Last night we had a group of friends round for dinner to celebrate my forty-first birthday. Without trying to sound smug, I am fortunate to count some keen minds as mates, who never fail to impress in their analysis of their beloved country, Nigeria. But, just now, it seems that no one really knows what is going to happen – both with the elections, and more generally, with Project Nigeria. After the party, at midnight, we headed down to the area near Millennium Tower, a half-completed building site near the National Mosque. From behind razor wire, we looked on at the celebrations an invited few dignitaries were privileged to watch. I was filled with a sense of sadness that yet again, ordinary Nigerians were being excluded from the main event.
At 10 this morning, still a little blurry from the night before, the alert came in on my Twitter client (from NEXT) that Jomo Gbomo, the mythical spokesman from MEND, had said that there would be bombs in and around Eagle Square at 10:30. I retweeted the NEXT message. A few others did the same. In the following few minutes, the general sense was that it was more hot air and blather from a weakened organisation. I reminded myself at the same time that Henry Okah’s house in Jo’burg had been raided the day before by South African police on a tip off from Nigeria. I speculated that the two events might be connected. Then, I left it and went to make coffee.
At 10:15, a friend called, and told me both the UK and US Embassies were issuing warnings to stay indoors among their staff and expats. The message was that the threats were both real, specific and credible. I decided to put off a jaunt into town to take pictures of Nigerians celebrating Independence. The Twitterverse started to hot up. I tweeted that there was a heightened security alert among the diplomatic corps. Still there was scepticism that anything would happen.
Then, around 10.30-10.40 I heard what I thought was a thunder-clap. It had started to rain by then. However, the sound wasn’t quite like thunder – it was more of a powdery boom from far away. I suspect now that what I heard was the sound of the bomb – only a couple of miles from my house close by the Arcade Hotel on Shehu Shagari. By this time, I had logged on to watching the official celebration online via live streaming from Eagle Square.
I followed the tweets coming in commenting on the schoolchildren dancing, followed by a powerful show of military hardware. We could all finally understand why Abuja has thrummed with the sound of helicopters and planes flying by in the past week.
And then, a tweet came through from my friend Egghead, who was somewhere outside Eagle Square. There had been an explosion. Tweets started to flood in, with Egghead cited as a “Reuters witness”. Apparently a tear gas canister had been accidentally discharged in a corner of the square. I tweeted that I hoped that this was the cause of the explosion story. And then Egghead confirmed that there had been two car bombs. He must have walked down from Eagle Square on Shehu Shagari in the direction of the Hilton. In one particularly stark tweet a few minutes later, he mentioned that he was looking at dead bodies.
As more information on MEND's act of terrorism filtered through on Twitter and started to appear on the news wires, the celebration continued on in Eagle Square. It was hard to imagine that the security forces were not aware of what was going on barely 500 metres away. President Goodluck gave a speech and awarded medals. The day had taken on a surreal and tragic hue. News then came in of a bus burning on Airport Road. Was this a multi-location terrorist attack? A tweet came in that two ‘Arab men’ had been seen on powerbikes just before the car bomb went off. As usual with all things on Twitter, it takes longer than traditional media to get confirmation. As I write at 3:40 p.m., this witness report has yet to be confirmed and may not be true. Awful images taken at the scene started to appear online, and the BBC published a video clip taken shortly after the explosion. A confused man could be seen trying to crawl away from the site of the explosion. It was hard to believe this was all happening in boring, old Abuja.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow to consider this: MEND were far better prepared to "celebrate" Nigeria’s fiftieth independence anniversary than anyone else. There must have been months of planning involved to create a car bomb as powerful as this. What is worrying is that it shows how easily Abuja can be infiltrated by terrorists – the area around Eagle Square must have been packed with security operatives and yet a huge car bomb exploded close by. As I write, the terrorists are most likely still within the FCT, celebrating the success of their awful mission: the murder of innocent Nigerians.
While many if not most Nigerians have deep sympathy for the conditions in which Niger-Deltans are forced to live, its very hard to see how this IRA-style act of terrorism on the nation’s capital is going to do MEND any favors in the short term or the medium term. The military response may well be heavy – we have now seen the helicopters and the fighter planes. It adds a troubling new dimension to the stalling issue of the 2011 elections. And it leaves many Nigerians wondering whether they should celebrate at all. A tragic day for Nigeria.