In Nigeria capital, fear and soldiers fill streets

August 29, 2011 - 3:20 PM
Nigeria Explosion

A security guard pulls closed a barrier to bar everyone other than authorized United Nations personnel from approaching the gate to U.N. headquarters, as forensic investigations continued inside the damaged building, in Abuja, Nigeria Monday, Aug. 29, 2011. The death toll from a suicide car-bomb attack at the U.N.'s Nigeria headquarters has risen to 23, a U.N. spokesman said Sunday, making Friday's attack one of the deadliest attacks on the U.N. in a decade. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — After a series of bombings in Nigeria's capital, bars popular with the nation's elite now close by 10 p.m. Soldiers in flak jackets carrying assault rifles guard the oil-rich country's only Hilton. And every day, nervous citizens think twice about heading to market or into the street.

Abuja, Nigeria's modern city of paved highways and shining government buildings, now looks militarized as the nation struggles to cope with the bombings. The latest one, on Friday, killed 23 people at the headquarters of the United Nations.

Nigerians say they're losing faith in the ability of President Goodluck Jonathan's administration to stop the killings, especially those committed by the radical Muslim sect that claimed responsibility for the U.N. attack.

"Because of these bombings, one is afraid of entering places because you don't know what will happen in the next hour," Godwin Odgwu, 40, an accountant, said Monday. "Everybody is afraid. ... They have employed suicide bombings and when you are trying (to stop) somebody that's ready to die, how do you arrest him?"

Abuja, located in Nigeria's center, has appeared to be under constant construction since becoming the capital of Africa's most populous nation in 1991. New highways snake for miles (kilometers) outside of the capital, as red-clay construction sites for federal projects dot the city. Its order, near-constant electricity supply and parks serve as a stark contrast to the rest of the nation, where unemployment runs high and poverty strangles the masses in a country that's one of the top crude oil providers to the United States.

For years, Abuja served as an insulated bubble for politicians who control the billions of dollars that come from oil production. The country's presidential villa, Aso Rock, remains shielded from public view by its mountain namesake.

But that peace has been shaken in the last 10 months. At least 12 people were killed in a dual car bombing last year during celebrations for the nation's 50th independence anniversary. A militant group from the country's crude-producing southern delta claimed responsibility for that attack. On Dec. 31, a bombing at a popular beer garden housed at a military base killed at least four people. No group stepped forward to take responsibility. In June, a car bomb exploded at the federal police's national headquarters, killing at least two people. A radical Muslim group known locally as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for that bombing.

Jonathan visited the police headquarters after the bombing and said: "Security agencies are on top of the situation." The governing body for the capital ordered public parks to be closed at 6 p.m. and bars shut by 10 p.m. as police conducted more random searches and soldiers began guarding public buildings.

Those precautions failed to stop the suicide bomber who rammed through two sets of gates to reach the U.N. building's glass reception hall. There, the bomber detonated explosives powerful enough to bring down parts of the concrete structure and blow out glass windows from other buildings in the quiet Abuja neighborhood filled with diplomatic posts.

Boko Haram claimed that attack as well. The sect, which wants to implement a strict version of Shariah law in the nation, has reported links to African terror groups al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab of Somalia.

Again, Jonathan visited the blast site, promising journalists the nation would bring Boko Haram "under control." He did not elaborate.

Comments on Jonathan's official Facebook page quickly turned angry.

"Clueless, empty beatitudes as usual. Not even word on the progress of investigations on previous attacks; only empty promises. May the blood of the innocent Nigerians that you have sacrificed on the alter (sic) of your ambition rob you of sleep and rest," one comment read.

In private conversation, many say the same thing. Out on the street, under flashing billboards urging passers-by in the capital to "Stay Vigilant!", many feel less inclined to speak.

It may have something to do with Nigeria's State Security Service, the nation's secret police. An officer who showed his secret police identification card detained an Associated Press reporter and an AP Television News cameraman, who were conducting interviews on an Abuja street on Monday. He demanded to know what they were doing.

After an explanation, the officer took pictures of their identification cards with his mobile phone, then said they'd have to explain themselves to his superiors. A short time after a telephone conversation, he said that wouldn't be necessary. He shook hands with the journalists and sped away in a brand-new sedan painted to look like a taxi cab.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP