Why there's still no death toll for the Christmas Eve bombings in Nigeria

An initial police report estimated that the Nigeria bomb blasts – claimed by an Islamic militant group presumed to be targeting Christians – killed 32 people. But Muslim and Christian groups alike distrust the police tallies.

By , Correspondent

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    Bystanders gather around a bombed-out car in front of Victory Baptist Church in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on Christmas Day. An accurate death toll from the Christmas Eve bombings has yet to be issued amid disagreement between Muslims and Christians.
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Almost a week after four deadly blasts marred Christmas Eve preparations and sparked violent riots across the hilly Nigerian city of Jos, people are still waiting for the Nigerian police to tell the world how many people died.

An initial police report estimated that the bomb blasts – presumed to have targeted Christians due to their timing and claimed by an Islamic militant group popularly known as Boko Haram – killed 32 people. But that number has not been corroborated or updated and several groups claim the toll is significantly higher.

Jos, which lies on the fault line between the majority Muslim north and predominately Christian south in Africa's most populous country, has been the scene of periodic spasms of violence, such as clashes early last year that killed hundreds. But in those clashes, as in these latest attacks, accurate death tolls are hard to come by due to the sensitivity of the information and the power of high death tolls to fuel reprisal killings.

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"Everyone wants to paint themselves as victims and the number of people who die is being politicized by either Muslims or Christians or government or whoever. The Christians and Muslims tend to overstate the figures; the government tends to lower it so it looks like they are on top of the situation," says Thompson Ayodele, director of Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, a public policy think tank in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos.

Government accused of playing down the violence

Many say that the government plays down or withholds figures to prevent conflict from escalating.

There is an unwritten understanding that only the Nigerian Army and police can give casualty figures. Even though the police say that anyone mandated to count victims is free to do so, organizations are cautious not to contradict official reports.

An official from the National Emergency Management Agency, a governmental parastatal, announced that he had visited Jos hospitals and counted 80 dead; a number that was promptly picked up by the media. The following day, the police discredited the figure and the leadership of the parastatal retracted the number, saying that the official's figure had not been properly verified.

But affected communities question the neutrality of police figures.

Muslim and Christians do their own counts

"The government takes sides. They always wanted to maintain that few people died whenever there was a violent conflict, but in our own community, we were recording many deaths. That was why we started counting for ourselves," says Khadija Gambo Hawaja, an official of Nigeria's largest Islamic organization, Jamaatu Nasril Islam Jni. "As people without a government, as people without a voice, we needed to have records."

Most Muslims are skeptical of any reports released by the Christian-led state government.

Christians, too, count their casualties.

"We have to collect our figures, because our NGO deals with Christians," says Kanke Shwe, an official at Stefanos Foundation, a Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO). "Based on the number, we know how many people are affected in order to reach out to their needs. We provide toiletries to those in hospital, money for the widows, education for the orphans.... When we are writing proposals, we need to know how many people we are reaching out to."

Mrs. Hawaja's group has counted 20 Muslim deaths in reprisal violence since Christmas Eve blasts. Mrs. Shwe has counted 32 Christian deaths right after the bomb blast; the count was not updated after the post-blast street violence.

Aid groups afraid to announce tolls

Because of the general mistrust for all of these figures, people often turn to neutral and nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross for an accurate assessment of the situation, but even they are cautious about giving death tolls for fear of worsening the conflict. They say they collect data only for the purpose of gauging the humanitarian assistance that will be needed.

"Talking about the dead is very sensitive, but talking about the people we have been able to evacuate, taken to hospital, those figures, we are ready to give them out because they are not controversial most of the time," says Robin Waudo, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Two days after the blasts, a Red Cross official announced that 74 people were injured. A death toll was not given.

Because Muslim victims are often taken to mosques to receive primary care or for funeral rites, separating Muslim and Christian casualties is not such a difficult task. The victims taken straight to a hospital are mostly Christian.

Still, asked about an updated casualty figure, national police spokesman Yemi Ajayi said: "We are waiting for the investigation report, as soon as it is ready, we will let the public know."

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