Afflicted But Not Crushed

I lack the right words to describe my feelings at the current situation in Nigeria: saddened, shocked, devastated, discouraged, disheartened and heartbroken. The spate of killings, the reign of terror, the spilling of blood is becoming uncontrollable day after day. So many bad news daily, tragedies, waste of lives and mindless killings by blood-sucking terrorists. Everyone, including the rich, the poor, Christians and Muslims, Southerners, Easterners, Northerners and Westerners, Farmers, Business People and Civil Servants seem to be helpless.

This time around Malumfashi town became a target of some hardened criminals. Malumfashi is a serene and hospitable town that welcomes people from different parts of the country. The indigenous people are mainly farmers, artisans and business people who run their micro, small and medium enterprises. According to the 2006 Census Malumfashi covers as an area of 674 km and a population of 182,920 at the 2006 census. It is in the southern part of Katsina State and it is a good example of a town where Christians and Muslims co-exist happily.

On Thursday 20th May 2021 close to midnight, two priests Very Rev. Fr. Joseph Keke and Rev. Fr. Alphonsus Bello of St. Vincent Ferrer Parish, Malumfashi were abducted by unknown gunmen at a time when they were supposed to be resting from the long day’s work. In the early hours of Friday morning, Fr. Alphonsus was found dead. Some commentators have rightly described that Friday as Black Friday. His death is indeed a big loss to the Malumfashi Community, to the Church and to the nation.

The whole town of Malumfashi and the entire country were stirred to grief, as people, irrespective of tongue, political affiliation or religious beliefs mourned and lamented about the state of insecurity. In the central mosque in Malumfashi, on that black Friday the Imam prayed that God exposes these evil people and their sponsors; in all churches on Sunday, pastors prayed for God’s intervention in a country that is fast losing its sense of direction.

Since after the unfortunate incident, we have been asking questions: Why is it that these criminals select good people as their targets? Why did they murder a priest who was in his prime? Why did they abduct a frail, elderly priest, struggling with health challenges? What would they gain from these priests who have limited material resources and are struggling economically to keep body and soul together? Answers to these questions are still not coming fast enough. In dark moments of life we are tempted to cry in prayer, while asking: “My Lord, My God why have you left us and where did you go?”

Our imaginations are running wild as regards the motivation of these night marauders. These killers popularly called bandits and unknown gunmen have wantonly spilled blood in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. Simply put, their criminal activities show they have lost their humanity and the milk of human kindness. Analysts have advanced various conspiracy theories to explain their motivations, but we can never understand all things now. The truth will unfold over time, because truth is the daughter of time.

I met Fr. Alphonsus on the 26th November 2020 in Malumfashi on the day of the priestly ordination of three priests. At breakfast table we introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries. Shortly, after he asked if he could meet with the Bishop. He was reporting for duty to Sokoto diocese, as he was sent from Kaduna Archdiocese to go over and help in Sokoto Diocese. He was introduced on the day of the ordination to the priests, religious and the faithful that gathered for the ceremony. Thereafter, He was posted to work in Malumfashi, and within a few months he had proved to be a committed and industrious priest.

Fr. Alphonsus was born on a date in which we celebrate democracy day, June 12th. His life had witnessed a turbulent democracy where politicians lack the will to transform and make their country a better place. He grew up in Kurmin Mashi, Kaduna. He started his Seminary formation in 2009 at Christ the King Propaedeutic Seminary (CKPS) Fayit Kagoma and from there he went to St. Augustine Major Seminary Jos. After Philosophy studies in Jos, he proceeded to Good Shepherd Seminary, Kaduna for his theological studies. After successfully completing his seminary training, he was ordained on 5th July 2018.

People who have encountered Fr. Alphonsus closely know that he is a focussed young man, conservative priest with a high sense of duty and one who was willing to sacrifice his time and energy to bring happiness to others. He had put in selfless efforts in his work in Malumfashi Parish. Fr. Alphonsus blends his sense of duty with a good sense of humour, especially among the youth and his friends.

On his birthday a friend remarked: “On the occasion of your birthday, I like to say, having been close with you (sic) lately, I discover you have fine attitudes and so, permit me to advise: Please maintain your stability of mind and purpose which I see and admire in you. Never grow tired of seeking intimacy with the One that called you. He alone can give you true happiness. Meanwhile, be assured of my closeness to you in prayer.”

Personally, I witnessed his sense of duty and his sacrificial spirit as he spearheaded the project of the celebration of the Silver Jubilee (25 years) of my priestly ordination. A week before his death, he sent an electronic copy of the brochure for the ceremony. for the 25th anniversary (Silver Jubilee) of my ordination. He had pursued this project of the Jubilee with his whole mind, heart and soul and served as the Chair of the planning committee. He has held several meetings with the Jubilee Planning Committee and they reached an advanced stage before his exit from the world.

After he sent an electronic copy of the brochure, I observed there was something different in the sequence of arranging pictures in the initial pages. Usually, such brochures begin with the picture of Jesus Christ, followed by that of the Pope, the Bishop and that of the Parish Priest. He included all the other pictures except his. I pointed out what he omitted and he said, putting his picture there as Parish Priest is not necessary, since it was not only Malumfashi parish that was involved in the celebration. In fact he wanted to remain at the background even when he was the one propelling all the activities regarding the ceremony.

In less than three years in the priestly ministry, Fr. Alphonsus had passed through tough challenges in life. He served in St. Luke’s Church Parish, Kasuwan Magani, Kaduna State, a town that has suffered several ethno-religious conflicts. Besides, young as he was, he had passed through sorrowful moments. Last year (2020) he lost three members of his family beginning with his brother, Ernest Nache in April and four months after his 18year old sister, Gloria died and in another four months his father, Mr. Malachy Bello T. Gimba died on Christmas Eve (24th December) at the age of 57.

The death of Fr. Alphonsus has left us pondering about the state of insecurity in Nigeria. Someone described the situation saying, in the present insecure environment it appears each Nigerian is on a death row, waiting for execution. Consequently, discussions are gearing towards self-defence and theology of unjust aggressor because the government at all levels has failed its citizens. Armless citizens, including the clergy, religious, farmers and travellers have become soft targets of criminals. Some preachers are already advocating for Nehemiah’s principle of engagement where people go about their daily business with the word of God on one hand a sword on the other.

The government of Nigeria has already laid a dangerous precedence by paying ransom to criminals. By so doing, the criminals are empowered to buy more arms and to recruit more people into their gangs. Citizens have been asked to obtain their national identity card and have been ordered to register their phones with their national identification number. One wonders why these steps are not yielding fruitful results in the tracking and prosecution of kidnappers and other criminals.

In the absence of an effective government, we entrust ourselves to God’s protection. As I was going for Sunday Mass, I switched on the FM stereo and listened to a song that seemed to be speaking directly to me. It was a gospel song by Eben, titled ‘Jesus at the Centre.’ It says, “At the centre of it all, it’s you that I see…you are bigger, bigger than the biggest; you are stronger, stronger than the strongest…” In the on-going national insecurity, we rely no longer on the government, but more on God.

We pray that serenity returns to the town of Malumfashi and the entire Katsina State. We pray for a better Nigeria. We pray that God will grant the Bishop, Priests, Religious, and Lay faithful of Sokoto Diocese the grace to remain steadfast in faith in this period of trial. We pray and hope that God saves us from these wicked bands of terrorists. Our help is in the name of the Lord and we know that this on-going battle is the Lord’s. In fact, the Lord is our strength in battle. God, your children are suffering, come and save them. The blood of Alphonsus does not cry for vengeance but for peace. It is pleading for the forgiveness of his assailants and for a better Nigeria. Let us be united in praying for the safe release of Very Rev. Fr. Joseph Keke and other armless people across the country that are held captive by these merciless terrorists.

Let us renew our confidence and trust with the words of the Apostle Paul: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).  Let us remain strong, resilient and united in this time of trial and tribulation.

Fr. Dr. Gerald Musa is a Lecturer of Pastoral/Communication Studies at Centre for the Study of African Culture and Communication (CESACC), Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria.

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