Nigeria’s war against Islamic militants erupted near the president’s house on Sunday, when a prison break sparked hours of gunfire in the capital and raised questions over the military’s capacity to protect the country’s most sensitive areas.
Gunshots were heard Sunday morning and afternoon along the leafy avenues that bypass the headquarters of Nigeria’s spy agency, its State Security Services. That agency said the incident began when a detained terrorist struck a prison guard with his handcuffs, grabbed a gun, and broke free.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who lives about a mile away, remained safe and the escape had been foiled, according to a presidential spokesman, Reuben Abati. He wrote on Twitter: “There is no cause for alarm.”
Many residents, however, challenged the official version of events. They described a pitched battle that involved hours of heavy gunfire and observed scores of soldiers in defensive positions. Two helicopters circled the air and armored personnel carriers patrolled the city. By noon, troops brandishing rocket propelled grenade launchers had cordoned off a large swath of Nigeria’s capital.
Many of Nigeria’s most prominent politicians live throughout the tree-lined neighborhood where the attack occurred, including members of Nigeria’s opposition who questioned the government’s description of a relatively minor attack.
“We don’t believe it,” said Nasir el-Rufai, a resident who once served as the minister is charge of the capital, and has since joined Nigeria’s opposition. “It was serious fighting. One person trying to escape cannot result in two, three hours of gun fighting.”
Earlier attacks this month have left many Nigerians worried over the military’s ability to safeguard its most strategic installations.
On May 14, hundreds of Boko Haram fighters stormed the most heavily fortified base in Nigeria’s north. Some 4,000 suspected Boko Haram insurgents were detained inside, according to one U.S. official who is knowledgeable about conditions inside the prison. The Nigerian government has acknowledged suspected Boko Haram detainees, but declined to provide a number.
The military issued a statement within hours of that attack, which it said had been foiled.
This week, however, Boko Haram released a video that showed several hundred prisoners running out of the military base, which had clearly been destroyed in an explosion. The freed suspects, some of them children, screamed and waved in celebration.
“They all got away,” said Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau in a separate video. “Glory be to Allah.”