Funeral Home or ritualists' den? Controversies trail Edo mummified bodies

The building where the 20 mummified bodies were discovered in Benin Edo State

The building where the 20 mummified bodies were discovered in Benin Edo State

By Jethro Ibileke

On the night of Wednesday, 17 August, 2022 (precisely 22:26 pm), the Edo State Police Command posted a statement on its WhatsApp platform, Press Interactive Forum, on the discovery of alleged Ritualist Den in Benin, the state capital.

The statement titled “Edo State Police Command Unveils Ritualist Den With 20 Mummified Bodies”, was signed by the command’s deputy spokesperson, ASP Jennifer Iwegbu, was accompanied with pictures of the ‘Ritualist Den’ too unpleasant to look at and could be considered unfit for use in print.

Iwegbu noted that “in pursuance of [Edo Police Command’s] operational mandate of nipping crimes in the bud, Operatives of the Edo State Police Command today 17/08/2022 unraveled a suspected ritual shrine.

“Following credible information at the Command’s disposal that some corpse were discovered in a building along Asoro slope off Ekenhua road, Uzebu quarters, Benin city. Operatives of the command immediately swung into action and mobilized to the scene.

“[Fifteen] mummified male corpses, 3 mummified female corpses and 2 mummified children corpses were discovered at the scene.”

The statement added that three suspects, namely, Chimaobi Okoewu ‘M’ and Oko Samuel ‘M’ both of Afikpo in Ebonyi and Gideon Sunday ‘M’ of Akwa-Ibom State were arrested at the scene, while others fled.

Published reports of the police statement did not waste time setting the media space on fire, as both social and conventional media feasted on the discovery. Graphic videos of the Den also surfaced on social media and WhatsApp platforms, showing mummified bodies stacked on an iron rack and others standing against the walls of the room.

On the afternoon of the following day (Thursday), the Command’s spokesman, SP Chidi Nwabuzor, led some journalists to the scene of the crime to see things for themselves.

On the following night (at 21. 24 pm), the Edo Civil Society Organisations (EDOCSO), released a statement on Africa Media Hangout (a Benin-based WhatsApp platform for media practitioners and other stakeholders, titled ‘Ritualists’ den or illegal morgue in Edo?’ was signed by Aliyu Unweni, Interim Public Relations Officer of EDOCSO.

The statement did not only denounce police claims of the discovery of a Ritualist Den in Benin, but also lambasted the Edo state government for lacking its “own intelligence gathering mechanism to filter stories as it was seen sharing same misinformation from the police to the de-marketing of the state and her people to the outside world.”

It claimed that its leadership, led by its Interim TEC Chairman, Austine Enabulele, “quickly dispatched a team of investigators to unravel the true situation of the matter and report accordingly for a follow up.”

EDOCSO further noted that “the news became worrisome to us as Edo people have no history of ritualism or its likes. More troublesome to us is the fact that, it was the Police Public Relations Officer of Edo state command that led a media report on same which would have suggested that proper investigation would have been carried out to arrive at what was reported in the media.”

EDOCSO reported its findings thus:

1.The said building where the mummified corpses were found is not a ritualists’ den but a newly built morgue to house evacuated corpses from an old facility because the operator had been given a quit notice there.

2. The operational name of the morgue is St. Gabriel Funeral Home with other offices at No. 24, Ist Federal Road, Benin City. It has branches in Anambra state, Ebonyi state, Murtala Mohammed way and Ist East Circular road where the corpses were moved from.

3. The shrine discovered was said to be a traditional form of worship by the proprietor as a spiritual protection for himself and the business.

4. The police didn’t conduct investigation before addressing the media thereby raising an alarm of a ritualists’ shrine.

5. As at the time of putting this report together, the police had not visited other branches of the morgue in different parts of the city.

6. The videos of corpses in circulation revealed that some of the corpses had name tags and medical equipment were visible as well in the building. Further interview with one of the morgue personnel in another of their branch office revealed that there is a register of all the corpses in the facility and that some of the owners have started to call to take away their deposited corpses.

7. Our team of investigators were denied access to the morgue by members of the vigilance group that have been stationed there.

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“Flowing from the above, it is now convenient to state that, the insinuation by the police that it is a ritualists’ den is hereby debunked and dismissed as false alarm and an attempt to paint the good people of Edo in bad light. This is not to state that, the morgue might not be an illegal one or does not have the requisite permits to operate a morgue which should be subjected to thorough investigation by the police. A call placed to the proprietor phone was answered by a police officer who stated that he is with them.

“This development had shown that Edo state government lacked own intelligence gathering mechanism to filter stories as it was seen sharing same misinformation from the police to the de-marketing of the state and her people to the outside world. Edo state government should have been seen mitigating against the spread of such negative story from the state, instead it was a major promoter of it. This is disappointing to say the least.

“We want to reiterate again that Edo state is peaceful, loving and most accommodating in the whole of Nigeria. They are not known for human rituals historically. The state is open for visitation and business opportunities. Citizens can move anytime of the day without fear of the unknown.

“We await the final outcome of police investigation on subject matter and we believe it will be bold enough to put the record straight by stating the true position of the issues. Going forward, the police authority should always carry out investigation before engaging the media. Crimes are not fought with media propaganda.”

Some journalists who also claimed to have carried out investigations, watered down police reference to the controversial facility as a ‘Ritualist Den.’

Disturbed by the controversy generated by the alleged Ritualist Den, the State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, at a press conference addressed by his Special Adviser on media projects, Crusoe Osagie and a Deputy Commissioner of Police, Olawore Oluwole, gave the State Police Command and other relevant agencies a seven-day ultimatum to unravel the circumstances surrounding the discovered corpses.

While we patiently await the outcome of the investigation, it is pertinent to note that not one report, including those of EDOCSO and other journalists who claimed to have investigated the incident, have been able to debunk the fact that the so-called mortuary is a Ritualist Den.

Who is a Ritualist? An American English dictionary defines a rituallist as one who engages in ritual practices or religious rites. A ritualist carries out rituals in at a shrine.

Interestingly, EDOCSO investigators who alleged that “police didn’t conduct investigation before addressing the media thereby raising an alarm of a ritualists’ shrine”, also admitted that the “shrine discovered [in the premises of the mortuary with operational name of St. Gabriel Funeral Home], was said to be a traditional form of worship by the proprietor as a spiritual protection for himself and the business.”

While fielding questions from journalists shortly after a visit to the building, the Public Relations Officer for Edo Police Command, SP Chidi Nwabuzor, said that the building cannot be a morgue as speculated in some quarters, for the following reasons:

Five shrines were discovered in the building, the building is uncompleted, there is no facilities to prove or ascertain that the place is a modern mortuary, because a mortuary must have basic, modern facilities for us to call it a mortuary. Also, there was no signpost telling members of the public, customers that they are opened for such business.

“Lastly, we have shrine all over the place with fresh blood of animals all over the place, SP Nwabuzor added.

What is a connection between a mortuary and a shrine? What would a mortician who carries out rituals inside a shrine in the premises of a mortuary be called?

Another aspect of the so-called mortuary worthy of interrogation is the manner of preserving and keeping corpses at the Funeral Home.

Some of the bodies in the home were sacked on an iron rack, dry like stock fish, with others standing against the wall, devoid of dignity. A pertinent question is: Which of us would be pleased to see our dead loved ones in entrusted to the care of St. Gabriel Funeral Home in the manner those in the photos and videos are kept?

A mild drama was also reported when a man who allegedly identified himself as Nappiar Osaro stormed the premises to claim the corpse of his late mother. Osaro was said to have disclosed that his mother died in 2021 and her remains was deposited at the morgue. He added that the morgue was as at then located at First East Circular before it was relocated to the present Asoro slope, Ekehuan road, Uzebu quarters, Benin City.

The police should do their job to authenticate the genuineness of the man’s claim.

EDOCSO in its investigation, denounced journalists who broke the news of the discovery, based on the police statement, describing it as a “false alarm and an attempt to paint the good people of Edo in bad light,” and “a case of who plays the piper dictates the tone.”

“This is a clarion call to members of the fourth estate of the realm who were expected to launch investigation into the issue by engaging the proprietor and the arrested workers to ascertain the true position before broadcasting and publication hook, line and sinker the position of the police. This falls below what is expected of investigative journalism and the doctrine of hearing the other side of a story. How the news hit the airspace would make one to believe it is a case of who plays the piper dictates the tone. The game needs to be stepped up,” the statement said.

But, what EDOCSO fail to understand is that this kind of story is called a developing story, which no serious media organisation can afford to miss. It is already in media space. You first break the news, then follow it up with investigation.

Yet, some will insist that even from the aforementioned, it will be valid to tag the proprietor of St. Gabriel Furneral Home, identified as Chukwu Otu, who have shrines where he carries out rituals, allegedly “as a spiritual protection for himself and the business”, a ritualist!

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