A Sunday morning bombing outside the headquarters of a leading Christian denomination in northern Nigeria exploded what has been a brief season of calm in the Plateau State capital, Jos.
The Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack Sunday, which killed four and severely injured at least 38. In a tactic now familiar to victims of Boko Haram, a suicide bomber loaded a vehicle with explosives, and then drove through the security gate of the Church of Christ in the Nations (COCIN) headquarters, which includes offices, a church, and classrooms. The bomber apparently planned to crash the gate and detonate his vehicle inside the sanctuary, where hundreds had gathered for worship. Instead, the car's tire blew and the vehicle hit a motorcycle, detonating only yards away from the church building.
The dead include a woman crushed by the vehicle explosion, a woman who only a week ago relocated to Jos after being displaced by similar attacks on Christians in Yobe State farther north, and a an 18-month-old child.
"On exploding, the bomber himself was in pieces," said Mark Lipdo of the Jos-based Stefanos Foundation, who pointed out that the fourth victim killed was a church member initially injured in the attack. Bystanders, seeing him beside the vehicle in the immediate aftermath, presumed that he was another Boko Haram assailant and killed him.
The COCIN headquarters in Jos was among 10 church sites highlighted in a Boko Haram posting on the internet last year that "must be bombed and leveled." The latest suicide bombing was one in a recent string of attacks by the terrorist group on Christian targets in northern and central Nigeria, including a Christmas day bombing of a Catholic church near Abuja that killed 44 people (see "Nowhere to run," March 10).
The Voice of America reported that Christian youths seeking revenge beat to death two Muslim men in Jos the day following the attack, but sources I spoke to in Jos could not confirm those deaths.
The latest attack on Christians in Nigeria comes as lawyers for human rights groups in Washington are preparing a report on the violence to be presented next week to the UN Human Rights Council. The council opened its annual month-long session in Geneva on Monday, where the humanitarian crisis developing in Syria will likely dominate the discussion.
But legal experts assembling the report on Nigeria will argue that the crisis in the West African nation-where radical Islamists have killed about 2,000 Christians in attacks in the last year-also deserves urgent international attention.
"The issue is impunity, as there seems to be no consequence for the violence," said Ann Buwalda, executive director of the Washington-based Jubilee Campaign. "After thousands have been killed, the federal government [in Nigeria] is not doing enough to bring perpetrators to justice."
Nigeria's army and national police force have stepped up security in the north since massive bombings in December and January. But after more than a decade of similar violence, there have been only five convictions of Muslims who have attacked Christians and churches-and those came through federal tax courts, according to Buwalda. The Nigerian federal government does not have criminal jurisdiction at the local level. And 12 northern states now have some form of Sharia law and their own Islamic court systems. Those do not grant equal access to Christians to bring charges against Muslim attackers.
Plateau State is part of Nigeria's "Middle Belt," an area where the largely Christian south meets the largely Muslim north. It has been a persistent region of conflict, as Muslim gangs and now Boko Haram have tried to drive out Christians and enforce Islamic law. Now, with Christians in the northern states becoming displaced by the violence and relocating to places like Jos, violence is likely to intensify in the Middle Belt.
"It's heartbreaking to hear of the Yobe Christian woman killed [in Sunday's attack]," said Gregory Treat of Jubilee Campaign, who was part of a situation-assessment team that two weeks ago visited Jos. On Feb. 13 he met with leaders at the COCIN headquarters that came under attack on Sunday. The displaced come from indigenous tribes in the north, said Treat, who have cut themselves off from cultural advantages, property, and their livelihoods to escape attacks by Muslims. But in Jos and elsewhere, they have even less voice in local government, and-as Sunday's violence shows-remain targets for attack.