Incessant bomb blasts take deep tolls on the victims, their families and the whole country
Her voice shook as she prayed for quick recovery for 22-year-old Clement Obi, one of the victims of the Friday, August 26 bomb blast at the United Nations, UN House in Abuja. Overwhelmed by the lad’s agony, tears welled up in her eyes and trickled down her well made up face. It was one of those occasions when it was very dignified to cry, and nobody appeared embarrassed as Patience Jonathan, the First Lady wiped her tears for the next ward. Rosaline, elder sister of the victim, who was summoned from her base in Makurdi, Benue State, was touched by the First Lady’s humanity. Rosaline said, “She prayed for my brother; she prayed that he will be well in Jesus’ name. And I saw her shedding tears when she was going out. She was cleaning her face with handkerchief. It is not easy for everybody.”
For Obi, tears would indeed be a luxury. It is going to be some time before he could open his charred eyes again, let alone shed tears. His face and body are covered by what look like second degree burns. It has taken over three sessions of surgery to get him to this stage. At 22, he is already bigger than his 28-year-old elder brother and taller than his father but his bulk made no difference in the fate that befell him on that fateful Friday. According to his sister, Obi can only use his right ear now; the left ear is yet to regain functionality.
He is not a UN staff; rather he is a staff of a catering outfit in the UN House. He was just about one month old on the job. His father, Festus, a staff of Cool FM Abuja, said the job was just a temporary job while he waited for the result of the post-University Matriculation Examination, which he took after passing the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB examination. It was not an ordinary routine service in the restaurant that Friday. There was to be a conference and he was one of the stewards to be in attendance. He resumed work about 8am and after clearing the routine protocols, he and another colleague were assigned to go and set the conference room. As they were on the way to the conference room, there was a big blast and everything went blank!
Saint, 28, Obi’s older brother, is a student of Kaduna State College of Education. The news came to him like a bullet. “I was at school when I was called at about 1pm that day. They said that my brother is a victim of the bomb blast that just occurred in Abuja. My mum called me to come back home.” The three hours journey from Kaduna to Abuja was very traumatic. But that was only a tip of the iceberg compared to what awaited him at the National Hospital. “What I saw was really horrible. Human bodies lay everywhere. They were picking human body parts and putting inside plastic bags. I just felt that the ground should open up and swallow me! I felt sick...all through I was crying and when I saw him, I could not hold my peace again; I broke down and wept!" Saint had worked in a clinic as an auxiliary nurse and seen sick people but seeing his younger brother was unbearable.
You would not blame him. Obi was badly wounded, burned and unconscious; so much that he was given up for dead. “They even dropped him; they thought he was dead. It was later that they discovered that he was still breathing, and somebody cried out that he was still alive and should be assisted. So they brought him out from among the dead. He had been in the theatre for many days now. It was only a few days ago that they removed the oxygen and brought him to the ward.”
Obi regained consciousness after two days. And the first person he asked about was his friend who was with him when the incident occurred. So far, nobody is sure of what has become of his friend. Though he appears stable now, his family is still apprehensive.
Festus, Obi’s father, was one of the first people to arrive the UN House as it was within sight of Abuja Cool FM office. “The worst days were the second and third days when they did not allow me to see him. The doctors have done surgeries on his eyes; they said I should be praying that by God’s grace, he would recover fully. So I still thank God.”
Festus revealed that the future of his injured son is giving him grey hairs. “My biggest problem is that this is the fifth year the boy is taking JAMB! He has been scoring from 220 to 250, yet he never got admission! I know how much I’ve spent on people to help him get admission yet he couldn’t get it. He just started this work last month so that he will not be at home idle.”
Fidelis Mutaruwa is luckier than Obi. He is a Zimbabwean national and a security officer at the UN House. He was at the thick of the blast but he escaped with manageable injuries. He cannot really recollect much of what happened. “To be honest, I was taken by surprise; I’ve no idea what happened to me. I was at the basement; we heard this blast and everything collapsed around us! Well, we had to wake ourselves up and wriggle out of the building. Eventually, rescue teams came when we were already out of the building and took us out of the place. It was when I fully recovered myself that I discovered that I was injured. I’ve absolutely no idea what injured me.”
This is his fifth year in Nigeria, but he said, “Despite what happened, I’ll still return to work in Nigeria after I’ve fully recovered. It has happened; it has happened, there is nothing anybody can do about it.” His experience in turbulent countries working for UN may have steeled him against such incidents. “Before Nigeria, I’ve worked in several other places; I’ve worked in Angola, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.”
How did his wife receive the news? “It was I who called my wife after the incident. I told her that I was okay; that I was hospitalised but not too badly hurt. Initially, she was surprised and frightened but when I explained things to her, she stabilised.”
On the hospital bed, the patients face another level of trauma, not knowing the fate of their colleagues and friends at the UN House. “I hear that quite a number of my friends were hurt but I’ve not spoken to them. I’ve no idea who in my department was hurt, as I had no time at all to think about that before we were evacuated. I just found myself here (National Hospital). I have no idea yet about those who died, may be until I come out of here,” said Mutaruwa who has head and leg injuries but still smiles.
His fellow security man, Danjuma Ibrahim, a Nigerian police officer, has head and body injuries and was writhing in pains when the magazine visited him. His doting wife was by his bedside, eyes brewing with tears threatening to spill over the next moment. She could not talk with her husband in pains. Babah Kwasau, her 23-year-old younger brother is adding his strength to hers to keep her going. According to him, “My sister called me by 5am on Saturday and said tearfully that she was in trouble. They had called her about 12 midnight on Friday that there was a problem at the UN House where (the husband) was on posting.”
Usually, Ibrahim returns from work about 6pm; so she could not sleep when he did not return. She called his mobile phone number several times but got no response. About midnight, they called her from the hospital. That was when he recovered consciousness and gave his wife’s telephone number.
Kwasau said the bomb blast has blown Nigeria’s innocence. “This is what we have been hearing happening in Iraq and Israel; I didn’t know it will come to Nigeria. That Friday, I was watching it on television and I didn’t know that my brother-in-law was involved.”
Despite the grave situation, he is optimistic that good will eventually overcome evil. “I believe that one day this entire problem will be solved and those behind it will be apprehended. Every day is for the thief but one day is for the owner!”
Habila Auta, a contractor and supervisor in the UN House, is luckier than Ibrahim and Obi. He can see and talk but it may take a while before he will be up and running again due to leg injuries. At the zero hour, like most of the victims, he thought it was the end of the world, or a tsunami. He had heard of houses collapsing in Abuja but he knew that the UN House is not in that class.
“I was on the third floor; the only thing I saw was that the building was falling down. It was collapsing from below; it was caving in! I was supervising my workers. When I saw the building going down, I looked around me before I ran downstairs. I still used the staircase to run down. The staircase was partially okay but coming to the ground floor, there was no way out. So I had to jump through the window, and that is where I sustained my injury.
“When I was trying to escape I saw wounded people lying down outside. I have never experienced anything like this before. I’m a Nigerian and have been a supervisor at the UN House for six years. I’m surprised that this can happen with the kind of security we have there, but then, they are not God!”
His wife, Joy, who works with the Vehicle Inspection Office, VIO, as an insurance agent, revealed that finding her husband after the blast was terrifying. “I was at my working place when he called me; I could not hear him well, he was just saying, “Bomb blast! Bomb blast!” And that he was at the National Hospital. He was crying. Then his phone went off. I called him back but he could not pick again!” When she got to the hospital, she and her boss searched for about three hours but could not locate Auta, until much later.
Barnabas, Auta’s younger brother who works with Russal, a Russian firm in Asokoro; has recovered from the scare of searching for his brother but the memory of what he saw may take a while to be erased. Like many others, the bad news came through his mobile phone. “My phone rang and somebody told me to rush to the National Hospital that my brother was involved in the bomb blast in the UN House. I rushed to the hospital. When I got here I saw a lot of casualties. What my eyes saw at the emergency unit was beyond description! Pieces of human flesh were everywhere. Some were being brought in pieces; the pieces were being parked in leather (polythene bags). There was blood everywhere. I was confused with what I saw. At that point I had not found my brother. I was more confused; I didn’t know the situation of his own injury; whether he was really alive or dead. I continued to make calls until I was led to where he lay.”
These are only a fraction of the victims of the UN House bomb incident and their relatives but their harrowing experiences are representative of all. Though they have walked the valley of death, they are luckier than their colleagues who have been confirmed dead by the UN as at last Tuesday when they briefed the press in Abuja. Dauda Toure, UN resident coordinator for Nigeria, confirmed the death toll to be 23 but the identities of the fatalities, except for Ingrid Midtgaard, an international staff from Norway, have not been disclosed as the ‘documentation’ is still being done. The problem they are having with documentation may not be unconnected with difficulties in identifying some of the badly affected bodies. Out of the dead, 18 died on the day of the blast; while five others who were among the critically injured died at the hospital. Among the dead, 11 have been identified as UN staff and 10 Nigerians, working with some other companies. The non-UN staff included those from contracted services, cleaners, security guards and visitors, some of who were waiting for their appointments when the blast occurred. A total of 73 were injured, 26 are still on the critical list in the hospital. Six people have so far been flown abroad for better management. Twenty-six UN agencies are housed at the Abuja UN House with about 400 workers.
Last Tuesday, Asha-Rose Migiro, UN deputy secretary-general, and Gregory Starr, UN undersecretary for safety, briefed the UN Security Council on the incident. According to Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, “What we know is that this attack was the work of a suicide bomber who rammed a sports utility at high speed through the exit gates of the UN compound.” He further told the Security Council that the Abuja UN House was well built with ‘robust security.’ “This attack is therefore cause for serious reassessment, not just in Nigeria and not just in high-threat locations, but worldwide.” Before the incident, Nigeria ranked as mild in the UN three levels classification of security threats. With the present development, the global peace agency may likely upgrade Nigeria to medium or even high threat.
The UN is not the only one surprised at the sophistication of the execution of the UN House suicide bombing. Expectedly, Boko Haram, an Islamist anarchist group that has been in recession because of the military campaign against them in Borno State, claimed responsibility for the bombing. Some argue that the sophistication is a more professional job than Boko Haram can muster, and attribute it to al-Qaeda. However, some independent security experts argue that, like the police headquarters bombing, the UN job may have had a lot of local input. The bomber displayed a good knowledge of the security infrastructure of the UN House. There was a functional close-circuit television, CCTV surveillance system for the facility. The bomber appeared to have known that it was essentially trained on the entrance gate; so his use of the exit gate is seen as a deliberate strategy by the masterminds to make sure that the identity of the bomber is not known even after death. Furthermore, he also destroyed the server of the CCTV that is housed in basement of the building, effectively destroying whatever vague picture of him and the SUV captured by the camera. Starr, who is in Nigeria to lead the UN investigation, expressed the frustration of the situation, “We are trying to recover the images from the CCTV but because of the blast, most of the footage has been destroyed.” Consequently, investigation into the blast is dependent on manual evidence, which usually leads to a dead end in a country like Nigeria, where documentation is a problem. For instance, the licence plate on the car led to a dead end as the owner claimed he had sold the car long ago.
However, with help coming from reputable international agencies like United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, and Israel’s MOSSAD, Nigeria may crack the case earlier than expected. Already, Hafiz Ringim, the inspector general of police on Monday, August 29, two days after the blast, announced that the security agencies have made some arrests in connection with the case. However, he told the diplomatic community at the ministry of foreign affairs that at the appropriate time, the President would reveal the identity of the suspects; or more accurately, “make pronouncements in that regard.”
Some people are wondering that if indeed there have been arrests and the security agencies have deferred to the President to make ‘pronouncements’ on it, that it suggests that some political ‘untouchables’ may have been implicated by the suspects. Report has it that Jonathan has been briefed on the development.
Many analysts are coming to the conclusion that the government has enough intelligence to know the high-heeled sponsors of terror, which are targeted to destabilise the government but lacks the political will to go after them. South-South Peoples Assembly, SSPA, the apex political group in the South-south zone, in a statement last week, attributed the recurrent bomb incidents to politicians who had threatened to make the country ungovernable for Jonathan, if he wins the April presidential election. Since the election, violence has escalated in the country.
Principally, these acts of violence, death and destruction are perpetrated under the auspices of Boko Haram but it is suspected that many of them have nothing to do with the Islamist sect. The police headquarters and UN House bombing, though claimed by the group, are seen as beyond the group.
Increasingly, Jonathan is being boxed into a security quandary similar to what obtained during the Sani Abacha junta. Some security experts are asking Jonathan to look inwards in the sea of competing security agencies for answers to the campaign of bomb blasts. There is fear that some aggrieved persons who have a fair knowledge of security may have been involved in these unpatriotic actions against the government apparently for pecuniary and political reasons.
Last Wednesday, the Department of Security Services, DSS, confirmed that the suspected bomber had al-Qaeda links. Marilyn Ogar, an assistant director and spokeswoman of the agency, confirmed that, “precise intelligence was obtained by this service on August 18, 2011, that some Boko Haram elements were on a mission to attack unspecified targets in Abuja in an ash-coloured Toyota Camry vehicle with registration number AA539GBL. On 21st August, 2011 about 1300 hours a joint operations by all security services led to the arrest of two notorious leaders of the Boko Haram extremist sect, namely, Babagana Ismail Kwaljima (aka Abu Summaya) and Babagana Mali (aka Bulama)”.
The suspects who are held at a military facility, according to Ogar, have made useful statements. “Investigation has revealed that one Mamman Nur, described as a notorious Boko Haram element with al-Qaeda links who allegedly returned recently from Somalia, working in concert with the two suspects masterminded the attack on the United Nations building in Abuja”. Nur is still at large and has been declared wanted by the DSS.
Ogar further confirmed that the Honda car used in the attack had a Kano State registration number AV38NSR. “It was purchased on 3rd September, 2002 and registered on 3rd December, 2002. The vehicle identification number is 1HGCBA7400A100748, engine number, F22A72000540”.
The UN House incident also brought to the fore, the infighting and lack of synergy among the Nigerian security agencies. While the police are still insisting that there was no prior knowledge of a bomb threat, the DSS has all the details. While the police say they had nothing on the car used on the blast, the DSS has all the details. There is also mutual suspicion among the agencies of possible Trojan horses in the security challenge facing the country. Under the circumstance, the public is not sure if the arrests announced by Ringim are the ones made by the DSS, as he said that the President will ‘make pronouncements’ on his own suspects.
Since the October 1 bomb blast, government has taken a number of steps to strengthen security in the country, especially Abuja, the nation’s capital. The contract for the installation of surveillance cameras was awarded. Currently, it is being executed with a lot of urgency, with workers working even at night. But even in the CCTV contract, there are still infighting among the security agencies. Manual security checks, which cause a lot of hardship to the people, are strengthened after every new blast but dropped after some time. Even airport surveillance is slackened after a few weeks without any incident.
Though Boko Haram says they struck because of government’s insincerity in the dialogue announced by government, it is suspected that the attack may not be unconnected with Nigeria’s recognition of the rebel army fighting to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya. Nigeria was the first African country to recognise the National Transitional Council of the rebels, headed by Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, The African Union, AU, is still silent about the probable victory of the rebels. Jacob Zuma of South Africa has condemned Nigeria’s hasty decision. Ghana’s reaction has been more circumspect, saying they are still watching events in Libya.
Last week, in his Sallah message at Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad, Sultan of Sokoto condemned the bombing, describing it as ‘unIslamic’ and ‘abominable’. He urged the federal government to investigate and bring the culprits to book. The Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria also, last week, called on the government not to play politics with Boko Haram. “Government should be unequivocal in bringing to book all those who break the law and destroy lives and property wherever they may come from or belong. The Boko Haram menace, which has gained notorious ascendancy, should not be handled with kid gloves. While we enjoin all aggrieved groups and individuals to seek redress for their grievances through lawful and peaceful means in order to nurture overall development in Nigeria, we restate that the country will benefit more by strengthening the rule of law, the security agencies and from promptly bringing criminals to book than from negotiating with murderers and criminals. Nigeria must invest heavily in pro-active intelligence gathering and preventive security in order to checkmate the aggression of destructive groups who wish to compromise the integrity of the nation.”
Additional report by