In September 1996 the city of Owerri in south-eastern Nigeria erupted in riots over popular suspicion that the town's nouveaux riches were responsible for a spate of ritual murders allegedly committed in the pursuit of `fast wealth'. In addition to destroying the properties of the purported perpetrators, the rioters burned several pentecostal churches. This article examines the place of religion in the Owerri crisis, particularly the central position of pentecostal Christianity in popular interpretations of the riots. While pentecostalism itself fuelled local interpretations that `fast wealth' and inequality were the product of satanic rituals, popular rumours simultaneously accused some pentecostal churches of participating in the very occult practices that created instant prosperity and tremendous inequality. The analysis explores the complex and contradictory place of pentecostalism in the Owerri crisis, looking at the problematic relationship of pentecostalism to structures of inequality rooted in patron-clientism and focusing on the ways in which disparities in wealth and power in Nigeria are interpreted and negotiated through idioms of the supernatural.
In September 1996 the city of Owerri in south-eastern Nigeria erupted in riots over popular suspicions that the town's nouveaux riches were responsible for a spate of child kidnappings and alleged ritual murders. The weekend prior to the riots, a local television station broadcast pictures of a man holding the freshly severed head of a child. The video was accompanied by an announcement that the man with the head had been arrested the previous day. The police wanted to know the identity of the child and were asking for the public's assistance. The next day, the alleged murderer died in police custody. Rumours of his death spread quickly and the public suspected that he was deliberately silenced to prevent him from revealing elite involvement in the crime.
Two days later, the police dug up the headless body of the murdered child in the compound of Otokoto Hotel, where his alleged killer had worked. A crowd gathered as the police unearthed the child's headless corpse. After the police left the scene, the onlookers burned the hotel. The mob then moved to a nearby department store that catered to the rich and set it on fire. From there, the crowd grew still larger and moved across the city, burning many of Owerri's most select stores and hotels, focusing on businesses reputedly owned by the nouveaux riches.
The rioting and burning continued into the next day, sparked by the alleged discovery the next morning of a roasted human corpse at the residence of `Damaco', one of Owerri's young `millionaires'. In addition, word spread of the purported finding of human skulls and `human meat pepper soup' at the Overcomers Christian Mission, the pentecostal church where Damaco worshipped. Before the riots subsided and Nigeria's military government imposed a strict curfew, more than twenty-five buildings and dozens of vehicles had been torched. In addition to the high-class stores and hotels, and the houses of many of Owerri's young elite, the mob razed the Overcomers Christian Mission church, its pastor's residence, and a number of other pentecostal churches and religious houses in the town.
In retrospective popular accounts and in the explosion of press coverage that followed, the Owerri riots were portrayed as a religious cleansing. The destruction of property was widely viewed as a popular uprising against the connected evils of child kidnapping, ritual murder, and the attainment of illegitimate `fast wealth'. (1) The men whose properties were destroyed in the riots were thought to have achieved their prosperity using satanic rituals.
The Owerri riots and the symbolic power of ritual murder and satanic wealth must certainly be understood in the context of Nigeria's growing social and economic inequalities. …