Prayers of peace turn to fear of attack in Nigeria

January 23, 2012 - 5:05 PM
Nigeria Violence

Muslim men pray for peace and for people who lost their lives during the recent attacks, at a mosque in Kano, Nigeria, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. The emir of Kano and the state's top politician offered prayers Monday along with local people for the more than 150 people who were killed in a coordinated series of attacks on Friday by the radical Islamist sect called Boko Haram which means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north.(AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

KANO, Nigeria (AP) — The aging Muslim spiritual leader of this northern Nigeria city, his eyes heavy with fatigue, leaned into a microphone Monday and whispered to God his wish for peace after the killing of at least 185 people in an attack by the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram.

On the streets, however, smudged black graffiti written in charcoal gave a different message: "Boko Haram good."

Though businesses reopened and traffic again filled the streets Monday of Nigeria's second-largest city, people in Kano remained fearful that the radical sect will attack again. That tension only increased as police announced they had discovered 10 unexploded car bombs around the city and as uniformed officers and soldiers melted away from public view in this city of more than 9 million people.

"We are not safe at all," warned resident Aminu Garba, 38. "We are not safe."

Police issued a statement late Monday giving a fuller account of what happened during Friday's attack that saw at least two Boko Haram suicide bombers detonate explosive-laden cars. The statement by state police commissioner Ibrahim Idris described attackers as speaking accented Hausa and other languages not normally heard in Kano as they assaulted police stations, immigration offices and the local headquarters of Nigeria's secret police.

The attack killed 150 civilians, 29 police officers, three secret police officers, two immigration officers and one customs official, Idris said, rising the toll to 185 dead. Medical workers and emergency officials say they still expect the death toll to rise.

Officers also have discovered 10 car bombs in the city, as well as about 300 bombs made from aluminum cans and other explosives, Idris said.

On Monday, Emir of Kano Ado Bayero and Kano state Gov. Rabiu Kwankwaso sat together at the front of a mosque typically full of worshippers during Friday prayers in this dusty, sprawling city. However, the special service to commemorate the dead and ask God for peace and justice drew much smaller crowds than usual, with half of the prayer mats unoccupied.

"I call on people from all groups to pray for this place," Bayero said.

Meanwhile, secret police officers stood guard outside with assault rifles.

Bayero is one of the premier rulers of the emirates of Nigeria, a system of governance that dates back to the 1800s and still carries spiritual importance to Muslims. British colonialists used the emirates to rule the north by proxy until Nigeria gained its independence in 1960. Many believe Nigeria's corrupt politicians now do the same, as the vast majority of those living in the north deal with crushing poverty in a nation where most earn less than $2 a day.

The influence of traditional leaders in Nigeria has waned in recent years and the 81-year-old emir himself showed his age as he walked slowly away from the mosque, leaning heavily on his cane.

Such leaders previously promised to intercede for the government to stop the increasingly violent sectarian attacks of Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language. However, a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable claims that Nigeria's government in 2008 released suspected Islamist extremists to such leaders as part of a parole program.

Around that same time, Nigerian authorities released a Boko Haram member now suspected of helping organize the August suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in the capital, Abuja, that killed 25 people.

Friday's coordinated attack in Kano represents Boko Haram's deadliest assault since beginning a campaign of terror last year. Boko Haram has now killed 262 people in 2012, more than half of the 510 people the sect killed in all of 2011, according to an Associated Press count.

Nigeria's weak central government has been unable to stop the killings, and its heavy-handed military response has been criticized by civilians who live in fear of sect attacks and government reprisals.

Security forces on Sunday shot dead four people they accused of being Boko Haram members after finding explosive-making materials in their car in the sect's spiritual home of Maiduguri, said Col. Victor Ebhaleme, a military field operation officer in the northeastern city. Local police said at the same time on Sunday that a suspected sect member killed a Maiduguri High Court registrar at his home.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that U.S. officials are discussing how to support Nigeria's counterterrorism efforts, including cutting funding for Boko Haram.

"We are obviously extremely concerned and it was a really horrific spate of bombings over the weekend," Nuland said.

Boko Haram wants to implement strict Shariah law and avenge the deaths of Muslims in communal violence across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people split largely into a Christian south and Muslim north.

While the sect has begun targeting Christians in the north, the majority of those killed Friday appeared to be Muslim, officials said. That leaves Kano residents like Garba, who stood outside the mosque following Monday's prayer service, living in fear.

In the middle of the sect's attack Friday, Garba said his pregnant wife suffered a miscarriage. Now people run at the sound of a tire bursting, he said.

Heavily armed soldiers who stood guard during the president's visit Sunday disappeared from Kano's streets shortly after he left the city. Police officers also have moved largely from their bombed stations to the city's outskirts.

"People have this anger because of the poverty and the illiteracy," Garba said. We "have to be very cautious."

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Associated Press writers Salisu Rabiu and Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria; Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria; and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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