… a Reflection on the Events of the night of 23rd/24th February 2006
It’s incredible that ten years have already elapsed since the dramatic events of the night of 23/24 Feb 2006.
That was the day that St. Michael’s Church compound in Kontagora (Nigeria) was invaded by an angry mob who torched the Cathedral, Priests’ House and many vehicles. The experience of that night was burned into my memory to the extent that the occasion became a reference point for other events in that period i.e. BC or AC – before the ‘crisis’ or after the ‘crisis’!
The attack on the compound was part of an orchestrated onslaught on about 16 different Christian centres on that night of 23 Feb in Kontagora. This outbreak of violence was the latest in a series of riots and demonstrations by Muslim communities around the world against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. On 30 September 2005 Jylland Posten (Jutland Post) published 12 cartoons of the Prophet. Muslims consider it blasphemous to depict an image of Prophet Mohammed. It took some months for the anger of the Muslim communities in the Middle and Far East to be stoked to the point of violent protests. The silence and eventual defence of ‘freedom of expression’ by the Danish government contributed in some measure to heightening of the tensions that eventually broke into violent demonstrations in many countries including Nigeria in which more than 200 people were killed. Some days after the attack I wrote an account of the unfolding of the events of that night which was published on the SMA website. Violence in Kontagora Report.
These events happened just one month before my mother’s 80th birthday celebrations to which I had already been invited. I travelled home to Ireland for the occasion and took a little extra time to recover from the ordeal of the attack. Many of my relatives and friends questioned the wisdom of my returning to that situation in Kontagora. I had no qualms or doubts about my determination to return and participate in the recovery and restoration of the morale of the parishioners and the destroyed property. The generosity and willingness of the people of Nigeria and overseas to contribute to the rebuilding and restoration of the destroyed structures and replacement of burnt out vehicles was heart-warming. I travelled back to Kontagora in April and remained there for the next nine years. I departed Nigeria eventually in May 2015 to take up an SMA assignment at home in Dromantine, Newry. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the crisis I and my family are preparing to mark the 90th birthday of my mother.
The Parish House was totally destroyed by the fire in which I and Fr. Dominic Sugaraj SMA had lost practically all our possessions. A new Priests’ House built on the site was blessed and opened on 2nd Dec 2007 by Bishop Timothy Carroll SMA. The Cathedral continued to be used for worship as the rioters were unable to effect its destruction. Many portable items were set alight but the structure withstood the flames. At the time of the attack the Cathedral was undergoing an extension. Under the direction of a hard-working Church Council that work was eventually completed and many other improvements made so that by the time I departed the parish the building was a bright and modern place of worship.
Some months prior to the crisis two journalists working for the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper paid a visit to Nigeria. Their mission was to research a feature on the progress of the Catholic Church in the country. Kontagora Vicariate was one of many places they visited on their trip. Sometime after their return to the USA they heard the news of the crisis in Nigeria and Kontagora in particular. They requested an update on the Kontagora situation from me. I emailed my account of events to Andy Maykuth. Their analysis of the Nigerian situation appeared on 22nd March 2007 in the paper with some quotes from my email account. It can be accessed under the title ‘Africa’s star rising’ by Andy Maykuth, Philadelphia Inquirer of 22nd March 2007.
Another timely visitor to the Vicariate arrived from Germany, Tony Goertz, Projects Officer, with the Catholic Church NGO, Missio Aachen. He was accompanied by his daughter for a short stay on the afternoon that ill-fated day 23rd February. Missio Aachen had been sponsoring a number of projects in Kontagora and Tony was in Nigeria to monitor such projects on their behalf. He and his daughter were hosted by Bishop Carroll in his house in GRA part of Kontagora Town, well away from the mayhem of that night. Tony and his daughter knew nothing of the happenings of the night till breakfast time the following morning. A fortunate turn of events was that Tony was an accomplished amateur photographer and had a first class camera. He went immediately to the Cathedral and set about recording the distressing scene, taking hundreds of photographs. These were handed over to the Bishop and were extremely useful in illustrating the extent of the destruction in the various communiques sent out from the Bishop’s House in the ensuing days and weeks. Needless to say Tony’s visit to the Vicariate had to be cut short. He and his daughter both returned to Abuja the following day.
In the ensuing decade Kontagora Vicariate continued to grow with the expansion of the number of parishes, schools and health centres; ordination of fifteen diocesan priests, the arrival of new Religious communities like the Daughters of Charity (Tungan Gero) and Salesians (Koko Parish).
In May 2010 I was given the responsibility of heading the Vicariate as Apostolic Administrator when
ill- health forced Bishop Carroll to retire home to Ireland. After a two year stint I was pleased to hand over leadership of the Vicariate on 3rd May 2012 to the newly ordained Bishop of Kontagora, Most Rev. Bulus Yohanna, a native of the Vicariate. After spending some time with Bishop Bulus I left Kontagora and Nigeria on 12th May 2015 to take up an assignment with the SMA in Dromantine. After forty-four years working for the Lord among the peoples of Nigeria I am now adjusting to a people, a culture and an environment that have changed enormously since I left Ireland for Nigeria in 1971.
These developments in Kontagora have taken place against a backdrop of increasing religious tensions and the rise of Islamist extremism in the form of Boko Haram. Personally I do not harbour any bitterness against Muslims after my Kontagora ordeal. I returned there to rebuild, not only structures of bricks and cement, but also damaged relationships. The events of 23rd Feb only served to reinforce my conviction that the only way forward was the way of Jesus ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’ [Luke 23:34]. This is the way of dialogue and outreach, not the path of violent revenge and retaliation. While it was necessary that the Christian community take appropriate steps to boost security and render church compounds safe places for people to assemble, at the same time certain hawkish elements in the community had to be calmed who wanted to organise militant resistance or procure weapons to defend themselves. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and the past decade in Kontagora has passed off relatively peacefully despite the activities of Boko Haram to the east of us.
I am grateful to God and to the love and support of my family, the parishioners in Kontagora and my SMA confreres that I, and the others with me in St. Michael’s that night, have survived and thrived after the events of 23rd February 2006. In the absence of trauma counselling I felt that the best therapy for me was to talk about and tell the story of that night as often as possible. In spite of telling the story repeatedly there were some after- effects that took a long time to get over. For example over many years I kept a small diary in which I just scribbled a few of the more noteworthy events of the day. I had accumulated about twenty of these ‘year-books’. For many years I felt an ache in my heart when I recalled how they all went up in smoke. Seven years passed before I could begin and keep up a diary again. After many false starts I got that engine ‘kick-started’ in 2013 and have managed to keep up my daily scribble to date.
Another more painful memory concerns precious family history items I had collected over a period of years such as photos, memoriam cards, my grandfather’s 1915 passport/visa to return to and settle in Ireland from USA, family tree notes etc. The loss of these irreplaceable memorabilia pained me for many years until it subsided now to a mild ache. l recall a moment around 1am on that fateful night.
I am standing in front of my burning house watching the flames rise into the air, at my back the church is aglow with burning furniture, to my left the car lean-to shelter is on fire together with two cars and to my right other vehicles burning. My mobile phone rings (one of the few items that survived) and Peter McCawille is on the line asking how things were. I replied ‘I’m in hell….fire all around me!’ ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash could also be used to describe that moment. However later I felt more positive as I reflected that I and my colleagues were all alive, safe and well. The fire I was looking at was only destroying possessions, many of which I’d accumulated over years and which I hoarded for no good reason. While it was a traumatic experience it was also a purifying one. It taught me to appreciate life and not get too attached to personal possessions.
As I remember these events of ten years ago I am grateful to God for my health, for my mothers’ 90 years of life, for the progress of the Church and the People of God in Kontagora. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.” [John 14:27]
May this peace flourish once more among all the peoples of Kontagora and Nigeria. Amen.
Fr Dan McCauley SMA