Nigerian bomb blasts; an insight

2010-10-07 11:09

Abuja - They seemed designed to kill: two car bomb blasts within minutes of one another, on a busy road near the area where the country's leaders and foreign dignitaries had gathered on independence day.

The attack on Friday, the first of its kind in the capital, left at least 12 people dead, and it may have also signaled a bloody campaign season ahead for Nigeria, where elections have so often been tainted by violence.

"The election campaign has started on a very violent note, and I don't see this stopping," said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, head of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.

Even in a country that has grown weary with violence, the scale and boldness of the attack were shocking. Celebrations marking 50 years of Nigerian independence were occurring a short walk away at Eagle Square.

The bombs went off along a road that leads to the square from the Hilton hotel, the haunt of both Nigerian and visiting politicians, though none were apparently in the immediate area at the time.

Witnesses said the first blast drew people towards it who were caught up in the second, raising questions over whether the bombers' strategy was to lure in as many victims as possible.

Small terrorist group

According to witnesses at Eagle Square, what appeared to be a third, smaller bomb blast went off at the venue itself, but authorities firmly deny this. The ceremonies continued uninterrupted.

"It shows what to expect during the 2011 elections," said Debo Adeniran, head of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders pressure group. "There will be a lot of confusion, violence."

Burnt-out cars still sat on the roadside on Wednesday. Windows remained shattered at a hotel across the street.

At the Hilton, tight security was in place, causing traffic jams along the road to the entrance. Security workers checked the trunks of cars and peered inside vehicles as they entered the hotel grounds.

The question of who was behind the attack has only grown more complicated in recent days.

A statement purported to be from Niger Delta militant group Mend warned of explosions about an hour before they occurred, and another claimed responsibility for the attack afterward.

But President Goodluck Jonathan, who is from the Niger Delta and faces pressure to keep a lid on unrest linked to the region, has implicated a "small terrorist group" from outside the country.

Form a coalition

Ex-Mend leader Henry Okah was arrested after the bombings in South Africa, where he has a home. Authorities said other suspects held in Nigeria were connected to Okah, but not Mend.

It all raises the question of how to define the militant group - the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

The group, which claims to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue in the impoverished Niger Delta, has been seen as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs.

It is also believed to have splintered over an amnesty offered by the government last year that has sharply reduced unrest in the Niger Delta.

"The idea of Mend is to form a coalition so that you don't narrow any strike to a particular group," said Nsirimovu, who has long specialised in Niger Delta issues.

"It is just an amorphous thing that all of them belong to. What is happening now gives you a clear impression of what Mend is all about."

Politics also threatens to play a more direct role in the blast investigation.

Timing of the bombings

Authorities have questioned Raymond Dokpesi, the head of an influential Nigerian media group and the campaign manager for ex-military ruler Ibrahim Babangida.

Babangida is viewed as Jonathan's most serious opponent for the ruling party's nomination for presidential elections early next year.

Thompson Ayodele, director of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, said he is not yet prepared to say a bloody campaign season lies ahead, but believes the bombings were related to the upcoming vote.

"The timing of the bombings shows that those who are behind it were trying to make a point to the federal government to say, 'Look, we still have the power'," he said.

Jonathan has repeatedly pledged fair elections, scheduled for January but likely to be postponed to April.

But rights activists despair that another electoral period will pass in Africa's most populous nation with too many deaths and not enough discussion of issues, including poverty and woeful infrastructure.

"You can't play politics with people's lives," said Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society for Justice Initiative. "It's like a contest between one camp and another, yet it's about a country."