…Catholic priests, students recount face to face encounter with death in the hands of gunmen at Jalingo seminary
Sylvanus Viashima, Jalingo
When marauders storm your abode in the middle of the night––and came not to steal but to shed your blood because of a daytime disagreement––survival can only be by the grace of God.
The chance of survival becomes infinitesimal when upon opening your door to the sound of commotion, you are face-to-face with men who deal in death and one of them pointed at you and exclaimed: “That is him. Kill him.”
This dark plot played out on May 27 at the Sacred Heart Minor Seminary in Jalingo, Taraba State, when students and priests came under attacks of armed Fulani herdsmen who stormed the institution with the specific intent to kill one of the instructors, Rev Fr Cornelius Kobah.
And for five minutes, Father Kobah’s life hung by the thread in a fleeting display of obstinacy, bravado and divine intervention.
“They shot at me and the bullets went wild on either side of me, leaving me unhurt in the middle. One of them asked me to kneel down but I told him I wouldn’t, that was when they shot at me again and this time got me on my leg. This was after they hit me severally on the left leg with a stick,” recalled the Catholic priest.
Coming a few days after the Makurdi bloodshed––in which herdsmen killed two Catholic priests in the middle of mass––this latest episode of the bloody opera of the “Metamorphosis of Killer Herdsmen in Northern Nigeria” is yet another indication that security is at rock bottom in that corner of the country.
A student’s tormenting recall
Thirteen-year-old Joshua Ceazer has the fanciful dream of becoming a medical Doctor and he chooses the Sacred Heart Minor Seminary, Jauro Yinu, a suburb of Jalingo the Taraba State capital, to begin the pursuit of this noble dream, but after the nightmare of attack by killer herdsmen, he is having a second thought.
Joshua’s ordeal is representative of the experience of over 300 students of the quiet missionary school, located in a hitherto quiet and serene community where hundreds of priests and other professionals had their academic foundation over the years.
According to Joshua, it all happened so fast and yet took so long he couldn’t believe time can actually stand so still.
“We read that evening preparatory for our examination coming up later in the week and after the light out, we went back to our hostels to sleep, although some students stayed a while before they turned in for the night. Gunshots brought me out of my sleep. I thought at first it was a dream. Then I heard students crying and shouting for us to run for our lives.
“When I realized what was going on, I said God no, this can not be happening. I remembered the experience of Chibok and Dapchi school children and thought that what we have been hearing about is now happening right before us.
“So I followed other students and we ran to hide while the shooting continued. After some time, our priest came calling us to come out, that the attack was over. We were told that no one was killed but one of the priests was shot and had been rushed to the hospital. I felt relieved that none of my mates was hurt and no one died. But, the fear of that experience now makes me want to go back to my parents.
The man wanted dead
The attack on Sacred Heart Minor Seminary, Jauro Yinu, a suburb of Jalingo on Sunday, was not a random incident. Rev Fr Cornelius Kobah was the major target of the rampage.
Kobah shared with Saturday Sun his traumatic experience.
“I heard students screaming around 12 midnight and I had to rush out to investigate what was going on. When I opened the door, I saw heavily armed Fulani men dressed in black and heavily armed in front of my house. One of them exclaimed that I was the person and they should kill me. I told them that if I was the one they had come for, they should go ahead and kill me. I was not afraid of death.
“They shot at me and the bullets went wild on either side of me, leaving me unhurt in the middle. One of them asked me to kneel down but I told him I wouldn’t, that was when they shot at me again and got me on my leg, this was after they hit me severally on the left leg with a stick. You can see the leg is swollen
“You recall that this attack is coming at a time that the memories of the attack in Makurdi Diocese are still very fresh on our minds and so I saw a replication of that playing out here. By the grace of God, no one died and my worst fear was that they may kill our students but that didn’t happen also and so we have cause to thank God.
“I realized that it was because I have insisted that they cannot be grazing on the school compound and that was my offence. I felt if I had to pay the ultimate prize for insisting that the right thing is done, then so be it,” Kobah recalled.
According to Kobah, the herdsmen habitually brought their cattle into the school compound to graze, even around the hostels and classrooms during lessons.
The priest had been vocal in opposing them.
“I told them that it was wrong for them to be grazing on the school compound. They said they can graze wherever they wanted and there is nothing anyone can do about it. How can you bring cows to come and graze where human beings are staying? Are we cows? What kind of lawlessness is this? This is a private property and then the owner does not even have right to decide what happens on his land. Can you imagine that?”
For all his valour, Fr Kobah experienced a pang of fear at that perilous moment.
“There was a part of me that was screaming at me that this was my end oo. I will die in the hands of these heartless herdsmen. And there was another part that kept assuring me that God was behind me and nothing would happen. That is what sustained me. In the end, His grace saw me through.”
Killers with specific target
Rev Fr Stephen Bakari came under the attack before it was taken to Fr Kobah.
Bakari told Saturday Sun his side of the story. “When I heard the noise, I rushed out without even thinking.
As soon as I came outside, they attacked me and started beating me up straight away. They asked where the priest was and I told them that I was also a priest but they said I was joking with them. They said I was not the one and they asked where the other priest was. They also asked me to bring my phones and while I was trying to do that, Fr Kobah came out and they left me for him, after smashing my car and making away with my money, a jacket and flashlight.”
The rector of the seminary, Rev Fr Emmanuel Atsue, also corroborated the notion that the killers had come after a specific target.
“The question is why would herdsmen want to target a priest? It is simple. He is against the idea of the herdsmen coming to graze on the school premises, mingling with the students as if they were also cows. It is wrong. And for opposing this, the priest became a target for assassination.”
Catholic Bishop of Jalingo Diocese, Most Rev. Dr Charles Hammawa, described the attack on the seminary and the targeting of priests as regrettable and urged the government to be more serious in handling security issues in the country.
“It is regrettable that as a church, we are modelling the children to be good citizens of the country, but we are now coming under unprovoked attacks.”
Calling the attack one too many, Bishop Hammawa, avowed: ”For Fulani herdsmen to attack us in Jalingo, it is an indication that our security situation in this country has become extremely bad. The primary responsibility of government is the protection of lives and property and we will continue to call on the government to sit up.”
Concerns for the students
Fr Atsue, the Rector of the school, who described the incident as more than an attack at the Catholic Church, observed solemnly that the attack on the school traumatise “the young people and can easily mark the end of their academic pursuit as some of them may simply not be strong enough to return to school.”
Fr Atsue who noted that the attack may not necessarily mean a conspiracy against the Church, however, said that it could be a way of indirectly scattering the flock by first striking the shepherd. He urged government at all level to stop treating the herdsmen menace with kid’s gloves.
He said: “It is simply appalling how they opened fire on Fr Cornelius as if he was a hunted wild beast. But for the grace of God, they would have killed him. They succeeded in getting him on his leg but thank God he is already back from the hospital and nursing his wounds.
He added: “In the end, it was the hand of God at work. When the students rushed out in their numbers, the attackers became scared too and ran away, even though the children were only running for their safety”.
The attack may have recorded no fatalities, but its long-term effect on the psyche of the students is worrisome.
When Saturday Sun visited the institution, only a few students were seen around. With the exception of those in JSS 3 who were preparing for their basic certificate examination, others had been asked to proceed on a week-long break to enable them to absorb the shock and present themselves to their parents as safe.
However, it is not certain all the students will still be keen on returning back to the school.
Joshua Ceazer, the 13 year old student had said: “If we cannot be protected while in school, I think it is better we just stay back home and forget about whatever dreams we have. I cannot even concentrate well to prepare for my examination because I am afraid that they may come back and none of us would be spared this time”.
Taraba State has passed a bill prohibiting open grazing but so far, herders still move about with their cattle grazing openly on farms and private property with impunity, as most people are afraid of confronting them for fear of attacks.
The attack on the seminary, located opposite the Airport, on the outskirts of the state capital, further underscored the significance of the security threat posed by killer herdsmen.