In the wake of the gruesome massacre in Owo on Sunday, June 5, 2022, people from in and out of Nigeria drew my attention to a seeming contradiction observed in the actions of Ogun devotees, who invoked Ogun the god of iron to fight for Catholics who were murdered in their Church on that fateful day. What got me writing this piece is the fact that one of the reactions was a “lol” emoji expressed by one person who wondered why Ogun was invoked to avenge the death of Catholics. In fact, many laughed either in mockery or out of confusion.
Scene after the terrorist attack at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Owo, Ondo State where scores of worshippers were killed, and maimed. I wish to begin this short piece by making some distinctions. There are two issues playing out here. First, is the Catholic understanding of what can be done about victims of such dastardly events. Sad and painful as this event in Owo was, victims of such inhumane action are perceived as martyrs; and so they are prayed for, seeking the mercy of God on their souls. Where possible, justice is pursued within the available civil justice system, since this conforms to the Catholic faith.
They pray that God will bring about justice in the situation. But more importantly, for Catholics, death is not the end of life. Although these people have died, the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians (4:13) are still very instructive: “Brothers, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death so that you will not grieve like the rest, who are without hope.” So, while it may seem that Catholics are inactive or are allowing the unjust to go free, the dead are believed to be better placed than those who killed them.
The second issue at hand is how the Yoruba culture responds to issues of violence against the other. The recourse to Ogun must be seen as an option for culture and not the religion of the Yoruba. What the Yoruba believe and practice as part of their culture is that people should Hu ìwà síi bi ènìyàn eléran ara: “Act towards the other as a person with flesh.” When this does not happen, justice is sought, and invoking Ogun is one of the ways in which justice is sought. Here the question is not about religion, it is about people seeking justice for those they feel were violated. If their brothers and sisters were violated when seeking the face of the almighty, it is only human to seek justice as a people and in their culture.
Based on the distinction that has been made, I move on to speak to the idea of contradiction. As a practicing Catholic and a researcher in the religion of the Africans, I state that there is no contradiction between what took place on two grounds. First, the same group of people did not embark on the two different actions that are being compared (worship in the Catholic Church and the invocation of Ogun for intervention). If this had happened, meaning if the same group of people had engaged in the two actions, there would have been a contradiction only because Christianity rejects things that are contradictory to its doctrines and teachings.
Secondly, there is no contradiction because the Yoruba people who engaged in the Ogun invocation were not involved in bad action. It is important to note that this action (Ogun invocation) is not Catholic and not Christian, but it cannot be said to be wrong or evil just because it is not approved by Christianity. There are actions that are not Christian and at the same time not evil. The invocation of Ogun would have been a contradiction if it was done to justify or ratify evil. The invocation of Ogun is a way of a people seeking justice in the line of their culture.
The point that many are missing here is the fact that people are fast losing two things: first, we are expected to Hu ìwà síi bi ènìyàn eléran ara: “Act towards the other as a person with flesh.” Those who invoked Ogun have responded to the experience of the Catholics because they are acting towards the other (in this case, the Catholics that were killed) as persons with flesh, persons like them, persons they need to stand up for.
Furthermore, Africans are people with cultures that are to be distinguished from their religions. What we have today are religions that refer to things in African cultures that are contradictory to what they teach and believe in as evil, wrong, and to be condemned. Such religions (like Christianity) should not, as it has done in the past, call everything African evil or wrong. The embrace of certain African ideas, practices and processes can only be wrong if people who have accepted neo-religions (e.g. Christianity) return to these practices that contradict their faith. This is so because of their faith and not because their practices are bad in themselves. So Yoruba or adherents of African religions who approve of some cultural practices are free to engage with their culture as they understand and should not be seen as engaging in wrong, bad, evil contradictory actions.
Let us hope that people will learn to “act towards the other as persons with flesh.” Africans’ concern for their folks goes beyond the faith they profess, and this particular case does not show that Jesus Christ cannot bring about justice for the victims of the sad event in Owo.
”For the sake of those who were gruesomely killed on Pentecost Sunday at St St. Francis Xavier parish Owo, Ondo State who is being buried today, there will be no all-night Adoration program today,17th June 2022. We join the entire Catholic Church to mourn their demise. May their souls and the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in Perfect Peace. Amen.”
Dr. Akin-Otiko is a senior research fellow of the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies (IADS), University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos.