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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 Yinka IbukunCorrespondent / December 30, 2010

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.

Njadvara Musa/AP

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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.

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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.

"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

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