Bomb blasts ripped through a bus station in the suburbs of the Nigerian capital today in the largest single attack on Abuja since insurgents began violent operations in 2009.
Authorities say 71 people were killed and 124 were injured in a strike on Nyanya Motor Park, a chaotic bus station where commuters board megabuses into the pristine city center for work less than 10 miles away.
The blasts in Nigeria's capital are a direct challenge to the government's recent assurances that it has managed to contain Boko Haram, Nigeria's militant Islamist group, to the remote northeast of the country. The last attack in Abuja was two years ago, but Boko Haram insurgents have recently threatened violence beyond the northeast, where they normally operate.
Taxi driver Joseph Suleiman was about five hundred yards away from the Nyanya station just before 7 a.m. today, when his car rattled and shook from the force of the blast. He wonders whether the strike is a harbinger of a new spate of attacks the insurgents have promised to unleash.
“Maybe they have started now,” Suleiman said. “Nobody knows. Nobody can predict what will happen.”
Nyanya station is not considered a particularly dangerous place, frequented by civil servants and other employees that work in the city but live in Abuja’s “satellite towns,” suburban slums that are often devoid of electricity and short on clean water or roads.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Boko Haram is the only group in Nigeria known for killing large numbers of civilians in urban areas. The group says it wants to impose a harsh version of Islamic law on the country, Africa’s most populous state. Nigeria is divided between a mostly Muslim north and a mostly Christian south.
Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths in the past 4 1/2 years, and three northeastern states have been under emergency rule for almost a year. At the end of March, Amnesty International said 1,500 people had been killed this year alone. The death toll continues to grow with near-daily attacks in the northeast. The United Nations says roughly half a million people have fled their homes.
In 2012, several people were killed in coordinated attacks on media houses in Abuja and Kaduna, a northern city outside the security zone. Abuja was also hit twice in 2011, with more than 60 people killed in separate attacks on a church and the UN local headquarters.
Boko Haram has bombed many churches, hundreds by some accounts, but the majority of their victims are the Muslim population around them. In recent months most attacks have been on Muslim villages in the north as Boko Haram struggles to survive the military’s onslaught, according to Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria.
“They go into a Muslim community when they believe information has been leaked to security agents,” he said. “If they can’t find the particular person they kill a lot of people in the community to frighten them so that they won’t give out information.”
The military reports regular successes against the group, saying in the past year it has killed or captured hundreds of insurgents and retaken swaths of land formerly under Boko Haram control. But some officials say the rapid increase in violence this year, and now a large-scale attack far from Boko Haram’s normal area of operation, are signs that military power may have failed to slow the insurgency.
“This problem seems to be tearing this country apart,” said Member of Parliament Herman Hembe. “People are refugees in their homelands and have no way of providing for themselves. They’ve lost family members. They’ve lost their means of livelihood and there simply, simply seems to be no way out of it.”