Though exact numbers remain elusive, Nigerian media reported on Sunday that “tens” of people, perhaps as many as 50-100, were either killed or injured after a shooting spree at a Catholic church in the southeastern part of the country.
One account gave the toll as eight killed and 18 injured, although other reports put the number of dead much higher.
Police officials described the incident as apparently related to a local dispute, rather than anything carried out by the radical Islamic terrorist movement Boko Haram.
The incident at St. Philip Catholic Church in Ozubulu, a town within the country’s Anambra state, occurred in the early hours of Sunday morning, during a regularly scheduled 6:00 a.m. Mass.
Either one man or a larger group of gunmen, depending on various accounts, entered the church seeking a specific individual described in media reports as a local drug baron, after looking for him at his home and being informed he was at Mass.
That man was shot and then a rampage ensued, with indiscriminate fire directed at the roughly 100 worshippers on hand. According to media accounts, several people were killed in the church while others who were critically injured died on the way to the Nnamdi Azikiwe Teaching Hospital located in Nnewi, the second largest city in the state.
According to observers who say there were multiple shooters, they also described the gunmen as having their faces covered.
The Commissioner of Police for the area, Garba Umar, told media outlets Sunday morning that no arrests have yet been made in the incident, but said police are convinced that the principal assailant was a local, since he was speaking an “undiluted” version of the Igbo tribal language.
The Igbos are the majority ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria, which is considered the country’s Catholic heartland. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, a longtime senior Vatican official, is a member of the Igbo group.
Umar also said police believe the shooting spree originated in a quarrel between two residents of Ozubulu residing overseas.
In the immediate wake of the attack, some Nigerian observers wondered if there might have a political subtext to the act, since a Pentecostal church in the state was recently stormed by young protestors objecting to an appearance by a gubernatorial candidate.
Those youth were members of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a movement advocating stronger autonomy for the people of the country’s eastern regions. It recalls a secessionist state of Biafra that existed from 1967 to 1970, before being suppressed by the Nigerian military during the Biafra Civil War.
Others, however, suspect the violence on Sunday is related to the local drug trade.
Willie Obiano, the governor of Anambra state, visited St. Philip Catholic Church on Sunday after the attack and vowed that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
Police were at pains to stress this was not a Boko Haram attack in part because the terrorist group has become infamous for its assaults on churches, especially on Sundays and major feast days such as Easter and Christmas.
Overall, the radical Islamic group born in the country is believed to be responsible for more than 20,000 deaths. However, the heavily Igbo southeastern part of the country has never been among its strongholds.
The police commissioner said the fact the violence erupted in a church makes it especially heinous, saying, “Such conduct shows the people behind the act do not fear God.”