Christmas Day Bombings in Nigeria: How Violence Hampers Efforts to Expand Health Coverage

Jan 102012

It’s almost nine months into my fellowship in Nigeria, yet it seems like there is still so much to be done. Achieving more in the remaining few months will be less of a challenge if the country can find a way to better manage the snowballing religious and political crises. The Islamist terror group Boko Haram claims credit for much of the violence – and has not let up.

The attacks impact the kinds of stories that get attention from news organizations – bombings trump health news on almost any day. But I’m happy to say that newspapers such as The Daily Trust – which now has a weekly page dedicated to health news – have continued reporting on health issues rather than sacrificing the space for stories and photos on the violence.

Sadly, Nigeria counted about 125 bombings in the first 11 months of 2011, most of them in the northern region where my fellowship is based. The attacks by the Islamist group grew more vicious with the August bombing of a United Nations house in Abuja, and more recently, with the bombing of a Catholic church on Christmas Day. The suicide bomber succeeded in killing about 46 worshippers and injuring 50 more. Also on Christmas in northern Nigeria, bombs went off at four other sites, targeting mostly Christian and government security buildings. The bombing of Christian places of worship on Christmas Day has exploded any pretensions that Boko Haram is not about a religious war. Nigeria is clearly under siege, and the country is witnessing non-stop bombing like never before.

The violence exposes some of the problems with health care in Nigeria. On Christmas Day, the first responders arrived late, and most of the victims who survived long enough to be transported to the hospital died the next day because of a lack of medical supplies. Most of those who are still alive are in intensive care and need to be transferred overseas – which is not likely to happen because they can’t afford it.

Journalists are affected in other ways. Many places in the north are dangerous, so must be avoided. The U.S. government and the United Nations continue to issue warnings about targeted buildings and impending attacks by Boko Haram. Abuja is presently under siege with armed men and armored tanks roaming the streets. Most reporters who normally travel to the areas around Abuja are afraid to venture there now because the Catholic church that was bombed was in Suleja, one of the big towns around Abuja. Also, my plan to have Daily Trust health reporters visit two municipal areas for field reporting is on hold. Though there is a clear religious link to the bombings, journalists and media outlets are afraid and careful not to report it so as not to invite a visit from Boko Haram. Journalists, including myself, are careful about where they go, how long they stay, and what they say in public.

Into this chaotic, frightening mix, throw the growing public frustration with the government. On New Year’s Day, when most Nigerians were still in a celebrative mood, officials yanked the subsidy on oil and gas, more than doubling the price of a liter of oil. An “Occupy Abuja” movement has begun in protest. Civil society groups and labor unions are up in arms, resisting the price hike.

In fact, public anger over the government’s move has united people from different religious backgrounds to face a common enemy. Nigeria is moving from the brink of a religious crisis between Muslims and Christians to that of massive social unrest by a coalition of the two faiths. In Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria – which harbors most of the leading, influential Muslim clerics – there is a Tahrir Square-style protest. Scores of people are calling for government officials to resign and for a return of the subsidy whose removal seems to have fueled much of the anger here. Talk of Nigeria’s “Arab Spring” is all over social media now.

The government seems to be daring the people. For me, it makes my work more challenging because of the rising level of religious suspicion and limits placed on movement by law and Boko Haram. There is still lots to be done, and with all the tension, it is clear that Nigeria's revolution is much more than a wish away.

Editor's note: Knight International Journalism Fellow Sunday Dare has created a new health section at The Daily Trust, the most popular newspaper in northern Nigeria, where he is working to improve reporting on health issues for both print and broadcast outlets. There have been many successes along the way, but since his work began in April of 2011 he has found widespread violence to be a significant barrier.