the Olowo of Owo, Oba Ajibade Ogunoye, were unsuccessful. However, the Akowa of Owo, Sydney Ogunleye, one of the chiefs of the palace assigned to speak to this reporter, expressed concerns about the deteriorating security situation in the town.
Citing recent kidnappings in various parts of the town, Ogunleye said security operatives should have been placed on an alert to confront the killings at St. Francis Church.
He said that more worrisome was the fact that the church was just a stone thrown from the king’s palace. A wall is the only thing separating the church from the palace and police post he noted.
“Look at the church; it is just behind this palace,” he said.
Pointing towards a police post beside the entrance to the palace, he added, “Over there are police officers. Inside this palace, there are three policemen meant for the king’s protection. Those criminals operated for more than 20 minutes, yet there was no police response for the period they operated.
“Even if they can’t confront them, can’t they, at least, fire shots to scare away those murderers. No single shot was fired.”
He noted that the police would always complain of inadequate patrol vehicles each time a security crisis required their attention in the town.
The chief called for the total decentralisation of the nation’s police force to enable state police. When asked about the effectiveness of the Amotekun Corps in combating the security crisis, Ogunleye said the Corps was supposed to complement, and not take over the constitutional duties of the police.
“Which Amotekun? How much gunpower do Amotekun Corps operatives carrying local guns to confront criminals wielding sophisticated guns have?” he asked.