The Federal Government on Thursday announced that the Islamic State of West Africa Province, ISWAP, was responsible for the June 5, 2022 massacre of 40 worshippers at the St Francis Catholic Church, Owo, Ondo State. Not unexpectedly, it gave no evidence, did not state how it came to that conclusion and did not announce the arrest of any suspect. Just a declaration it expects Nigerians to believe.
When the killings occurred, the general claim and belief in the state was that Fulani terrorists were responsible. This unverified claim was articulated by Honourable Olayemi Adeyemi representing the good people of Owo Constituency II in the House of Representatives: “The attack was a reprisal aimed at sending a message to Governor Rotimi Akeredolu, who chased away violent Fulani pastoralists from the area… They were armed herdsmen of Fulani extraction, a tribe accused of spearheading insecurity across the country.”
That impression stuck in many minds. The predominance of Fulani bandits from within and outside the country made such claims easily believable. But no shred of evidence was provided.
Apparently, the claim by the National Security Council on behalf of the Muhammadu Buhari government that ISWAP is behind the Owo massacre, is primarily to shift attention from the claims that rampaging Fulani bandits are the culprits. So why this spin?
First, what is ISWAP? It is essentially the rebranding of the brutal Boko Haram terrorist group; giving it less brutal features and an international flavour. Like amoeba, Boko Haram was splitting into two, but with the killing of its two factional leaders, Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, it is undergoing a binary fusion with the stronger ISWAP cell dominating. But essentially, Boko Haram and ISWAP are one and the same local terrorist network made in Nigeria.
So, why would the Buhari government seek to blame ISWAP for the Owo massacre? First, this would tend to shift attention from the popular claims that Fulani terrorists are responsible and would rather blame Boko Haram/ISWAP who are known to be mainly Kanuri or ethnic groups from the North-East. Secondly, it would give the impression that the Buhari government is so hard-working that within five days, it had unmasked the killers, when in truth they remain mysterious.
Does it surprise anyone that even without knowing the full details or impact of the massacre, state dinners were being held in Abuja as a continuation of the macabre ‘Consensus’ dance in which the anointed candidate, Senator Ahmad Lawal, was roundly trounced when delegates voting could no longer be resisted?
The tragedy in Owo was not only about those killed and maimed, and families that may never recover, but also about the travesty of governance and the portrayal of the Nigerian security forces, especially the Police, as being grossly incompetent which is not necessarily the case. For instance, even as somebody who has never undergone any formal training in investigation, I had known from high school that there is such a thing as a crime scene.
What happens to a crime scene is that investigators immediately condone it off and thorough forensic investigation is carried out. But in the Owo case, within hours of the shooting, state and Federal Government officials and leading politicians flooded the scene and were conducted round. Bullet holes were pointed out to the ‘pilgrims’ and the whole scene was contaminated.
It reminds me of the forensic investigation into the 2006 manual strangulation of leading politician, Funsho Williams. Deputy Commissioner of Police Ovie Oyokomino was to tell the court that “there were so many people that we could hardly get to the scene with our vehicle”. Apart from the crime scene having been contaminated, finger prints of the killers could hardly be identified because after his murder, many people, including his distraught mother, had severally touched the corpse.
In cases like Owo, political exhibitionism and sycophancy had simply been allowed to override basic police professionalism.
Apparently with the killers long gone and no arrests, Nigerians are no wiser about the motives. Why would armed men risk their lives by going to a church in a busy city, hijack a bus and expend bullets on a congregation? If it is for religious reasons like the Federal Government hints by pointing fingers at ISWAP, can the motive be to assert the supremacy of one religion over the other or to convert the victims and the town folk?
Is it a politically-motivated strike on the eve of the APC primaries to warn delegates not to elect a Southerner or to emphasise the need for power shift to the South? On the other hand, it was not banditry because the motive was not to kidnap for ransom. In other words, unless we know the motives, we are helpless as a country.
Then what is the need for various spins, disinformation and by who? Hours after the shooting, a video went viral showing a brave soldier tackling one of the alleged shooters, and disarming him. The impression was given that at least one of the gunmen had been arrested. It made the army look good and the security services efficient. But this turned out to be a fake video as it was not connected with the Owo massacre. So, who are those involved in this mindless propaganda and for what purpose?
Then, another spin was added: that the killers have been apprehended. Owo erupted in joy as the populace poured out into the streets rejoicing and moving towards the Olowo’s palace. But once again, it was fake news. Who or which group planted this? Is it to make government seem efficient?
Tragically, we don’t know the killers or their motives. We don’t know any truth about the Owo massacre beyond the fact that it occurred and people are playing mind games with us while the country is unravelling.
It reminds me of the British tactics to colonise Uganda. The British traders hired a mercenary, Frederick Lugard, to do the dirty job. Not wanting to expend much on the process, British agents went to the Muslim-dominated part of the country, massacred Christians and wove the narrative that Muslims had started eliminating Christians.
Then they went to the Christian-dominated part, and massacred Muslims. The British then spread the disinformation that the Christians were retaliating. This led to an armed conflict. The British traders responsible for the massacres then sat back to watch both sides kill themselves.
After some time with both sides exhausting themselves, the British agents and their mercenaries moved in as peacemakers and enforcers. With such subterfuge, the British colonised the country. Just like it happened in Uganda, we do not know the forces working to unravel Nigeria. What we need to do, is ensure they do not succeed.