A bombing at a bus station packed with morning commuters on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital killed 71 people and wounded 124 on Monday, with the president blaming the attack on Boko Haram Islamists.
The explosion rocked the Nyanya station south of Abuja at 6:45am, leaving body parts scattered across the terminal and destroying dozens of vehicles.
It was the deadliest single attack ever to hit Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, which includes Abuja and surrounding areas.
Much of Boko Haram’s recent violence has targeted the remote northeast, but a major bombing just a few kilometres from the seat of government will likely raise further doubt over Nigeria’s ability to contain the Islamist violence.
The explosion “emanated from a vehicle” parked within the station, said Charles Otegbade, head of search and rescue at the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
National police spokesman Frank Mba put the toll at 71 dead and 124 injured, with the wounded being treated at area hospitals.
Visiting the site, President Goodluck Jonathan vowed that Nigeria would overcome the brutal insurgency being waged by Boko Haram, blamed for killing thousands across the north and centre of the country since 2009.
“The issue of Boko Haram is quite an ugly history within this period of our own development,” Jonathan said. “But we will get over it … The issue of Boko Haram is temporary.”
The Islamists, who say they want to create a strict Islamic state in northern Nigeria, have previously bombed areas in and around the capital, including a 2011 car bombing at the United Nations headquarters in the city that killed at least 26 people.
The explosions left a hole roughly four feet (1.2 metres) deep and spread debris across the compound, and witnesses said.
“I saw bodies taken away in open trucks,” said witness Yakubu Mohammed, describing remains that “were burnt and in pieces.”
A second witness, Suleiman Aminu, said he believed the initial blast came from a minibus parked near larger commuter vehicles, and that commuters who had queued up to board were the likely target.
Nyanya is a densely populated suburb of Abuja, filled with government and civil society workers who cannot afford the city centre’s exorbitant rents.
Bus parks have been among Boko Haram’s preferred targets, including multiple, coordinated bombings at a terminal in the northern city of Kano last year that killed more than 40 people.
Jonathan, who is expected to face a tough re-election battle next year, has faced intense criticism over the continuing Boko Haram violence.
With the recent unrest concentrated in the northeast, Jonathan had been able to claim that progress was being made in the battle against the Islamist rebels.
But an escalation of attacks in or near Abuja would pile further pressure on the embattled president.
Prominent targets within Abuja have been locked down since the UN bombing and checkpoints are set up daily on major roads throughout the city.
Security measures are however less rigid in areas outside the city-centre like Nyanya.
Following Monday’s attack, police chief Mohammed Abubakar ordered officers “to intensify surveillance on all vulnerable targets within Abuja,” Mba said.
But a temporary security crackdown will not be enough to repair Jonathan’s declining credibility on the Boko Haram conflict, according to Adetokunbo Mumuni of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project.
The latest bombings should serve as a reminder that the government’s counter-insurgency strategy is “inadequate and simply not working,” he said in a statement.
Last May, the military launched a massive offensive to crush the Islamist uprising and has described Boko Haram as being in disarray and on the defensive.
But experts warn that force alone cannot stem the bloodshed and have called for a major outreach to dejected and deeply impoverished youths from the north who fill Boko Haram’s ranks.
Nigeria is Africa top oil producer and largest economy, but more than 80 percent of its 170 million people live on less than $2 per day.
Analysts say that the Boko Haram unrest has partly stalled economic growth and scared away potential investors.
“The government is doing everything to make sure that we move our country forward,” Jonathan said after the attack.