Although Nigerian security forces have not yet identified who carried out Sunday’s attack on St. Francis Church in the town of Owo in relatively peaceful Ondo state, analysts suggested they came from elsewhere in the West African nation, which is plagued by violence from various armed groups, kidnappers and extremists.
No one has claimed responsibility for the church killings, in which children were among the dead and the gunmen detonated some kind of explosive. Scores of people were wounded, although an exact number was not released by overwhelmed hospital workers.
A state lawmaker from the region said the death toll was at least 50, and scores of people were wounded, although an exact number was not released by overwhelmed hospital workers.
“The attack is undoubtedly terrorist in nature, and the scale and brutality suggests it was carefully planned rather than impulsive,” said Eric Humphery-Smith, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft risk intelligence company.
State Police Commissioner Oyeyemi Oyediran said security forces, including the military, pursued the attackers, “but unfortunately, we could not catch up with them.”
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and other government officials visited the church Monday. A day earlier, he pledged that “we will keep standing against evil, and Nigeria will win.”
Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous country with 206 million people, has grappled for over a decade with an insurgency in the northeast by Islamic extremist rebels of Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State West Africa Province. The extremists, who have killed more than 35,000 people by a UN count, are fighting to establish Shariah law and to stop Western education.
Ondo, however, has long been considered one of the safer states in the country.
Sunday Adewale, who works in the palace of the local chief, said the gunmen used the element of surprise to their advantage.
“Everybody felt relaxed and had gone to church,” he said. “Within 30 minutes, they did what they wanted and went away.”
The attack came as worshippers were celebrating the feast of Pentecost, an important Catholic post-Easter holiday. Bishop Jude Arogundade said some gunmen entered the church while others stayed outside to shoot anyone who fled.
The priest celebrating the mass was giving the blessing to end the service when the attackers came in and opened fire, said John Nwovo, 35, who added that he narrowly escaped with his five children by running and hiding in the church’s sacristy, along with more than 30 people.
“We had to pack ourselves inside that place to take refuge from the storm,” he said.
Florence Obi said her sister, Stella Nzelu, fled the church after the shooting and the explosion, only to run into one of the outside gunmen, “who shot her in the stomach at close range.” Obi said her sister underwent surgery to remove the bullet and “she is feeling better now.”
Steven Omotayo, who lives nearby, heard the gunshots and rushed to the scene.
“I saw a lot of dead bodies — both young and old, even children,” he said. “The people came in and started shooting from the gate.”
He said the church has three entrances and the main entrance was said to have been locked, making it difficult for many to escape.
“They were just shooting. If they see anyone trying to escape or stand up, they will just shoot the person,” he said.