LIVING WITH BOMB SCARE
Last week, workers in an office complex located at the Central Business District, Abuja took to their heels, practically knocking one another down after they heard what they thought was an explosion. Some even attempted to scale their balcony railings!
Hordes of hawkers and some vulcanisers hang around the complex, plying their trade; making the place a cacophonous area of sorts. But eventually, it turned out that an overzealous vulcaniser inflated a car tyre beyond the recommended limit and it burst - bang!
The workers and, surprisingly, some security personnel took the loud sound for a bomb explosion, the reason they sought cover. It was only when they did not hear any wailing or smoke billowing that it dawned on them that the cause of the anxiety was not a bomb blast.
Fear has become the lot of most Abuja residents lately. It is usual to see forlorn faces on streets, roads, parks, markets, bus stops, offices and worship centres. Everyone is suspicious of the next person. Bomb, bomb blast, bomb explosion, bomb attack; it's on everyone's lips.
The fear has heightened since the August 26 bomb attack on the UN House in the city, which claimed at least 23 lives and left many more wounded. Although earlier bomb attacks in Abuja had also claimed lives, the bombing of the UN House really shook the city, as the bomber successfully rammed a car-laden with explosives into a crowded public building.
Then, followed a massive panicky security beef up that has made Abuja look more like a war zone. It has been an uphill task gaining access to public buildings, 'A' list hotels and worship centres (yes, worship centres) in the city, owing to the bomb scare.
The trouble is more if you are driving a car. Before the UN building attack, cars were allowed into the premises of some agencies and parastatals after being screened with bomb detectors. Not anymore.
One of the most secured buildings seems to be the National Assembly, where vehicles are barred from driving into the complex. Based on the current security arrangement, only Senators, members of the House of Representatives, clerk to the National Assembly, deputy clerk, clerk to the Senate the House are allowed to drive past the second gate.
All members of staff, legislative aides and visitors to the National Assembly must park their cars outside the complex and walk a distance of over 400 metres to enter the first office. They have to go through four stages of screening; their bodies, bags thoroughly searched.
The National Assembly is estimated to have around 3, 000 workers on its payroll, excluding another 3, 000 or more legislative aides. Outside these figures, records at the Office of the Sergeant-At-Arms suggest that about N1, 500 visitors come to the legislative House a day, some lobbying for contracts, others seeking 'notes' from politicians.
A security source told this reporter in confidence that the security beef up became imperative because the National Assembly 'will naturally be an attraction for members of the Boko Haram sect; it is the type of place they will like to hit. Besides, there is a general alert to secure all public buildings in the city, especially places that receive high volume of human traffic daily.
'The suicide bomber, who attacked the UN House, drove in a car on top speed, ramming into the building after knocking down the gates. That was a lesson for us; now nobody can drive in here. So, the first and most potent challenge of loading a car with explosives has been taken care of.'
Speaking on the security beef up, the Sergeant-At-Arms, Col. Emeka Okere (retd), told this writer that the action was a response to the security situation of the day.
He said, 'We are just being proactive. We are all aware of what has been happening lately.'
At the Defence Headquarters, a similar scenario plays out. Stern-looking soldiers deny visitors access to the building. Entry to the place, according to official sources, is 'restricted to persons invited or (those who have) appointments with only senior officers.'
Ironically, churches and mosques are also not safe. Worshippers in Abuja seek protection from the police and other security agencies due to fear of attacks. Thus, every Sunday or Friday, policemen line the routes to churches and mosques, frisking worshipers.
A particular worship centre in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja, placed a ban on the use of hand bags by women on worship days.
The centre said in a statement, 'No woman should come in here with hand bags; in fact, nobody should enter this place with a bag. We are taking this measure because we don't know who is who; anybody can disguise in the name of coming to service.'
Another heavily guarded area is the Nigerian National Corporation building located in the central area of the city. A combined team of armed soldiers and riot policemen have been on guard there day and night for three months now. An Armoured Personnel Carrier is on standby, while three security vehicles regularly patrol the vicinity. This is in addition to NNPC's internal security personnel, who subject visitors to hours of screening with metal detectors at the gates.
The gates are lined with heavy concrete slabs, forcing any car approaching to slow down for checking. The organisation appears to have also learnt lessons from the attack on the UN House. The suicide bomber had driven at top speed on the access road to the building without any obstructions before successfully detonating the bomb.
A U-turn in front of the building along the Herbert Macaulay Way has been blocked with concrete slabs, cutting off vehicles from slowing down to turn in front of the corporation's towers.
Unfortunately, raising false alarms are also a frequent occurrence in Abuja, owing to the bomb scare. In the last two weeks, the Transcorp Hilton, an elite hotel, has reportedly been evacuated twice. Policemen in particular are so scared that many of them hide their uniforms in cellophane bags when leaving their houses.
As part of the response to the challenge, the Federal Government is installing CCTVs all over the city. Yet, the story is that of fear, fear everywhere. The bomb scare is suffocating.