Nigeria: Going to work knowing that your government can't protect you


Women walk in Nyanya near the site of the two bomb attacks.


Erin Conway-Smith

ABUJA, Nigeria — On his first day back after the bombings, Titus Emeka Okwor sat patiently behind a row of re-purposed Coca-Cola bottles, filled with engine oil and ready for sale to passing motorists.

The last time he was here, Okwor ran for his life. The bombs blew out his hearing for two weeks. But with five children to provide for, he finally returned to his stall at the Nyanya bus depot on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, despite the terror after the two attacks here that killed nearly 100 people.

“This was my first time seeing such a thing since I was born,” said Okwor, 50. “It’s Boko Haram. They should wipe them away.”

Titus Emeka Okwor at his engine oil stand. (Erin Conway-Smith/Instagram)

Abuja is a planned capital, located in the middle of Nigeria — a “center of unity,” as the license plates say, between the country’s largely Muslim north and Christian south. It only became the Nigerian capital city in 1991, moving the seat of power away from the chaos and squalor of Lagos.

For Boko Haram, the same terrorist group behind the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in the country’s northeast, Abuja is a main target. And it has crucial political significance. The group says its ultimate goal is to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic state in its place.

Attacks on Nyanya in Abuja, such as the one Okwor experienced, are part of a widening campaign by Boko Haram outside their base in the country’s northeast. Last month five people died in an explosion on a busy street of bars in the city of Kano. Two days later, in Jos, 118 people were killed when two car bombs exploded at the Terminus market. And in the town of Mubi, near the border with Cameroon, at least 14 people were reported killed Sunday when a bomb exploded at a bar showing a soccer match on TV. All of these attacks bore the hallmarks of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram appears to be sending a message that it can strike almost anywhere, with recent violence targeting ordinary people going about their daily lives. The government, with its ineffective military response and lack of control over parts of the country, has failed to stop the terror and protect its people.

Nyanya was hit just ahead of last month’s World Economic Forum on Africa, at a time when Abuja was in the spotlight.

The first attack, witnessed by Okwor, happened on the morning of Monday, April 14, as commuters were scrambling into buses to get to work. Two bombs hidden in vehicles exploded amid the rush, killing at least 75 people and injuring hundreds more. In the second attack, two weeks later, a car bomb exploded at a roadside security checkpoint just a few hundred meters away, killing 19 people.

Abuja hadn’t been attacked since 2011, when a Christmas Day blast at a church killed 43 people. That same year, a suicide bomb killed 23 people at the United Nations building.

Daily life in the capital continues under increasingly tight security measures fueled by fears of Boko Haram. At entrances to the city, security checkpoints cause huge backups of traffic. Car trunks are checked before being allowed onto premises of most buildings. Visitors are scanned with wands and bags are searched.

But critics decry these measures as ineffective, and point to the second attack in Nyanya as a security failure — one that hasn’t been remedied, and could well mean tragedy will strike again.

Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, said that checkpoints and vehicle searches give a false sense of safety.

“You can’t search every vehicle. Counter insurgency, or the fight against terrorism, is dictated more by intelligence,” Nwankwo said.

“This country must invest in security, and security is not about soldiers with outdated guns on the street opening boots [trunks] of cars. It’s about intelligence — and that doesn’t exist.”

This same criticism, of a lack of military intelligence, has also been levied at efforts to rescue the kidnapped schoolgirls. While the Nigerian government has in the past been reluctant to accept outside help, the United States and other countries have lent intelligence and surveillance experts to help find the girls. The US military team, however, is based in nearby Chad, not in Nigeria.

After witnessing the bombings in Nyanya, Ibrahim Mohammed, 45, a driver, volunteered to help with neighborhood patrols to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Mohammed gave visitors an impromptu tour of one of the blast sites, turned from busy transit hub to an island of bare land guarded by soldiers lounging in chairs nearby. A huge crater from the first bomb is still visible, now filled with murky rainwater. The skeletons of burnt-out cars remain abandoned near the roadside.

“My house is near here, and I work here,” Mohammed said, recalling the day of the first attack. “I rushed to come and see what is happening. Immediately when I came here, I saw dead bodies everywhere.”

“It’s terrible,” he said. “I cried so much. I lost my brothers, I lost my friends.”

He feels that security forces — including the camouflage-dressed soldiers standing nearby — “are trying their best,” and insists that Abuja is safe now because “security is everywhere.”

But Mohammed admits: “I didn’t think this would happen, because Abuja felt quiet.”