- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist and former assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy.
At 10:55 a.m. this morning, smoke billowed out of the parking lot of Nigeria’s police headquarters in downtown Abuja. A bomb went off seconds earlier, lighting cars on fire and killing dozens. The building sits on one of the main roads near the presidential palace, just on the way to one of nicest areas in the capital city, Asokoro. If the bomb proves intention, which seems likely given everything we’ve learned so far, this was a suicide bomber — the first in Nigeria.
The now-infamous Islamist group Boko Haram is the likely culprit. Local media 234Next is reporting that the group issued a statement in Hausa, the language spoken in Nigeria’s north, claiming that its operatives have just returned from Somalia. The group also sent a warning letter to a newspaper in their home city of Maidugari calling for citizens in Abuja to "restrict their movements." Throughout the last several months, bomb attacks in the north of the country have grown more prevalent. And neither is this the first one in the capital city; a particularly nasty one went off last October on the country’s 50th anniversary of independence.
If this is Boko Haram, it’s no accident that the police where the target; Boko Haram likely still has a vendetta for the death of its leader, which Nigerian security forces killed in a nasty shoot out in 2009. Since then, the group has had a nasty relationship with the security forces, and they have been targeting their local stations in the north for the last week. For months, they have knocked off officers here and there, for example when they attacked a police checkpoint in January.
More broadly, the police force is symbolic of everything that Boko Haram wants to "cleanse" from Nigerian society. Many scholars believe that Boko Haram is an extreme expression of grievances felt throughout Nigeria, and particularly in the North. The complaints have everything to do with poor government: politicians are corrupt,public services are non-existent, and the economy seems to rise and fall on patronage given to the kin of those in power. The police are a particular source of anger; they often take bribes, use excessive violence, and use shaming and other socially destructive techniques to detain alleged criminals. This has been widely documented, including most recently by Human Rights Watch.
In short, every expression of the Nigerian state that the average citizen encounters is somehow broken. Seeing no other outlet, many in the north started calling for a religious solution; witness the imposition of Sharia law in the region a decade ago. When even that didn’t restore order to the state, groups like Boko Haram emerged, calling for an end to all Western institutions (their name means "education is forbidden") and the imposition of total Islamic rule. Their means are crude, violent, and place them on par with any other terrorist group — which apparently is their goal if Boko Haram really is training in Somalia. They are an aberration of Nigerian society. But that doesn’t mean that what they come from isn’t real.
Nigeria has a freshly elected government with a president, Goodluck Jonathan, from the south. The patronage of a northern president will be missing in the coming months, meaning that the means for real political progress (instead of the usual bandaging with handouts) will be needed to gain the region’s trust. (This loss of patronage is certainly one reason that tensions in the north have escalated; when you’re destitute and your one lifeline disappears, it’s rough.) In the meantime, this attack is a wake up call of how high the stakes are. Local problems aren’t staying local anymore.