Fr. Isaac Abba is no stranger to tragedy.
On Jan. 15, 2023, the world took notice when his uncle, Fr. Isaac Achi, was killed by terrorists in his Nigerian parish rectory, with his body burnt beyond recognition.
But the headlines didn’t capture that two weeks before — on Dec. 29, 2022 — Fr. Isaac Achi’s nephew, Oliver Abba was killed by the same terrorists, while he helped his father escape from attackers.
In a span of two weeks, Fr. Isaac Abba lost his brother Oliver, and then his uncle.
And shortly thereafter, Fr. Abba’s father died, as he mourned both a brother and son who were killed by terrorists.
Fr. Isaac Abba, ordained a priest of the Diocese of Minna in 2018, is now working in parish ministry in the Archdiocese of Glasgow, Scotland. He talked with The Pillar recently about his experience, his fears and his expectations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fr. Abba, you are named after your uncle, Fr. Isaac Achi, who was killed by terrorists last year. Were you close? How did you learn about his death?
Fr. Achi is my uncle — he inspired my journey to the priesthood. That's why I took his name as my own. We are family, so under normal situations, we should be close.
Meanwhile, my father calls me John. He named me after Cardinal John Onaiyekan. But when I was baptized, I wanted to take up the name of my uncle Isaac. So, I took the name after him since he was also a priest like John Cardinal Onaiyekan.
On how he met his untimely death: In the early hours of Jan. 15, this year, around 1:33 a.m. I got a call that the priest's residence [where he lived] was under attack.
I became restless and worried, while I was praying that [the news] would just be a mere hearsay.
But by 3:00 a.m., I got another call, and I learned that the priest rectory was set ablaze and Fr. Achi was burnt beyond recognition.
It was Sunday. Despite all this, I had to gather momentum to celebrate the Sunday Mass as if nothing happened.
Your brother Oliver was killed in late December, 2022. How did you learn about his death?
It was terrible and unbelievable.
The day before he was killed, I was at home, and we spoke at length since he had just concluded his compulsory National Youth Service Corps, and had indicated interest to join the Nigerian Army.
But because of how difficult it is to get a job in Nigeria, he had also applied to a bank, hoping that whichever came through first, he would go for it.
On Dec. 29, 2022, while he was returning from the hospital with my sick dad, they ran into gunmen who had taken over the road.
He tried to escape with my sick dad, but it proved abortive.
To cut the long story short, he was shot in the process.
Oliver probably would not have died if he had received medical care when he was taken to the hospital, but no one attended to him —- at both the private and government hospitals.
The hospital staff were scared that if the bandits knew where those they had attacked were being treated, they would go after them.
He had to be taken to the state capital,Minna, which is about 1hr 30mins drive — unfortunately, he died on the way.
Your uncle, Fr. Isaac Achi, survived several attacks on his life. Can you tell us about them?
Fr. Achi served in different parishes and under different capacities in the Diocese of Minna.
I recall an incident he narrated while at St. Clement’s Kuta, in the Niger state.
Some armed robbers invaded the parish house. He escaped through the ceiling. That happened around 2002.
He was then posted to St. Theresa's Madalla, Niger state. Several incidents happened there, but one that shook the country occurred precisely in 2011 – the famous Christmas day bombing in Madalla, Nigeria. Fr. Achi survived the attack that killed scores and injured many.
Within the same period of the bombing incident, he was kidnapped before he regained freedom. After that, he almost lost his life when he was shot multiple times by armed robbers while visiting a family in his parish that God blessed with a child after many years of childlessness.
There are several other heart-wrenching incidents that Fr. Achi passed through, but I only mentioned these few because of their severity.
How deep is the divide between Christians and Muslims in the Kafin-Koro community where your uncle was killed? How did your uncle come across in that community?
The Christian/Muslim difference is not really obvious, but it's something we are all conscious of since religion is a major problem in Nigeria.
Fr. Isaac Achi was a man for all, since Kaffin-Koro is his home. He believed that what is good for one is good for all. His relationship with Christians and Muslims was cordial. He was the Christian Association of Nigeria coordinator of the county - as a principle, he has always fostered unity among the people, regardless of their religious and political affiliations.
You lost both your uncle and brother in similar circumstances. Do you think the attacks against them were religiously motivated?
It was [Kenyan philosopher] John Mbiti who said that Africans are “notoriously religious.”
As such, there is a tendency for whatever people do to have religious undertones.
While many people feel it was politically manipulated since Fr. Achi was the voice of the people, there are those who feel the attack was perpetrated because of sheer criminality.
Still, there are others who think that it was [especially] brutal because of his identity as a priest.
All I know is that the government, which has the responsibility to protect our lives and property, failed to stop this and to also fish out the perpetrators.
Governments at the state and federal levels need to explain to the public what happened.
After Fr. Achi died, a police station was burned by young people who were angry over his death, and angry about the slow response time of police to the attack on his rectory. Was he regarded as close to young people? Was he thought of as a ‘man of the people?’
Fr. Achi was born in that community; he began his primary education in that same community - his call to the priesthood began in the same community.
In fact, he is the first priest from the Koro tribe and I am the second from that community.
Definitely, he is a man of the people; he has this charisma of identifying with everyone, irrespective of tribe, religion, education and political background.
How has your family fared after this violence? Your dad saw how your brother Oliver was killed. Fr. Achi’s mother is quite elderly. Have they received any psychological support from the community?
We have a belief that children receive succor from their parents in times of trouble, and no matter what, a child's blood should not be shed in his home.
No one should be happy with such a horrible act.
My dad didn't receive any form of help to recover from the trauma, since the constant attacks were also another [form of] trauma,
I know how we tried to give him relief, but it wasn't possible with the constant attacks in the community which triggered a lot.
It wasn't long [after the attacks] that my father also passed away. He was sick, but also, he couldn't stand the shock of the death of his son and his brother.
Fr. Achi's mother is still alive though blind.
Within four months we lost three people in our family.
How did Fr. Achi influence your vocation to priesthood?
Fr. Achi really inspired my vocation into the priesthood.
His presence in the family and his regular visits to the house, with his immaculate cassock, motivated me greatly.
I wanted to apply to the Abuja archdiocese, but he told me to remain in Minna since that's where I was born.
His words were “we do not have enough priests back here at home, your services will be needed.”
He was, in fact, the one who guided me on how to write my application letter to seek admission into the seminary.
What will be his legacy?
Shortly before his death, I got a call that Fr. Achi had escaped.
That was because even at the point of death, he was still calling out to people, his neighbors especially, to check if they were safe.
None of us knew that he was calling from his pains, and from a house that had become a furnace.
His care for human life and dignity even at the pain of death — the care he had for his flock was exemplary.
Before he died, Fr. Achi heard the confession of his parochial vicar, and then asked for confession himself? What strikes you about that?
This shows that he believed in what he was teaching and practicing.
That alone is evidence of the faith he has in the sacraments of the Church.
In all of this, what struck my heart was the fact that he didn’t abscond his duty post even when danger came — he fought gallantly until death.
As for my brother Oliver, he also died while struggling to save our father.
They were both selfless, even in death, and these actions are worthy of emulation.
How have you coped with your loss?
Losing three people in my family within four months is not an easy thing to cope with. Oliver and I were very close, and he had high dreams — he was not shaken by the porous nature of things around us; he was my brother and friend.
As a matter of fact, he was always there and ready to help me whenever I needed assistance. He did a lot to assist me perform my priestly duty well — now he's gone, how that made me feel, only I can tell.
Fr. Achi, on the other hand, was a guide — he was someone I could call at any time for guidance during my studies in the seminary and even as a fellow priest.
He was a father and brother to me by virtue of our priesthood. Now he's no more — that still hurts me.
As for my dad, he was a pillar that I leaned on for every support. Although he was a disciplinarian who did not bend rules, nonetheless, he never took our needs for granted. These deaths occurred at a time when he was sick, but these incidents aggravated everything.
Now that they are no more, apart from the grace of God, it has seriously not been easy.
How can the tide of Christian persecution in Nigeria be stopped? What needs to be done?
To stem the persecution in Nigeria, Bishop Kukah is doing a lot. The Catholic bishops’ conference is vocal.
However, we need more vibrant voices.
Let's engage in more dialogue and mean it. Children should also be taught what is right to avoid growing with toxic minds about religion.