Nigerians Mark Easter Amid Mourning and Fear
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) - With little to celebrate, Nigerians marked Easter Sunday with heightened security against a spreading Islamic uprising, mourning the deaths of at least 75 bomb blast victims and fearful of the fate of 85 abducted schoolgirls.
The homegrown terrorist network Boko Haram on Saturday claimed responsibility for last week's rush-hour explosion at a busy bus station in the capital, Abuja, and threatened more attacks.
"We are the bombers ... yes we are the bombers; if you really want to know who did it, let me tell you now, it was Shekau that did it," leader Abubakar Shekau boasts in a new video.
He taunts Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, saying: "Look at us, we are right within your city (Abuja) and you don't even know how to find us. Let me tell you now, I am here very close to you, I dare you to get me, if you can."
Nigeria's military twice have claimed that Shekau was dead, only to have him resurface in a video. The United States has placed a $7 million ransom on his head.
At church services around the country, Nigerians mourned victims of four attacks in three days last week.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis prayed for a halt to the "brutal terrorist attacks" in parts of Nigeria.
"Government should be more sincere in handling the security and insurgency problems," Okeoghene Eboibi, a 45-year-old polytechnic lecturer in southern Delta state told The Associated Press.
He was referring to politicization of the 5-year-old Islamic uprising that has the two main political parties accusing each other of backing the terrorist network as the country gears up for elections in February 2015. The attacks also undermine government and military claims that an 11-month-old state of emergency in three northeast states covering one-sixth of the country has been contained the extremists. Eboibi prayed that "God give us the grace to live together peacefully."
But Chidozie Iyoke, a 35-year-old unemployed laborer whose leg was injured in the bombing, said it might be better if people went back to their places of origin. Africa's most populous nation of some 170 million people is divided almost equally between Muslims living mostly in the north and Christians whose homes are predominantly in the south.
The Middle Belt that is home to both has seen increasing deaths in conflicts, mainly over land and water resources between mainly Christian farmers and semi-nomadic Muslim herders. Thousands have been killed in recent years.
The Nigeria Police High Command appealed to citizens to help with security by removing cars from around churches and mosques, keeping flower beds clear of trash, discouraging hawking and making conscious efforts to know fellow congregants to "make it easier to know who is a stranger in their midst."
On social media, the Nigerian hashtag #CitizenSolutionToEndTerrorism was trending with scores of suggestions, including one that reached to a root cause of extremism, saying "provide jobs, take care of basic needs, and let them see reason to live."
Despite the country's wealth, endemic corruption keeps 70 percent of Nigerians living below the poverty line, and the northeast suffers most with youth unemployment estimated at 80 percent.
Acknowledging the inequity, President Jonathan has promised a massive development program in the north but said it cannot be implemented until the insurgency is halted.
Police officers guarded strategic installations and manned checkpoints searching cars in Abuja this Easter Sunday, making truck driver Sunday Attah Friday worry the lineup of waiting vehicles would provide another target for extremists.
"I don't know what the government is doing. Boko Haram cannot be bigger than the government," the 25-year-old said.
But security forces were absent from the scene of the abductions at Chibok, a remote northeast town where more than 100 girls and young women were kidnapped from a school hours after Monday's bombing. Borno state education commissioner Musa Inuwo Kubo said Friday he was forced to send the 44 students who have been accounted for to homes all over the state, because there was no security at the school or in the town.
Confidence in the military was further eroded when the Defense Ministry claimed Wednesday that soldiers had freed all but eight of the girls - only to retract the statement on Thursday. Four of the girls escaped by jumping off the back of a truck into which they were bundled and 24 saved themselves by disappearing into the forest from an apparent militant bush camp. Sixteen day scholars were found with parents in Chibok town, leaving 85 missing, Kubo said.
Some 750,000 people have been forced from their homes by the northeast uprising.
The military has said it has the extremists on the run with near-daily air bombardments of hideouts in forests and caves, but the growing toll tells a different story: more than 1,500 people have been killed this year alone, compared to an estimated 3,600 between 2010 and 2013.