Three Catholic priests were Monday, September 26, attacked by suspected Fulani herdsmen in Akachine, Nsukka LGA of Enugu State, around 6pm on their way from a condolence visit. The attack left one of them, Rev Fr. Jude Chetanna Chukwuneke (who was driving) with bullet wounds in the head; and another, Rev. Fr Jude Ezeokana, with injuries sustained after their car fell into a bush. The last one, Rev. Fr Emmanuel Dim, who was initially kidnapped, was however released, two days later, report Jude Atupulazi and Abuchi Onwumelu.
Rev Fr Chukwuneke is of Nnewi Catholic Diocese; Rev Fr Ezeokana and Rev Fr Dim are both of Awka Catholic Diocese.
Narrating their ordeal to Fides in an exclusive chat, Fr Chukwuneke recalled how they came upon a figure on the road holding a gun at about 200metres ahead. He looked back and spotted another figure, also some 200metres behind. Sensing trouble, Fr Chukwuneke said he decided to take the option of escaping by engaging the reverse gear. This was the last thing he recalled doing.
The next was when he found himself in his vehicle in the middle of the bush about 20metres away from the road. He also realised that he was bleeding profusely in the head and that his soutane was drenched in blood.
Fearing for his life, he asked Fr Ezeokana who was in the passenger seat to perform the last rites for him. But Fr Ezeokana was himself traumatised.
‘At this point, I told two of them to find their way and I came out of the car and started running. But I was pursued by one of the gunmen who soon caught up with me and demanded for money. I told him I had no money. He cocked his gun as if to shoot me, but probably believing there was no need, since I would soon die because of the amount of blood he saw, he left me and ran back towards the others in the car,’ Fr Chukwuneke said.
According to him, he soon heard one of the priests shouting, ”I am a priest of God!”. When he looked, he saw Fr Emmanuel Dim being marched off with his hands in the air.
At this point again, Fr Chukwuneke remembered that he had a watch and he tore it off his wrist to check the time and realised it was 6.15pm. His experience in the modus operandi of robbers told him that they did not usually remain at the scene of robbery beyond twenty minutes. But he decided to wait another ten minutes before making a move.
According to him, his decision to move out of the bush was to ensure that even if he died, his body would be discovered, unlike if he died in that bush. When he succeeded in coming onto the road, he tried stopping passing vehicles whose drivers refused to stop. He saw a group of people at a distance and began to run towards them.
After running for about 200 metres, he became exhausted.
It was then that one Ebuka Oluka ran up to help him. Fr Chukwuneke immediately grabbed at the scruff of Ebuka’s polo shirt for support. Together they ran again for the rest of the distance to the group of people. While he ran, he kept calling out the phone number of his brother which was the only number he had memorized. He said he was doing this because he was afraid that he could pass out at any moment.
Ebuka tried calling his brother with the number he had been given but the brother did not pick the calls. Before then, Ebuka had pulled off his polo shirt and wrapped it on the priest’s head to stem the blood flow. When they eventually got to the people, he was taken to Bishop Shanahan Hospital, Nsukka. From there, he was able to contact Dr Joseph Ugboaja, Deputy Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee (DCMAC) and Dr Jackson Chidozie, head of Children’s Unit at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, (NAUTH) Nnewi who were at a conference in Enugu .
The doctors requested for his transfer to Memfys Hospital Neurosurgery in Enugu in order to be given detailed treatment. From there he was taken to NAUTH, Nnewi, where he is currently being treated.
Fr Chukwuneke told Fides that what got him wondering was that the distance between the point they were attacked and the police checkpoint they had passed was not more than 600 metres.
On how he knew his attackers were of the Fulani stock, he said he had once served in Gombe State and that although they spoke in the Hausa Language, they had a distinctive Fulani accent.
Also speaking exclusively to Fides immediately the sad tale filtered in, the Awka Diocesan Chancellor, Very Rev. Fr. Francis Chidume, confirmed that the three priests were returning from Nsukka where they paid a condolence visit before the ugly incident occurred, noting that unknown to the priests the outlaws were lying in wait for them.
Rev. Fr. Chidume said that Rev. Fr. Chukwuneke, the chaplain of St. Camillus de Lellis Chaplaincy, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Okofia, Nnewi Campus, was shot in the head through the side window of the driver’s side by the suspected Fulani hoodlums, noting that the pellets stopped few inches to his brain/skull.
‘Fr. Ezeokana, a Professor of Clinical Psychology, sustained a serious car exhaust pipe burn,’ Fr Chidume said.
‘Before they reached where the car was, Fr Ezeokana had jumped out of the car and sustained the injury. He laid as if already dead. He was also covered with blood from the other priest’s gun wounds. They left him and then dragged Fr. Dim, the Rector of Tansi Major Seminary, Onitsha, away to an unknown destination,’ Fr Chidume narrated.
He however confirmed the released of Fr. Dim who was initially with the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. Godfrey Onah.
‘We thank God for the release of Fr. Dim without any ransom paid. We’re happy and praying for our injured,’ he concluded.
Reacting, the Catholic bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev Paulinus Ezeokafor, strongly condemned the attack on the priests, describing the incident as unfortunate and saddening.
Bishop Ezeokafor in an emotion laden voice, called on President Muhammadu Buhari and the governor of Enugu State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, to urgently look into the security situation in the aforementioned areas, noting that the Fulani herdsmen had been a thorn in the flesh of the people of the southeast geopolitical zone.
The Catholic prelate wondered why the federal government could not come up with any clear cut plans to curtail the excesses of Fulani herdsmen.
‘Women are being raped and intimidated. Innocent Nigerians are being slaughtered on a daily basis by this same people.
‘Why would they allow them to be unleashing terror on the people? Our priests are being attacked, harassed and embarrassed by Fulani herdsmen. We are not happy at all. The same issue was discussed at our last meeting of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, CBCN. Please, let’s support them in prayers and let our voices echo for Justice.
‘Let us continue to pray for the quick recovery of Frs. Jude Chukwuneke and Jude Ezeokana,’ Bishop Ezeokafor said.
He urged the federal government to do something serious about the Fulani herdsmen’s menace.