An attack on a church in one of Nigeria’s safest states is dominating conversations about security and government priorities nationwide.
Lagos, Nigeria – Mass had just ended. The choir was singing the closing hymns, waiting for the priest to proceed out of the church when the first gunshot rang out.
Seconds later, another gunshot followed.
By then the wardens at the entrance were scrambling to close the doors of St Francis Catholic Church in Owo, 343km southwest of Lagos. But they could not do so in time before gunmen came in and orchestrated an onslaught on the parishioners, eyewitnesses told Al Jazeera.
The incident took all of 20 minutes, Andrew, a 20-year-old survivor who asked for his last name to be withheld, said. He and his mother were crouched beneath a seat and survived without injuries.
“I ran to my mum and held her by the hands and [was] screaming ‘Keep your head down!’,” he said. “Between the next 15 to 20 minutes, the gunshots just would not stop. It just kept going and going.”
Okechukwu Confidence, whose cousin died in the bloodbath, was in the nearby Ojo Oba market when the attack happened and saw it all play out. The 35-year-old claims the attack was carried out by four gunmen.
“They trekked in with bags in their hands, [no one] knowing that those bags were [filled with] guns,” Confidence told Al Jazeera. “The first person they shot was the boy that sells candy at the gate. After that, they went in and started shooting sporadically at everyone before they threw three dynamites.”
He claimed the attackers hijacked a car nearby before fleeing the scene.
At least 50 other people were killed in the attack, including children. But survivors and residents of Owo, one of the largest towns in the southwest state of Ondo, say there could be as many as 80 victims.
In the aftermath of the attack, there was a flurry of condemnations from religious and political leaders. State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu described the attack in a tweet as “vile and satanic”. President Muhammadu Buhari called for investigations and said “The country shall never give in to evil and wicked people.”
A statement issued by the Vatican read: “Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country, painfully affected at a time of celebration, and entrusts them both to the Lord so that he may send his spirit to console them.”
Attacks like this are rare in the southwest region and even more so in Ondo, widely believed to be one of Nigeria’s more peaceful states. The Nigeria Security Tracker, released by the Council on Foreign Relations, reported that at least 2,968 people were killed by armed groups in the first quarter of 2022 across the country. Eighty-six percent of those deaths were in northern Nigeria.
Locals are attributing the attack to pastoralist herdsmen, who have been involved in recurring conflicts nationwide with farmers for years, due to competition for diminishing vegetation exacerbated by ethnic and religious differences. Ondo has been caught up in this conflict.
These incidents led to the establishment of a state-backed regional vigilante outfit, Amotekun, to complement security forces in the six states of the region: Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo.
But there have been other speculations as to the cause of the attack.
Last week, an explosion at a cultural festival in the central state of Kogi left two dead. Nigerian newspaper The Cable reported that the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has claimed responsibility for the attack. In 2012 and 2014, Boko Haram attacked prisons in the state.
Kogi, a state with a large land mass, is bordered by nine other states as well as the federal capital, Abuja. Experts believe that ISWAP may now be expanding from Kogi into Ondo.
“In terms of what it portends, Ondo shares boundaries with Kogi, which has experienced up to four ISIS attacks within the past month. I think it is something we should be on the lookout for,” said Confidence MacHarry, the lead security analyst at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based geopolitical risk advisory.
“It is significant because it is likely an intelligence failure that has led to this,” MacHarry said. “Terrorists have been trying to attack at least for three to four years, to launch a large-scale operation. Yesterday’s incident happened because security agencies let their guards down.”
‘Getting ready for my shot’
Responses to attacks across the country have been slow, with very few arrests made or any prosecution, given Nigeria’s underequipped and understaffed security forces, as well as a slow judicial system.
And as Nigeria heads to the polls next year, security has dominated conversations among the politicians and citizens, but the latter say it has not been duly prioritised by those aspiring for the presidency.
Only a few hours after the attack, President Buhari was hosting several heavyweights from the ruling party, including Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and other presidential contenders to a state banquet in Abuja.
The dinner attracted the ire of youths and other social media users who contrasted the smiles on the faces of the elite to those of the bereaved back in Owo.
“This is the first major attack in about a year, from the look of things, it does not look like it will be the last. I think it will continue to fester,” MacHarry said.
Throughout the attack, Andrew watched people he had known for years, including children running to meet their parents, felled by bullets and collapsing in their Sunday best.
He stayed on the ground, clutching his mother, both of them traumatised where they lay. “[She] was saying her last prayer and I was just taking deep breaths, getting ready for my own shot,” Andrew told Al Jazeera.