Nigeria: February 20, 2002

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A series of crises in Nigeria over the last month point to growing political instability and possible coup plots. On 27 January 2002, an army ammunition dump near the Ikeja Military Cantonment and a large residential area in the Ikeja district of Nigeria's biggest city Lagos caught fire. The hour-long blaze ultimately caused the death of 1,000 Nigerians, many of them drowned or trampled to death as they ran for their lives. Hundreds of bodies were pulled from the Oke-Afa and adjoining Pako canals near the Ikeja military barracks. 

An unnamed officer claimed that the fire broke out at a street market for soldiers and spread to the ammunition dump. But the market was too far away for this to be possible. The Nigerian military launched an inquiry two days after the blasts, following growing speculation that the devastation of Nigeria's principal armory was not caused just by an accidental fire. 

On 2 February, a two-man British bomb disposal recon team was dispatched to join U.S. and UN teams already on site. By 20 February, EOD experts had recovered 1,350 unexploded bombs, mortar shells and other pieces of ordnance from a three-mile radius around the Cantonment.

An unnamed military source told a Nigerian newspaper that the interim report submitted to the chief of army staff also blamed sabotage for the ammunition dump explosions. President Olusegun Obasanjo also would not rule out sabotage, while the military inquiry noted that a large quantity of arms were stolen during the explosions. Obasanjo said that senior army officers had visited the armory in recent months and handed over $29,000 to fund improvements to the facilities. 

The governor of Lagos has claimed that the explosion, riots and a police mutiny are part of a plot to bring generals back to power. In early February, the police mutinied in many stations and had to be replaced by Federal troops. Nigerian troops then had to end four days of fighting between gangs armed with crude weapons in a Lagos slum. At least 100 people were killed, 400 injured and thousands left homeless. In October 2001, anti-American riots in Kano that left hundreds dead were linked to the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. 

These events have prompted public anger at a government increasingly hard-pressed to bring security to Africa's most populous nation. Rival politicians have been recruiting private militias, in a bid to consolidate power ahead of 2003 presidential and legislative elections. - Adam Geibel

 

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