Jonathan escapes blast

A blast ripped through a car park outside a stadium at which Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan had spoken at a re-election campaign rally yesterday, minutes after he left, witnesses said.

Mohammed Bolari, who was at the rally, in the northeastern city of Gombe, said the explosion was at 3.10pm, about three minutes after Jonathan’s departure.

Jonathan had been speaking to supporters of his ruling People’s Democratic Party as part of his bid for re-election in two weeks.

His appearance was a day after two blasts in the city, including one that targeted a military checkpoint. At least five people were killed.

There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday’s attacks but the city has been hit by suspected Boko Haram militants in the past and suspicion was likely to fall on the Islamist terror group.

Bolari said of the latest blast: “It is difficult to say how many people were hurt because of the struggle by the crowd leaving the venue to escape, fearing another blast.”

Nigeria is bracing for fresh Boko Haram attacks ahead of elections, with the key city of Maiduguri in the firing line and forces from Chad and Cameroon joining the regional fight.

In a weekend of violence the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, was attacked for the second consecutive Sunday but the Nigerian army, helped by civilian militias, kept the Islamists at bay.

The border town of Gamboru, on Borno’s eastern fringe, was pounded by artillery fire and from the air by Chadian jets as troops massed in Cameroon for a ground offensive.

Chad’s offensive is being planned after the African Union and the UN last week backed a new 7500-strong, five-nation force to tackle Boko Haram.

The increase in both insurgent and military activity reflects growing fears about the Islamists’ threat to regional security and crucial elections scheduled for February14.

Security analysts believe Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, will probably be hit again before polling day given its symbolism for the group and because it would undermine the vote, which Boko Haram brands “un-Islamic”.

“The insurgents had long denounced the elections as a pagan practice incompatible with Islam and had vowed they would never allow democracy to thrive in the region,” said Nnamdi Obasi, from the International Crisis Group.

“So it was predictable that they would step up attacks to pre-empt the coming elections, particularly in Maiduguri, and we might not have seen the end of it,” he said.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in Maiduguri. The militants are in control of most of the state and have surrounded the city. Capturing it would not only be a morale-booster for the rebels but would also probably sink Jonathan’s re-election bid, said Obasi.