By Joel Olatunde Agoi

Okija, Nigeria - Two weeks after a police squad raided a group of fetish shrines in the dense jungle of southern Nigeria, dozens of partially decomposed bodies still littered the groves of Okija's "evil forest".

Open wooden coffins lay abandoned in the dense undergrowth as spooked cops continued an investigation which has scandalised Nigeria and prompted a bout of national soul-searching over the persistence of traditional African belief.

"It is fearful and dreadful. Ordinary mortals avoid the vicinity of the shrines like a ghost," said 25-year-old Austine Ogbuche, one of a courageous group of villagers who followed Nigeria's police chief into the woods.

"It is only the government and its agents that can dislodge the shrines. Nobody can dare the gods," he said, as Inspector General Tafa Balogun and a heavily-armed squad of officers set off into Ogugwu Akpu's dreaded groves.

Despite the protection of their body armour and assault rifles, the investigators were visibly disturbed by the sights that awaited them as they pushed a kilometre (half a mile) into the woods.

Voices dropped to whispers.

"I cannot believe my eyes. That this barbarism is still possible in Nigeria of today, it is simply unpardonable," one officer muttered as the first of more than 50 bodies began to appear alongside the forest trails.

"This is stranger than fiction," agreed police spokesman Chris Olapke, while some of the curious villagers and one or two the huge team of journalists who joined the party began to think better about heading further into the gloom.

"I have seen enough. I don't think I can go further from here. That body is not more than one month old. You can see it is still decomposing," one reporter said, pointing at a neatly-wrapped corpse in a golden coffin.

The remote village of Okija, isolated by thick forests and poor roads from the bustling commercial cities of Anambra State, shot into Nigeria's troubled national consciousness on August 3 when police descended on its shrines.

Following a tip-off from a disillusioned cult member, the officers raided the Okija forest and uncovered three main shrines and dozens of smaller sites dotted fetish objects and statues to traditional local gods.

Among the muddy trails they discovered a cache of around 20 skulls along with more than 80 bodies in varying states of decomposition.

More than 30 people have so far been detained and more arrests have been promised following the discovery of registers of the membership of the three Ogugwu shrines. Balogun has promised a nationwide crackdown on ritual magic.

So far, however, it is an investigation that has raised more questions than answers. The police say they are investigating alleged ritual murders, while the shrine's priests insist that ancient gods killed the people in the woods.

The villagers who followed Balogun to the shrine on Wednesday said they oppose the practices of the shrines, but the ritual sites cover a huge area a short distance from habitation, and have clearly been in use for some time.

And although the vast majority of Nigeria's 130 million people would say they belong to mainstream churches or mosques, the dispute triggered by the discovery of the Okija groves has shown how far traditional belief persists.

What seems to be agreed upon by witnesses, investigators and the detainees themselves is that members of southern Nigeria's Igbo ethnic group, some of them wealthy and influential figures, came to the shrines from far and wide.

There they underwent rituals to settle business disputes, swearing oaths to local gods to prove their honesty.

"We don't kill. The deity kills. We settle disputes between parties. But the shrine will kill the guilty if he swears falsely," insisted the chief priest at one of the shrines, the elderly Orjiewulu Okolie.

But, locals said, the wealthy collection of well-built houses a short distance away from the Ogugwu Akpu shrine sheds light on the true powers lying behind the cult's success; the god of money.

"We preached against this practice for many years. They would not listen because they keep on deceiving and ripping off the people in the name of tradition and customs," said the area's Christian bishop, Samuel Ita-daga.

Local politician Bridget Obi agreed: "The deity has been abused and bastardised to enrich some criminals."