May 9, 2013
Gunmen from a shadowy cult ambushed a group of police officers in central Nigeria, killing 30 of them and then setting fire to their bodies, police and officials said today.
The Ombatse pagan movement, which
says it is committed to purging social
vices, has existed in Nasarawa state for
years but has grown increasingly
aggressive in recent months, including a
campaign of forced conversions targeting both Christians and Muslims, officials said.
“A detachment of 60 police…came under
attack from members of Ombatse cult in
an ambush,” Nasarawa state police chief Abayomi Akeremale said of the attack on Tuesday in the village of Elakyo, some 10 kilometres outside the state capital Lafia.
“The Ombatse gunmen opened fire on our men,” and set fire to those they killed, he told AFP, giving an initial toll of 23 dead and 17 missing. But the police chief’s spokesman, Michael Ada, later said that seven of the missing had been found dead. “I can confirm we have lost 30 men,” he told AFP.
Nasarawa roughly falls on the dividing
line between Nigeria’s mostly Christian
south and predominately Muslim north. One of the state’s major ethnic groups,
the Eggon, is divided between the two
faiths, but also has a history of links to
Ombatse, which means “time has come”
in Eggon, has a significant presence,
although its strength has typically been
hard to estimate. The group has identified alcohol consumption and adultery as some of the sins it seeks to eliminate.
Nasarawa’s Commissioner for Information, Hamza Elayo, told AFP that
the authorities had no issue with
Ombatse until the movement’s aggressive turn. “Everybody has right to freedom of religion, but when people go about forcing their creed on others in a violent way it becomes unacceptable,” he said.
Elayo and the police chief said the
number of reported forced conversions
has surged in recent weeks, prompting
the security forces to move against a
self-proclaimed priest and others. “We decided to send our men to the area to arrest members of Ombatse including
their priest,” Akeremale said. “(They) have been going to churches and
mosques initiating people into their cult
by forcefully administering an allegiance
oath to unwilling people.”
Elayo said there were indications that
the movement’s change in conduct had
political motivations. The Eggon,according to Elayo, have been pushing for a member of their ethnic group to succeed the current state governor, Tanko Al-Makura, and certain Eggon leaders have reached out to the Ombatse to fight for their cause.
“It is obvious they are being sponsored
by some ambitious politicians…The
security agencies have been closing in on such politicians but I don’t want to
mention names,” he said.
Access to massive resources are at stake
in Nigerian state elections and several
have turned violent. Political and ethnic groups have also mobilised private militias to advance their agendas.
The male members of Ombatse are said
to dress only in black, while women are
reportedly barred from many of the
major ceremonies. Until recently, incidents of violence were limited. Last November, Ombatse gunmen were
reported to have shot dead three security personnel in a shootout with troops who stormed a shrine during an initiation ceremony.