Different government agencies and officials coordinating rescue effort and investigation of the Christmas Day bombing at St. Theresa Catholic Church, Madalla, Niger State, have continued to play hide and seek over casualty figures and accounts of the incident.
Although the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) put the casualty figures at 27 (as at Monday), witnesses and survivors insist the casualty was higher.
When NEMA officials announced the initial casualty figures to reporters a few hours after the incident, the interview session sparked angry protests from distraught relatives of victims and witnesses, who insisted the casualty was grossly underestimated. .
“ Apart from those that died at the car park area, what we discovered later was that there were many dead bodies inside the vicinity of the church premises,” Oscar Ezra, a member of the church, told our reporter.
“I personally counted more than 25 badly burnt bodies and others in body bags evacuated from the scene when the government rescue team arrived almost an hour later.”
But, the contradictory accounts of the incident has thrown up more controversies following claims by National Security Adviser (NSA), Owoeye Azazi and NEMA, that the church was not the deliberate target of the bomber.
Both Mr. Azazi and NEMA claimed the explosion occurred on the Suleija highway.
In his report, the NSA claimed the bombers threw the Improvise Explosive Devices from a moving vehicle in the glare of everyone while NEMA claimed “the blast occurred on a road very close to St. Theresa Church, Madalla.”
However, a member of the church’s Internal Security Committee and survivor of the blast, Francis Raphael, has faulted the various reports of the incidents by the NSA, NEMA and other government agencies.
Mr. Raphael told reporters that contrary to government officials and agencies’ version that the bomb was thrown from a moving vehicle, the suicide bomber actually rammed a gold colour Toyota Camry car into the dispersing crowd of worshippers before detonating the explosive, after security officials on duty denied him entrance through the church gate.
Mr. Raphael, who was on duty outside the church with other members of the security committee when the incident happened, said the bombing actually took place a few minutes before 8 a.m. just as the first mass service ended and worshippers were trooping out on their way home.
He said, “I was under the cashew tree directly beside the fence of the second gate. Immediately after the first mass, there were many people outside the church, as we were dispersing.
“The suicide bomber was in a gold colour Toyota Camry car that came from Suleija. The car’s glasses were not tinted, but as the driver got close to the gate, he wound up all the side glasses. He must have been playing music, making some incantations or saying his last prayers.
“We had a policeman working with a youth member, Peter Ehis, at the first gate. The policeman tried to stop the car at the first gate, but the driver refused to stop. When he also refused to heed the second directive to stop that the youth member decided to follow the car, as it continued to move slowly towards the premises.
“Suddenly, the driver turned the vehicle dangerously in the direction of the parish culvert, with one of his rear tyres almost running over the youth member.
“No sooner than the car made the sharp turn that the driver accelerated into the crowd of worshippers outside the church before blowing himself up in a deafening explosion that rocked the car park, leaving a huge ball of fire and a thick smoke that engulfed the area, consuming the policemen, the youth member and scores of parishioners leaving the premises. I cannot recall whether the driver was alone in the car.
“The suicide bomber was not on speed. He drove slowly towards the parish, stopped at the entrance, before turning suddenly and running at top speed into the crowd of people coming out of the service. About 90 per cent of the parishioners were outside the church when the suicide bomber struck.”
The church official also faulted the casualty figures being bandied by officials.“The death toll of 25 was far from it, he said. Scores of persons died in the explosions although I cannot give the exact figure. But, if one can imagine the population of worshipers in a typical Catholic Church mass on Christmas day, one would imagine the number of people who may have lost their lives in the blast, particularly when only one service was held.”
At the National Hospital, Abuja, the hide and seek game by government officials continued. The authorities of the hospital refused to release official information on the number of victims brought to it for treatment. Neither the chief medical consultant nor his deputy agreed to divulge any information.
Enquiries in other hospitals on the number of victims in their care were also rebuffed. The officials were reluctant to provide information on the medical conditions of the victims.
It was however gathered from unofficial sources at the National Hospital that no fewer than 23 victims were brought in between Sunday evening and Monday afternoon with various degrees of injuries for treatment.
We were also told that a NEMA official who suffered minor injuries during an accident in the course of conveying victims to the hospital, was treated and discharged along with two others, while the two remaining NEMofficials were responding to treatment.
Authorities of the Gwagwalada Teaching Hospital and Aso Clinic also refused to disclose figures of victims in their care in what a relative of one of the victims say suggests a grand conspiracy to cover up the incompetence of government in the handling of the crisis.