For many Nigerians in Diaspora, returning to the country to visit their families and friends is far from being an easy decision. There is the initial hesitation that arises from a deep-rooted fear of the unknown.
The thought of travelling by road from Lagos, Abuja, Kano or Port-Harcourt – where the major international airports are located – to the hinterland, no matter how excited the returnee may be, is usually an uncomfortable one. More often than not, they have to decide whether to request escorts to reduce the risk of possible attacks by bandits, or not. Either way, the returnee is likely to feel like a man standing between the devil and the deep blue sea.
This was the situation 55-year-old Rev. Fr. Aloysius Ezeonyeka, who resides in Los Angeles, US, found himself on December 29, 2020, when he had to visit Nigeria to see his loved ones after spending some years overseas.
Ezeonyeka was moved to tears as he recalled the moment when he had to make the tough decision to keep driving the car he picked up from a friend at a Dominican community in Lagos, despite having bullets pelted into his stomach from armed bandits along the Lagos-Benin expressway.
It was a very harrowing and truly testing moment, one that also awakened his spiritual side.
Initially, he thought the sharp noise he heard was just a pebble propelled loudly from one of his tyres. But in a split second, the origin of that sound was unmistakable. His windscreen shattered as bullets passed by his side, fired by two men hiding in roadside bushes directly in front of him.
Admitting that it was one of the toughest decisions he ever made in his life, in an interview, he said, “I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t have any time to be afraid.”
He had travelled this road many times as a Benedictine of Ewu Monastery, and he had heard it was now a dangerous stretch of land because of bandits. But he never expected that he would be on the receiving end of violent gunfire.
Although unscathed after the first volley of bullets, he knew that the assailants’ intention was to kill him.
“You might as well at least try a little bit to give them a run for their money,” thought Ezeonyeka.
In that desperate moment, he found himself faced with three options: he could take the lane further from the shooters, but that would allow more time for them to shoot at him. Or he could take the lane closer to the bush in which they hid, but that would just make his car a closer shot. The third option was to drive towards his attackers.
Making a life-or-death decision, he pressed himself under the steering column, taking meagre cover under the dashboard as he slammed on the car throttle.
The assailants ran into the bush to avoid his car and unleashed another barrage. Rounds lodged in a front tyre and around the engine and painfully into Ezeonyeka’s stomach.
“There’s no way you can have that amount of bullets without being hit. I’m just surprised I was only hit once. I didn’t stop”, he narrated.
“I held the wound as much as I could to keep blood from flowing, but it was practically impossible to do that. I did that the best I could”.
As soon as he was out of range and out of danger, Ezeonyeka knew he would have to pull over before he passed out. At last, he spotted a makeshift truck stop.
“As soon as I said, ‘This is where I need to stop,’ the engine died,” the priest recalled.
He stepped out of the mangled car and then collapsed. But there was no help.
The trucks he had seen were broken down. Sympathetic people gathered as he lay on the ground, bleeding, for almost an hour.
“They didn’t know what to do. They had no vehicle. There was no help coming. I kept praying in my heart,” he said.
At around 6 pm, an 11-year-old boy, identified as God-is-Great, approached. Then, the child ran to his father, who owned a cargo van, shouting that a man was dying and needed help.
The father, a policeman known as SunnyMopol, fetched his gun because they would have to pass the site of the ambush to reach the nearest clinic. He told his little son to drive, while he literally rode a shotgun.
With God-is-Great at the wheel, the bandits again emerged from the bush, but Sunny was ready.
“He started shooting his gun in the air. The bandits thought it was the police and they ran,” Ezeonyeka said.
A young man named Chidiebere, who had joined them, sat in the back of the cargo van with Ezeonyeka and prayed in Igbo. Interspersed in these prayers were appeals for the priest to also pray out loud and to not close his eyes.
“Any time I would try to give up, he would say, ‘No, no, no, Father, you’ll make it.”
Together, they arrived at the first clinic, at 6:30 pm. But the clinic had no medical supplies to handle his case. The hospital staff murmured at the priest’s volatile condition.
“‘ Don’t worry about that man, he’s not going to make it. He’s going to die anyway’, so just look at other ones. I could hear them telling the doctor to attend to other patients, that there was no way this man could make it,” Ezeonyeka said.
“I was ready. I had peace with it and told Him (God) that I am really grateful to Him for the amazing life He has given to me. I told Him I was sorry for everything I had done wrong. I handed over my spirit. I was actually a bit curious to see the final act of human dying. I was waiting for it, curious to see how it would happen. It didn’t”.
After two hours at the clinic, he was loaded into an ambulance for the trip to the University of Benin City Teaching Hospital.
He arrived around 10 p.m. Most of the doctors, including all surgeons, had gone home to spend New Year’s Eve with their families. The staff on hand doubted anyone could save him.
As soon as the local media in Edo got wind of the news, the communications staff of the Catholic Archdiocese of Benin prevailed on journalists not to publish the story until Ezeonyeka was safe. That was when a network of Nigerian priests went into overdrive.
When Ezeonyeka’s friends were notified of his plight, they started calling everyone they thought might help, including the Catholic Archbishop of Benin, His Grace Most Revd. Augustine Akubeze, and professors at UNIBEN to which the hospital was connected.
A surgeon returned and determined that a whole team of surgeons would be needed to try to save him. He had lost so much blood that they had to obtain more before proceeding. The five-hour operation began around midnight.
“A few of the doctors felt it was too late, but one or two said they didn’t care, that they were going to go through with the surgery. From then on, it was just an unbelievable array of goodness,” Ezeonyeka said.
The priest’s brother, Titus, drove three hours from the village to the hospital and collected his brother’s things from SunnyMopol.
“Listen. I love you, take care of everyone else. I will see you again,” Ezeonyeka told Titus before being ushered into surgery right around midnight, New Year’s Eve.
After five hours of unconsciousness, a gentle slapping on his face stirred him, and his eyelids flicked open to a hospital room filled with people clapping and cheering.
“Father, Happy New Year. Welcome to 2021.” Joy flooded the faces of the weary doctors, nurses, friends, and family who surrounded his bed.
The news of the New Year was not the only surprise awaiting his waking moments. A few days before he left Los Angeles, an old friend had also faced a harrowing ordeal in Owerri. Moses Chikwe, once a fellow Nigerian student priest from Ezeonyeka’s early days in LA (2002), and now an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Owerri, had been kidnapped.
The day after Ezeonyeka was shot, Chikwe was freed, reportedly without ransom. Ezeonyeka would also learn that a Nigerian from California, who had also gone home to Nigeria for holidays, was kidnapped and then murdered, even though his family had paid a ransom.
“There’s no way you can survive six, seven hours without medication while losing so much blood. That was almost impossibility. They said at that clinic there was no way else I was going to survive. The doctors at the hospital said it was not going to work. I think it was purely providential,” the priest, who has eventually healed and returned to his parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in America, said.
Ezeonyeka also said he remained grateful for the experience, stressing that it has brought him closer to God and changed his views on life.
“This is the way I read my own life: God prevented my death because he believed I was not ready. I was not ready for eternity. I was not ready for Heaven. I needed more work for sanctification. I needed to be alive for him to sanctify me and purify me and help me to be ready,” he said.
The priest further expressed gratitude for the doctors, and to the nurses, who placed his bed in a spot where they could constantly monitor him. He was also grateful to the young man who prayed at his side during the frantic search for medical help, urging him to hang on.
He admitted being moved by the love of fellow priests who called powerful people late on a holiday night to get him the medical care necessary to save his life.
As for the bandits who attacked and shot him, he said: “I did pray for these criminals, that God would touch their hearts and change them.”