Once again in the space of a few weeks, Christians in Nigeria have been the target of deadly attacks. On May 12th, a young Christian student was stoned to death by Muslims in the northwest of the country. Her murder was followed by numerous riots and violence. Then on Sunday, June 5th, armed men broke into a Catholic church in the middle of the Pentecost celebrations, in the parish of Saint Francis Xavier in the town of Owo in Ondo state—this time in the southwest of the country, a region usually spared from jihadist attacks and criminal gangs elsewhere in Nigeria.
The total number of victims remains unclear, but at least 50 people are believed to have died in the attack. Pope Francis in an official statement lamented the deaths of “dozens of faithful,” including many children.
Richard Olatunde, spokesman for the governor of Ondo State, told Agence France-Presse that dynamite exploded in the church even before the attackers began to shoot. Ondo State Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu described the attack in very strong terms: “The vile and satanic attack is a calculated assault on the peace-loving people of Owo Kingdom who have enjoyed relative peace over the years,” he declared.
For the time being, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. In the face of this murderous rampage, the Diocese of Ondo calls for calm and prayer: “The bishop appeals that we remain calm, be law abiding and pray for peace and normalcy to return to our community, state and country,” says the official statement.
Mass killings by Islamist fighters have been a feature of the northern regions of the country for many years. Two Catholic priests were kidnapped two weeks ago in Katsina, President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state in the north of the country. They have not been released yet.
The arrival of such troubles in the south is explained by a general climate of helplessness surrounding these atrocities, according to Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and expert in religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, a think tank and research center in Washington, D.C. “Large scale, war-like attacks on Catholics and other Christians are spreading in a system of impunity,” she explains, pointing to the responsibility of the current president Muhammadu Buhari, who is unable to stop the spiral of violence. This observation is shared by Archbishop of Kaduna Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso, who also condemns the corruption of the Nigerian elites who benefit from the complicity of Western governments: “Our leaders steal our money and take it to the West, to Switzerland, Paris, London, Frankfurt. If the West didn’t accept their money, they could leave it at home. The Western governments collaborate with our leaders.”
The attack comes on the eve of the ruling APC launching its primaries for the 2023 presidential election. The aim is to elect a successor to the current President Muhammadu Buhari, a former army commander who has been in office for two terms.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).