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As nation's icons fortify, Nigeria's impoverished masses find themselves easiest terror target
KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) ' In this Nigerian city where soldiers stop cars at sandbagged checkpoints and police officers carrying assault rifles warily guard their fortified headquarters, a local church could only weld together small barriers made of scrap iron to block the road to their sanctuary.
Those barriers, like pat-down searches and car trunk checks, offer little protection from the increasing violence taking place across Nigeria. Those attacks include the recent suicide car bombing Easter Sunday in Kaduna, the capital of Kaduna state, which killed at least 41 people and sent bullet-like shrapnel everywhere.
As violence grows worse in northern Nigeria, those wanting to attack symbols of the country's weak central government are turning away from increasingly protected government installations. Instead, suicide bombers and gunmen now target softer targets in the nation of more than 160 million people, like modest churches and the informal plastic-table bars that open across the country each night.
As those attacks grow, so do the casualties among the country's working poor, a group already facing high unemployment and meager wages.
"You don't know who will be the next target," said the Rev. Emmanuel Babah, whose Assemblies of God Church in Kaduna sits down the street from the scene of Sunday's suicide car bombing. "It's disturbing."
Nigeria's north has been under increasing attack by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, which is blamed for more than 390 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. Boko Haram has killed Christians, Muslims and foreigners in its growing fight against the Nigerian government over the introduction of strict Shariah law across the country and the release of all imprisoned followers.
However, other attacks unclaimed by the group regularly occur across the Muslim north and the country's restive central belt, the dividing line from the largely Christian south. Gunmen open fire at outdoor beer gardens. Bombs explode near night clubs and other areas. Assailants attack rural villages in nighttime raids.
Meanwhile, Nigeria's north holds the poorest regions of the country, as farming has waned with the nation's dependence on crude oil sales and as the population rapidly grows. About 75 percent of the people in Nigeria's northwest and northeast live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics. Begging children, known as almajiri, roam northern city streets with plastic bowls, sent by their parents from rural villages with hopes they may receive an education at Islamic schools.
"Nigerians are hungry for progress and improvement in their lives, but northern Nigerians feel this need most acutely," Johnnie Carson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said in a speech Monday in Washington. "Life in Nigeria may be tough for many, but life in the north is grim for almost all."
The violence adds a new horror to daily life, as could be seen in the Easter Sunday suicide car bombing in Kaduna. Instead of striking a government building or military formation, the car detonated at a busy roadside junction where makeshift restaurants sold cheap rice patties and men hawked black-market gasoline. In moments, the gasoline caught fire, burning nearby motorcycle taximen to death.
Though no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, suspicion has fallen on Boko Haram. The sect, which speaks to journalists in telephone conference calls at times of its choosing, has not spoken publicly since the attack.
While offices reopened Tuesday in Kaduna following the government Easter holiday, people still gathered to look at the rubble and watch as a state worker repainted a curb near the blast site. New security checks have become commonplace, like having car trunks searched nearing government buildings.
Most noticeably, Kaduna's many churches have changed how Sunday morning worship takes place. Metal-detecting wands greet those coming for services. Pastors tell parishioners to leave their bags at home. Those who don't are searched by poorly trained and paid private security guards or simply the man in charge of opening the church gate.
But there's a limit to what can be done, pastors acknowledge.
"We cannot fight with guns," said Pastor Bawa Benedict, who preaches at the ECWA Good News Church in Kaduna. "We can't kill anybody. Christianity does not teach us to go and kill anybody."
Benedict's church was the one supposedly targeted by the suicide bomber. On Easter Sunday, the suicide bomber stopped his sedan and tried to move the barriers to drive his car closer to the church, which was about to begin its service, said Cpl. Francis Markus of the Nigeria Police Force.
Markus, on duty with a detachment of officers guarding the area, said he pushed the barrier back down and argued with the driver for several minutes. The driver got back into the car and rammed it against the barrier, though Markus said he held on and refused to move away.
The suicide bomber backed away and waited for a few minutes before driving away. Minutes later, Markus heard the explosion, which threw bits of the sedan into the church's compound a street away. He could only look on in disbelief.
"My body just (kept) shaking," Markus said Tuesday. "I don't know. I just don't know."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.