Nigeria's capital was on high alert on Friday after an apparent suicide attack on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja stoked fears that Islamist militants were setting their sights on high-profile targets in Africa's most populous country.
The car bomb – the first attack on the UN in Nigeria – ripped through the
heavily fortified UN building, killing at least 18 people. Describing
those who carried out the apparent suicide bombing as "barbaric",
President Goodluck Jonathan ordered all relevant government agencies to
help in the search and rescue effort.
"The president believes that the attack is a most despicable assault on the United Nations'
objectives of global peace and security, and the sanctity of human life
to which Nigeria wholly subscribes," the president's office said in a
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who asked his deputy, Asha-R*** Migiro, to go to Nigeria immediately, said: "This was
an assault on those who devote their lives to helping others. We condemn
this terrible act, utterly."
The Islamist group Boko Haram told the BBC in a phone call that it had carried out the attack. If the claim turns out to be genuine, the attack would confirm American fears that al-Qaida-affiliated groups are targeting the important west African state.
Witnesses said a car rammed through two separate gates at the UN compound as
guards tried to stop it. The suicide bomber drove up to the main
reception area before blowing himself up.
"I saw scattered bodies," Michael Ofilaje, a Unicef worker at the building, told the
Associated Press. "Many people are dead." He said it felt like "the
blast came from the basement and shook the building."
About 400 UN employees work in the building, grouping several UN agencies, including
the UN Development Programme, Unicef, the children's agency and the UN
Population Fund. The building is located in the same area as foreign
embassies, including the British embassy, which is currently under
Workers brought three large cranes to the wrecked building within hours of the attack, trying to pull away the concrete
and rubble to find survivors. Others at the site stood around, stunned,
as medical workers began carrying out what appeared to be the dead.
Hussaini Abdu, country director of ActionAid, who works in a building close to the explosion, said he and his colleagues felt the shock from the blast.
"We were in a meeting on the second floor of our building when we felt it
shake," said Abdu in a telephone interview. "At first we thought it was a
blast from the construction that was going on, a minute later we saw
smoke from the building. I made a couple of calls that confirmed it was
an attack. The five or six people I spoke to are deeply traumatised,
some are still in shock, some had brought their children as it's a
school holiday. The UN is in one of the most fortified buildings in
Abuja and it is in quite a secure area with all the embassies there."
Boko Haram – Hausa for "western education is sinful" – carried out a similar
attack on the Abuja police headquarters in June, nearly killing the
police chief. Earlier this month, the commander for US military
operations in Africa said Boko Haram may be trying to connect with other
al-Qaida-linked groups to mount joint attacks in Nigeria.
General Carter Ham told AP during a visit to Nigeria that "multiple sources"
indicate Boko Haram made contacts with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,
which operates in north-west Africa, and with al-Shabaab in Somalia.
"I think it would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well," Carter said.
Analysts said if Boko Haram had carried out the attack, it indicated how far the group had moved into al-Qaida's orbit in the past year.
"It would also show how Boko Haram is striking out from its normal north-east
area," said Henry Wilkinson, an analyst at Janusian, a risk management
company. "It's probable what we're seeing is a move away from its
parochial approach to ideas of global jihad, which would explain
choosing the UN as a target. They also use the same jihadi clearing
house, al-Andalus, for issuing their messages."
Nigerian authorities have attempted to clamp down on the group through Operation
Flush, following violent clashes with government forces across four
states in 2009 in which more than 700 people were killed. The
government, which has since increased its military presence, was later
accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings.
This year's presidential election in Nigeria, won by Goodluck Jonathan, was
seen as the fairest since the end of military rule but it left the
country sharply divided between the mostly Muslim north and the largely
Christian south. Militant attacks in the oil-producing regions of the
south have dropped off, but the north has been hit by a round of bombings and killings by Islamist extremists, prompting fears violence could spread. www.phbamaiyi.com