Nigerian police officer stands at scen of an exploded car bomb at Eagle Square in Abuja. (AP)
Nigerian police officer stands at scen of an exploded car bomb at Eagle Square in Abuja. (AP)

Abuja Twitterers chronicle #Nigeriaat50 bomb explosions

A few minutes before deadly explosions ripped through Nigeria’s 50th Independence Day celebration in Abuja on Saturday, Twitter user Achonu Stanley wondered about darkening skies over the festivities: “Would the day be marred by rain? It has become cloudy and dark. Sorry for the thousands of people at Eagle Square.”

Stanley’s 113 characters, typed in an instant of unsuspecting prescience, were among hundreds of tweets that captured the transition as the solemn, historic day turned bloody and chaotic.

Things started off slowly. Early Saturday, Tomi Oladipo, a BBC correspondent watching a live television feed from the commercial city of Lagos, pointed out dignitaries in the VIP stand. (“[Cameroonian First Lady] Chantal Biya’s hair is unmistakable”)

Another Twitterer, @diddykb24, grumbled about its pomp: “9billion naira spent on the eagle square parade…no light in my house for 3 days?? :s.”

Jeremy Weate, an Abuja expat who runs Naijablog, tweeted another question: “Strange to see the militarism at Eagle Sq. When will national identity be de-linked from marching bands and army behaviour?”

But questions like these were quickly drowned out with breaking news of a bomb threat from the militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). In a message to a friend, the BBC’s Oladipo confirmed that the militants had sent a warning to the media. “They send a few emails to the press every month. I’m also on the mailing list,” he wrote.

The news spread rapidly on Twitter. “So, MEND has warned everyone to evacuate Eagle Square b4 10.30am lest they be barbecued by explosives already planted,” tweeted Adamo David. An eyewitness who called himself Egghead Odewale announced that “the Special Bomb Squad and Federal Fire Service” were “combing the Eagle Square.”

The explosions began. A frantic stream of tweets gave shreds of incomplete information. “Reporters say it looks like a taxi and a red sedan detonated,” typed The Associated Press’ Nigeria Bureau Chief Jon Gambrell.  He followed up with a note to the AP that the bureau’s staff were safe.

“OMG dead bodies litter the streets in front of new Fed High Court. Videos coming,” sighed Odewale.  A leading newspaper, 234 Next, posted: “Abuja update: Confirmed 8 dead and 5 injured in the explosion.”

Dare Art Alade’s tweet urging people to get away from the site of the explosion was one of the most retweeted messages. “Everyone around eagle square find a place to hide. Bomb explosion reported mins ago…RT!!!.”

Far from descending into panic, the parade apparently went on uninterrupted. “Another explosion at Eagle Square leaves at least one security officer injured. Event ongoing as if nothing happened,” reported the AP’s Gambrell. “#MEND tells the @AP that Nigerians should blame its government for not taking the group’s warning ahead of time seriously,” he announced later.

Across the Atlantic, in Atlanta, CNN Wire Newsdesk Editor Faith Karimi was following the Abuja Twitterers, just as she had tracked the tweets of Mozambicans during the Maputo riots.

“If you’re tweeting from #Abuja, don’t forget your hashtag so that we can keep up #nigeriaat50,” she typed. Eventually the Abuja Twitterers heard from CNN: “@eggheader @jeremyweate Are you guys in Abuja?” 

While the news instantly made international headlines, some Nigerians seemed to stagger in shock and disbelief. “Um why is yahoo news, saying there was a bomb blast in Eagle Square and 7 people died. Such lies. #defamation,” wrote a Twitterer who identified herself as Valerie Ita. She later deleted the message after a friend told her the reports were true.

One Twitterer wondered why he had not heard or seen any local reports. “CNN confirms a blast occurred close to the eagle square but no LOCAL NEWS CHANNEL is reporting this…strange,” remarked Ita Ekanem.

In the aftermath of the blasts, some Twitterers clashed passionately over controversial statements made by President Goodluck Jonathan, who professed MEND’s innocence. “What happened yesterday was a terrorist act and MEND was just used as a straw; MEND is not a terrorist group,” Jonathan declared Monday on his Facebook page.

Most Twitterers roundly criticized the statements. A few who stood by the president, including @omofasa, found themselves on the defensive. Addressing @eggheader and @ganiu4, he asserted, “Besides being President,GJ is also from d N.D&has a right 2 take offense wen terrorists are branded as freedom fighters.”

To @upsilon1’s rebuttal–“But MEND issued a warning via Email(#iThink),”–he retorted “Email Addresses can be hacked.I’m not saying that’s what happened but d Bombing dosent make one bit of sense.”

Perhaps warding off accusations of partisanship in the current election campaign, he denied being a militant supporter of the president and called for unity. “George Bush wasnt d best President of d USA,but wen there was a terrorist attack d Citizens ralied round him 2 fight back,” he typed, adding “let’s find out who perpetrated d dastardly act 1st.We can support our individual candidates later.”

By Sunday, the tweets had taken a more reflective tone. “Abuja calm but everyone being careful, wondering could it happen again?” read the status of the twitter feed of @AbujaCityDotCom.

From CNN’S Karimi came the most fitting epitaph: “#nigeriaat50 bombing reminds us yet again of power of twitter and how much it has turned the world into one loud global village.”