Police investigating ritual killings in eastern Nigeria were searching for more human remains today after discovering body parts, skulls and more than 50 corpses, some partly mummified, in a forest.
Two religious leaders and 28 other people had been arrested in connection with a secretive local cult, which is feared and obeyed by people living near the wooded areas, including one dubbed by local press as “the evil forest”, police said.
Police spokesman Kolapo Shofoluwe said the search for more remains near the town of Okija could take days as the forest was extensive. Police had recovered about 20 skulls and more than 50 bodies.
The dead already found were all adults, and at least one body and four skulls appeared to be from people killed recently, Mr Shofoluwe said. All the bodies were found unburied in coffins, and at least three were headless.
Police believe some of the victims, including businessmen and civil servants, were poisoned. The cult, known as Alusi Okija, is thought to practise a ritual in which people involved in disputes, often over business deals, are exhorted to settle them by drinking a potion they are told will kill only the guilty.
Mr Shofoluwe said the potion itself was probably harmless, but that agents sent out by the priests would later secretly kill one of the parties, sometimes by poisoning their food.
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Rituals take place at wooden shrines in people’s living rooms, decorated with statues of gods and chalk drawings of skulls. Skulls were found in the shrines of some of those arrested, while others arrested were survivors of the rituals.
Several suspects had fled, and the police were “chasing after them”, state police commissioner Felix Ogbaudu said. A register had been found apparently containing the names of several victims, he added, without giving further details.
The ceremonial chief priest suspected of preparing potions for victims was not arrested because of his advanced age.
“He’s an old man. We don’t want him to die in police custody,” Mr Ogbaudu said.
A photograph taken by a local journalist showed more than a dozen shirtless suspects, surrounded by police, sitting huddled around a coffin containing a body and with several skulls nearby.
Alusi Okija takes its name from a local, oracle god and is an ancient sect of the area’s Igbo people. Police said the ritual of swallowing poisons to test guilt was believed to have been practised for more than 100 years.
The practice was originally intended to deter crime, but had become a way for priests and their collaborators to kill and defraud people, Mr Ogbaudu said.
The police spokesman, Mr Shofoluwe, described a typical scenario in which one man complains to the chief priests that another man has cheated him in business. Both parties are called to a shrine to resolve the dispute, and one of them dies of mysterious causes within a few days.
“The entire region has so much respect and fear for such calls or summons that they usually go there to defend it,” he said.
The community hands the body, money and property of the deceased to the priests, the spokesman said.
Investigators found the shrines after the national police inspector-general received a complaint from a man who “alleged that his life was being threatened by a group of persons” linked to the killings, Mr Shofoluwe said.
Reports of ritual murders regularly fill the pages of Nigerian newspapers. Three years ago, the issue came to international attention when the torso of an unidentified boy was found floating in the river Thames in London. British police believe the boy became a victim of a ritual killing after being brought to Britain from south-western Nigeria.
Some ritual killings in west Africa are carried out in the belief they provide wealth or success to a third party. Other rituals involve using body parts as traditional medicine. Such killings are widely abhorred and condemned by Africans.
“Naturally, as a human being I was shocked at the horrific sight in the forest and then wondered if such events can still happen in this 21st century, that people can still practise such barbaric acts,” said Mr Shofoluwe.