ANAMBRA STATE: Masquerades Go Mad, Residents Escape?
Masquerades in African setting and Igboland in particular are seen as the reincarnation of some late heroes acting as guardian angels for the individuals and families they represent. More importantly, they are a huge source of entertainment with their electric dancing steps. But these seem not to be the case in Awba Ofemmili, a community in Awka-North Local Government Area of Anambra State, where masquerades have literally become purveyors of sorrow, tears and blood.
Awba Ofemilli, one of the communities submerged by last year’s floods, is located in the midst of thick forests. More than 60 per cent of the community was submerged in the floods, leaving thousands of its inhabitants homeless. It is a community that has suffered from lack of development, while the little development brought by Christianity is being obliterated by some youths who are followers of its numerous masquerades.
In Awba Ofemilli, masquerades are generally regarded as supreme beings. But a particular masquerade known as Obianuchichi (night masquerade) is a nightmare to many residents of the community, particularly at the end of the farming season. The appearance of Obianuchichi is usually heralded by another group of masquerades known as Adugala. Women are forbidden from seeing them as they go about singing and dancing.
The mood in the community changes immediately the announcement is made that Adugala would be coming out. The women abandon whatever they are doing and run into their houses. There must be no light or sound other than the ones produced by the masquerades.
The practice is one that has given the Christian population in the community a lot of concern over the years because all religious activities are paralysed once it is 6 pm. At a time, an agreement was reached with the leaders of the community to extend the deadline to 9 pm. But penultimate Tuesday, the masquerades and their worshippers went berserk, burning down churches and severely injuring about 60 Christians, including a two-year-old boy.
The Christians and other inhabitants of the community who are not loyal to the masquerades have since deserted their homes. They have sought for refuge in other climes for fear of being attacked further. An unconfirmed report alleged that one person died as some masquerades and their youthful followers attacked some churches in the community where vigil was being held.
Eye witness accounts said the victims were either shot at or attacked with machetes. The rampaging youths also burnt down about 10 churches. Some of the churches burnt were: Assemblies of God Church, Grace of God, Deeper Life Bible Church, Winners’ Chapel, Christ Holy Church, St. Paul’s Catholic Church and the vicarage for the parish priest of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in the community.
When contacted, the Public Relations Officer of the Anambra State Police Command, Emeka Chukwuemeka, said the incident had been brought under control. He also said that no arrest had been made yet.
A victim and Parish Priest of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Awba Ofemmili, Rev. Pat Odinanwa, whose vicarage was burnt, said there were threats of more attacks on Christians in the community. He accused the policemen at the nearby police post in Ugbene community of not coming to the aid of the hapless Christians when the trouble started, even though they were informed about it.
“The police was informed about it but they did not come. I think those boys are their regular customers,” Rev. Odinanwa said.
He said all the efforts he made to calm the rampaging youths down and ensure peace in the community failed, noting that the clash was borne out of the hatred that idol worshippers in the community had for its Christian population. He alleged that in spite of the fact that an agreement was reached between the church and the leadership of the community, the idol worshippers were determined to stop Christians from worshipping in the community.
He added: “The Christians are working together more than before. And there had been a document signed between the traditional ruler and the Christians which states that prior notifications by the masquerades should start by 9 pm and no woman should be seen along the road by that time. And we all agreed on that as signed.
“Another town crier went and announced another thing, saying that anybody going for night programme in the church should leave by 5 pm, which is contrary to the agreement. But that is for the women, because the men are free to move at any time. They were ordered to get to the church before 9 pm. In fact, on the first day, most of the women who attended the programme were stopped and harassed on their way and ordered to go back. Those who left by 6 pm were able to get to the church before it was late.”
The priest said he had cancelled the night programme scheduled for that day and told those who were already in church to sleep there. But some youths stormed the church and attacked members with guns and machetes.
Another victim, Mr Sunday Aliuba, said they were in the church when some miscreants struck, attacking them and inflicting machete wounds on them before they ran for dear lives.
Aliuba said: “Oba-Ofemili and the Christians had an agreement that the night masquerades would not be starting their activities until 9 pm, and we were having our programmes according to the rules. But on Monday night, I was at the crusade when it was rumoured that the idol worshippers would be burning down all the churches in the community.
“Around 11 pm, they started shooting sporadically, causing everybody to shiver. Around 1 am on Tuesday, they stormed the church and razed the parish priest’s house. Then they started pursuing everybody in the church. We hid under the stair case and under the pews.
“In self-defence, we pounced on one of them. As things got hotter, my colleagues ran away. I also ran, but they pursued me and shot me in the legs, shattering my ankles and bones. They also inflicted machete wounds on me. The blood that came out of my body can fill two buckets. It is only God that is sustaining my life till now.”
A community leader and former Supervisory Councillor for Health in Awka North Local Government, Ignatius Okafor, described the incident as bizarre, saying that the community condemned the action of the invaders.
Okafor said: “One person was said to have died from gunshot wounds. These people committed arson and we have never seen such hatred between brothers.”
He confirmed that there was an agreement between the late Igwe John Akabueze with Christians that church activities would not be disrupted until 9 pm when masquerades and their followers would start their activities. “But the incident occurred at 5 pm. So, it was premeditated,” he argued.
He said the problem had been on in the community for more than 10 years but was never in the same magnitude.
The Regent of the community, Chief Anaelo B. Nwanelo, admitted that the clash was avoidable, adding that peace efforts had been futile for years. But he said that efforts were still being made to restore peaceful co-existence between Christians and idol worshippers in the community.
He said: “This problem has been recurring in August of every year, but I have prevented it from escalating. But because I was called by the men of the State Security Service (SSS) for an official issue, I was not around to quell it as usual.”
The member representing Awka-North and South in the House of Representatives, Hon. Emeke Nwogbo, has since gone on inspection tour of the deserted community. He described the incident as pathetic, stressing that he would do everything within his powers to ensure that the hoodlums who perpetrated the destructions were brought to book.
He visited the Regina Caelie Hospital where some victims were being treated and settled their hospital bills of over N150,000. He also promised to assist them further.
Nwogbo said: “This is very pathetic. It is a very strange thing happening at this time and age. It is honestly a very sad situation, and I promise that we will do everything in our power to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. First, we will seek an amicable resolution to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. But the miscreants who have done this to victimise other people in the society under any guise, we will ensure that they are brought to book.”
The SecretaryGeneral of the community, Mr. Chidebe Tobias, however, debunked claims that there had been frictions between idol worshippers and Christians in the community. Tobias said: “There had never been any problem between the villagers and the Christians. We used to live in peace. This community is known for peace. We are already treading the path of peace.”
Some of the victims, who spoke at Regina Caeli Hospital, Awka, claimed that their houses were vandalised and looted. They appealed to Governor Peter Obi; the member representing Awka North in the House of Assembly, Hon. Rebecca Udoji; and Awka North Local Government Chairman , Hon. Joy Enweluzor, among other individuals, to come to their aid.
Peace talks were held between the leaders of the community and Christian leaders were scheduled for Friday last week, but the church leaders did not turn up for fear of the unknown. The Anambra State Commissioner for Environment and an indigene of the community, Sabastin Okoye; the President General, Chukwuma Nwabufo; and the Regent, Anaelo Bernard Nwanelo, were at the said meeting.
A community leader and former Supervisory Councillor for Health in Awka North Local Government Area, Ignatius Okafor, confirmed that there was a meeting and uneasy calm in the community. He blamed the crisis on three cult groups in the community.
He told The Nation that there was need for peace in the community, saying that the President-General had earlier warned those who belonged to the cult groups to renounce it for the progress of the community, as he would not hesitate to invite the police against them.