ABUJA BOMB BLASTS AND THE PAINS OF AN INSECURE NATION
The celebration of Nigeria’s 50th anniversary coincided with a series of crises- all of which indicated aspects of the failure of governance and a wake-up call these should be, to the effect that there is so much still to be done to transform the country, to make living in Nigeria more meaningful, and to rescue the country from the brink. Everyone who protested a few days to October 1, that Nigeria is a failed state or a nation in crisis would seem to have been vindicated as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) allegedly successfully disrupted the Golden Jubilee celebrations in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. The morning after, the headline was not about the celebration at Eagle Square, not about the Nigerians who were honoured by the state, not about the President’s speech, or the country’s preparedness for the future, rather the headlines were focused on the explosions that marred the golden jubilee celebrations.
Thus, if all the money that was voted for the golden jubilee (about N16 billion) was meant to be used to highlight Nigerian glory and sell Nigeria to the world, all that has been wasted in symbolic terms. For, on the day of Nigeria’s golden jubilee, the biggest news on CNN and other media was the crisis of insecurity in Nigeria. This was very bad publicity for the country; it was a terrible advertisement of how insecure the country is. Security is an important aspect of nation-building. It is one of the original purposes of government to secure the people and guarantee human dignity and other freedoms, for it is only within the context of security that the individual components of a country can best express themselves and fulfill their potentials in accordance with articulated national objectives.
This is an area in which the Nigerian authorities have consistently failed the people even when security is taken in an expanded sense beyond physical protection of lives and property. The bomb blast in Abuja on October 1 has had the Presidency vowing to deal with the dissidents who brought shame to Nigeria on the day of its 50th independence anniversary. The question to ask the authorities is: how exactly do they intend to deal with the insurgents? Nigeria has found itself at a point whereby insurgents seem to wield greater authority than the state. They strike at will, wherever and whenever they wish, confident that the state can only bark, and lacks the capacity to bring them to book. For more than a decade, the security agencies have proved incapable of resolving many cases of murder, including the murder of prominent Nigerians; criminal elements have proven to be better equipped and more determined than the state.
The circumstances leading to and after the Abuja bomb blast are worth reviewing to show how strikingly this is a comment on the incompetence of Nigeria’s security agencies and the vulnerability of the state. There are insurgents in many other countries of the world; Nigeria certainly is not the first country where bombs will be exploded by criminals, but where there have been such challenges, they have been met with an organized response particularly in the event of early warning signs, and where the state failed once or twice, this usually led to a review of the country’s security system, which is what we had asked for immediately after President Goodluck Jonathan changed his service chiefs, to wit, that what Nigeria needs is not a mere change of guards but a more far-reaching review of the country’s security status. At the parade grounds on October 1, the country’s military and paramilitary forces had tried to advertise Nigeria’s state of preparedness. But the message from the insurgents who detonated bombs around Abuja proved more instructive.
Reports of the incident indicate that by Thursday, September 30, MEND had issued a warning alerting the Nigerian authorities of its intention to detonate some bombs to show its displeasure with the proposed golden jubilee jamboree. Before the bombs went off, the insurgents again issued an alert advising members of the public to leave the parade grounds. They also gave hints of the location of the bombs: parked vehicles and trash bins. And as has always been the case, the Nigerian state was caught napping, the Boko Haram notice being the clearest example in this regard. The MEND statement asked people to evacuate the Eagle Square within thirty minutes, with a declaration: "This warning expires after 10.30 hrs." The first explosion occurred at 11. 10 am. The audacity with which rebel groups inform the state of their action, including time and methods and they still proceed as scheduled, succeed and disappear into thin air is scary; it shows utter contempt for the state. In MEND’s case, it not only claimed responsibility, it also stated that it succeeded in detonating three bombs and not two as has been claimed. It is not only MEND that has been so impudent in recent times. The Boko Haram in attacking the Bauchi prison to free some of their members, also similarly served notice of their intention, the timing of their action and the target. They arrived an hour late, but the target as pre-announced was the Bauchi prison where after overwhelming the authorities, they freed over 700 prisoners; and subsequently they disappeared into thin air, leaving many casualties behind. As in almost every case the state was unable to deal with the situation. It was the same effrontery that was demonstrated in Abuja on October 1.
Obviously, the MEND if it was truly the mastermind of the bomb explosions, wanted to make a strong statement and it did. The clear message is that the Federal Government’s so-called amnesty programme in the Niger Delta is not working. Even if it is, the message is that it is not all the forces in the Niger Delta that have been pacified. MEND is a Niger Delta construction, or to be polite, structure. With the same MEND purportedly now embarrassing Nigeria on a day when a Niger Deltan, a man who could well have ended up as a member of MEND if circumstances had worked out differently was in the saddle as Nigeria’s Commander in Chief, we were told that Goodluck Jonathan is not in control of his own political zone. This political undertone of the MEND strike should be carefully underlined, in addition to the declaration that the Niger Delta crisis remains unresolved.
Why should Jonathan seek to be Nigeria’s President if he cannot control his own kinsmen? There has been no other time in Nigerian history that anyone detonated bombs to disrupt independence anniversary celebrations. It is usually taken to be a solemn day for reflection, but on Friday, Jonathan’s kinsmen reversed the poet’s wisdom (Femi Osofisan’s) and made the claim that birthdays are also for dying. It is not only the sixteen dead or the many more injured who have been disappointed, younger Nigerians are likely to remember the occasion of Nigeria’s golden jubilee as the day when the blood of innocent persons watered the flower-bed of Nigeria’s freedom.
In matters such as this, the line of interpretation that suggests itself readily on the basis of immediate facts may not necessarily represent the truth. The state authorities in investigating the incident must bear this in mind. Was MEND acting truly in pursuit of its own cause? Or was it claiming responsibility as an agent for some other hidden rogue elements? Why would MEND, a Niger Delta organization seek to embarrass Nigeria on a day when a Niger Deltan is playing a historically significant role? In pursuing this, special attention should be paid to the alleged claim by MEND that it managed to plant bombs in and around the venue of the golden jubilee celebration through its operatives "working inside government security services."
So is this the handiwork of fifth columnists, then? President Jonathan has boasted that he will deal with the culprits; he said precisely the same thing about kidnappers on his assumption of office. The authorities should learn to resist the temptation to make idle threats. If there are indeed persons within the security services who aid and abet sabotage, then the country is in trouble indeed. Identifying such persons and fishing them out would be useful as there have been allegations of collusion between state officials and dissidents in perpetrating crimes against the state and the people. The golden jubilee Abuja bomb blast must be taken as a strong message signalling the vulnerability of the president, of the state itself and the people in general. Coming so close to the 2011 general elections, it is disturbing if it is a sign of likely developments in the immediate future.
The loss to Nigeria is colossal. CNN, the international cable television network made huge capital out of the incident. David Plouffe who had been scheduled on the MTN platform to hold a series of seminars on the subject of audacity, has had to call off his trip to Nigeria in the meantime. Plouffe’s itinerary includes an evening in Abuja! Nigeria continues to lose many opportunities on account of its inability to guarantee the safety of lives and property. The international community is afraid to do business with us. Nigerians themselves are afraid of their own country. In the week of our country’s golden jubilee, it was revealed that Nigeria, along with Ethiopia, has the highest number of US Visa lottery applicants. There are too many Nigerians who are voting with their feet, because they no longer feel secure in their own country. Ten years ago, there had been much hope that the country was set on the path of renewal, resulting in reverse immigration towards Nigeria, with many brain-drained Nigerians and other economic refugees finding their way back home to contribute their proverbial quota. Only very few Nigerians in diaspora would be willing to make that return trip to the native land as Nigeria turns 50. Where would they return to? Abuja where bombs are now exploding? Or Aba, a deserted city?
The case of Aba is tragic. Once the crossroads of the South South and the East, it is now the city that no one wants to visit or live in, overwhelmed as it is by evil-minded kidnappers who do not even spare school children. The abduction of 15 school children in that city a few days to Nigeria’s golden jubilee anniversary was embarrassing; it took the combined team of the armed forces to secure their release on Thursday, September 30. But the world had taken notice: Nigeria may now be regarded as a country that cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens including the most vulnerable members of its population.
The Federal Government has an urgent responsibility to ensure national security. Many international agencies deserted Lagos and relocated to Abuja not only for reasons of proximity to the seat of government but because Abuja as a city held special promises in terms of security and infrastructure. If Abuja, the headquarters of all the security agencies is no longer safe, then which part of Nigeria is safe? The October 1 security breach should be carefully investigated and the culprits fished out and punished. This is the least that government can do. It should also pick up the healthcare bills of the injured in addition to paying special compensation to the families of the deceased. The Government of Nigeria should not wait until the people begin to ask the question: who is effectively in charge: government or the insurgents?