LAGOS, Nigeria — Militants struck near the heart of the Nigerian state early Monday, bombing a bus station in the capital, Abuja, just miles from the seat of government in one of the worst attacks in years in the country’s struggle with insurgents.
By ADAM NOSSITER, 14 APRIL 2014, New York Times
At least 71 people were killed in a blast that ripped through dozens of vans and coaches, leaving a grim spectacle of dead and wounded. Top Nigerian officials, whose offices are a short distance away, immediately attributed the bombing to the Islamist group they have been battling for years, Boko Haram.
If that turns out to be the case — and the group itself rarely acknowledges its actions — Monday’s bombing would represent a significant amplification of Boko Haram’s bloody campaign to undermine the Nigerian state. Over the last two years, it has largely confined its attacks to remote areas of the country’s northeast, killing scores of civilians in the region’s towns and villages. On Sunday, more than 60 people were killed in an assault by the group near the border with Cameroon.
As deadly as those attacks have been, officials in Abuja categorized them as, at most, an indirect threat to the rest of the country, occurring far away from the seat of government. But with a strike near Nigeria’s power center, not far from government buildings, the Parliament and the country’s presidency, the group could be reasserting its willingness to destabilize state institutions directly.
Militants have struck the capital before. At least 12 people were killed by car bombs at a ceremony in Abuja in 2010, near where the president and other politicians and diplomats were celebrating the country’s independence from Britain in 1960. A separate Nigerian group linked to discontent over poverty in the country’s oil-producing region claimed responsibility.
Less than a year later, in August 2011, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle packed with explosives into the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, destroying several floors in a thunderous blast that left more than 20 people dead. Boko Haram was widely blamed for the blast.
Then a series of Christmas bombings in 2011 killed at least 25 people, with the worst attack taking place at a Roman Catholic church in a suburb of the capital, ripping through a crowd of worshipers as they left morning Mass.
Since then, there has been a relentless drumbeat of attacks on civilians attributed to Boko Haram, but mostly in remote provinces. In May of last year, the government announced a major military offensive to wipe out the group.
Despite frequent government claims of victory against the group, the killings have continued, with bombings, shootings and nighttime massacres of students at state schools, one of Boko Haram’s preferred targets. The army also has been implicated in large-scale massacres in its own brutal eradication campaign.
Nigerian commentators and civil society activists seized on Monday’s blast as evidence that the country’s security services were not in control of the uprising.
“With all the security checkpoints in the capital, the government has said they have killed Boko Haram,” said Auwalu Musa Rafsanjani, director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center in Abuja. “How come Boko Haram is now coming close, in the capital, Abuja?” Mr. Rafsanjani asked. “They are not protecting civilians with the seriousness required.”
Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy. With its eagerness to conduct large-scale attacks on civilians, it has lost whatever shred of sympathy it might have had in a population that has its share of frustration with largely ineffectual, and often corrupt, Nigerian authorities.
The bus station bombing is the second such attack in the capital in less than a month. In March, the heavily defended State Security Service headquarters was attacked in an action that was attributed to Boko Haram. Some Boko Haram suspects are detained at the headquarters. A gun battle lasting three hours, and heard by many right in the heart of town on an otherwise quiet Sunday, left about 20 prisoners dead.
Blast Kills Dozens in Nigeria
Monday’s blast occurred around 6:30 a.m. as the bus station, in the working-class neighborhood of Nyanya, five miles southwest of the center, was packed with commuters. Abuja, too expensive for working Nigerians, is a daily magnet for thousands of workers who come in from outlying areas.
The police said they suspected that the blast came from a bomb planted in a Volkswagen Golf that was driven into the station and then detonated. Afterward, witnesses spoke of bodies mangled beyond recognition, charred vehicles and strewn body parts collected by emergency workers.
A bus driver, Dalhatu Garba, said the bomb exploded when buses were already full of commuters. “We just heard a loud explosion, and many people died instantly,” he said. “Many people were scattered into pieces.”
A bus conductor who gave his name as Thomas said: “The explosion threw people around. Before we all knew it, several people were dead.”
When Red Cross workers arrived, the group’s communications director, Nwapa O. Nwapa, said: “We saw the dead, some burned, some seriously injured. They couldn’t even shout for help.”
Nigerian television showed images of rows of charred, bombed-out cars and buses after the blast, which left a large crater in the ground. Bloodstained shreds of clothing lay on the ground. Some of the buses had been burned to their frames.
* Musikilu Mojeed contributed reporting from Abuja, Nigeria. A version of this article appears in print on April 15, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Nigeria Blast Kills Dozens as Militants Hit Capital