While the Diocese of Nsukka in southeastern Nigeria is still searching for answers following the massacre of dozens of Christians, Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah has urged locals to embrace peace even in the face of such “persistent provocation.”
“The Catholic Diocese of Nsukka is in mourning for her dead children and in pains for the displaced ones. We are also living in fear because we do not know where and when the armed militants will strike next,” Bishop Onah said in an April 29 statement.
On April 25 armed men believed to be Fulani herdsmen carried out a brutal attack on the mainly Christian farming community of Nimbo in Enugu State, 20 miles west of Nsukka. The Fulani are nomadic, and not infrequently come into conflict with farming communities over land and water rights. Similar clashes in neighboring Benue State left hundreds dead in February.
The attackers burned houses and left as many as 40 people dead. Hours before the attack, local reports said some 500 men armed with guns and machetes had descended on the town in preparation for the assault.
“The news of the attack was soon followed by a flood of human beings fleeing their homes and emptying into the urban centre of Nsukka, many of them scantily clad women clutching only their babies,” Bishop Onah wrote. “Wailing filled the air as vans brought in lifeless bodies of persons who were slaughtered like animals for the crime of having been found in their homes or on the way to their farms.”
“Today, Nimbo is like a ghost town.”
Bishop Onah added that he found it disturbing that while the attackers killed indiscriminately, “the only houses they attacked were Christian religious houses.”
The attackers burnt the house of one Protestant pastor, he said, and then proceeded to the local Catholic priest's home, where they “fired gunshots into the rooms, in an attempt to kill all those whom they suspected were hiding inside,” when they could not force their way in.
“We are forced to ask: If these men were only herdsmen, why did they particularly single out Churches for their attack?”
Both the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Indigenous People of Biafra believe that Fulani aggression is meant to “Islamize” Nigeria, according to the Vanguard, a Lagos daily. Nigeria's population is currently roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Similar attacks carried out by the Fulani, who are thought to be linked with terrorist group Boko Haram, have been on the rise in Nigeria and Central African Republic in recent years, according to IBTimes. At least 1,229 people are suspected to have been killed by the Fulani in similar attacks in 2014.
Even in light of such violence, Bishop Onah said that the diocese has “absolute faith in the abiding presence of God.”
“In these difficult and trying times, all of us, especially those who have lost dear ones, should know that God is even nearer to us than we thought. Let us turn to him in prayer, asking him to receive our dead ones in his kingdom and heal our bleeding hearts.”
He urged Catholics of his diocese, and all those affected by the violence, to resist the temptation to seek revenge, calling such actions not only illegal, but also un-Christian.
“In the name of God, I appeal to my peace-loving people to please remain law abiding and not to take the law into their hands,” he said. “Reprisal attacks are not the answer.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced after the raid that his government “will not allow these attacks to continue.”
Bishop Onah thanked Buhari for his order to police and military to bring the perpetrators to justice, but said that only “concrete actions” taken by local and federal government officials will “lead to the return of normalcy in the community.”
“Some people predicted that Nigeria would be a failed State by the year 2015,” he said.
“All of us heaved a sigh of relief after the general elections and the smooth handover last year. But any further delay in dealing with this and similar cases all over the country may lead those who made that prediction to affirm that its realization has only been delayed not avoided,” the bishop added.
After visiting Nimbo the day after the attack, the Enugu State governor declared a two-day period of prayer and fasting to mourn for the community's loss.
Bishop Onah visited Nimbo April 28, telling those there that “God has not forsaken you. He is with you especially now that you are in need. We beg Him not to allow this kind of killings to happen again. We also beg Him to give our leaders good heart and spirit to prevent future re-occurrence. One thing I beg of you is this: do not look for trouble. Those of you that go to church knows that Jesus said you should forgive your offenders. Revenge will not take you anywhere; it will only complicate the situation more.”
In the meantime, the Diocese of Nsukka will pray for the dead, care for the wounded survivors, and continue to call for an end to the violence in Nigeria.
“For decades (Nigerians) have continued to senselessly slaughter ourselves, squander our resources and destroy our environment,” Bishop Onah wrote.
“We call on all to please stop this madness, so that, as a people, we may realize our full potentials for the benefit of all and to the glory of God.”