A Safe Route No More: Nigerians Mourn Victims of Deadly Train Attack
Hundreds of passengers on a train, many regular commuters traveling north from Nigeria’s capital of Abuja to the thriving city of Kaduna, were just minutes away from their final destination on Monday evening when they felt a bump and the train came to a stop.
Next thing they knew, gunmen riddled the train cars with bullets and stormed on board, ordering the passengers off. In a first class coach, Regina Ngorngor, a 46-year-old librarian, said she hid under her seat and covered herself with luggage when she heard the first shots. The gunmen later shouted, “Everybody goes out, or we will shoot you,” but she remained hidden.
Hours later, she said, she was rescued by the Nigerian military, uninjured but her body covered with blood and dead passengers lying nearby. At least eight people were killed and 26 injured in the attack, and an unknown number are still missing — their relatives fearing they were kidnapped.
The attack has badly shaken Nigeria because the train line was considered a safe alternative to the busy highway heading north from the capital, where armed groups have for years robbed and kidnapped drivers, wringing out ransoms.
“Now people are scared of using the road, the train, and they’re just tired of that insecurity,” said Yusuf Felix, a 30-year-old communication specialist at a civil society organization, who donated blood on Tuesday at a Kaduna hospital where some of the victims were being treated.
The incident has compounded the deep sense of insecurity and resentment of the government in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where gunmen in the northwest have escalated their attacks — abducting schoolchildren, killing villagers, and kidnapping civilians for ransom.
Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the train, a growing number of armed groups are now roaming the region. What started as vigilante groups formed to defend herders and farmers from each other has morphed into banditry, analysts say, with individuals using more sophisticated weapons and more violent methods.
Some have adopted an Islamist veneer, or claimed an affiliation with Islamist groups: Three passengers who were on the train on Monday said in interviews that the attackers had shouted “Allahu akbar,” a phrase in Muslim prayer that’s been co-opted by terrorists.
Monday’s attack was the second one on the Abuja-Kaduna line in months, and it came just days after gunmen killed one security guard in an attack at the Kaduna city airport.
On the popular two-and-a-half-hour regional train route, at least one armed guard sits in each coach and plainclothes officers also patrol the train, according to Kabir Adamu, a security expert who conducted a security assessment on the line.
“A criminal agenda has emerged and over time the ferocity of the attacks has increased,” said Mr. Adamu, the managing director of Beacon Consulting Limited, an Abuja-based security and intelligence firm. “The Nigerian state has been unable to hold those who are responsible for the population’s security accountable.”
The escalating violence in the country’s north is a major setback for President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected in 2015 promising that security would be one of his top priorities, said Nnamdi Obasi, a Lagos-based senior adviser on Nigeria at the International Crisis Group.
“There was some hope at the time of his election that Buhari, a former military man from the north, would be well positioned to deal with the insecurity,” Mr. Obasi said. “It’s been a huge disillusionment.”
Mr. Buhari on Tuesday denounced the assault on the train as a “callous attack” and said that “no one should be allowed to hold the country to ransom.”
On Tuesday, Nigerians blamed the 79-year-old president for his inability to stem the surge of violence. Many also criticized him on social media for allegedly planning to attend a soccer game between Nigeria’s national team and Ghana’s in Abuja, while families were mourning or caring for survivors. But an intelligence memo published Wednesday on local news media indicated that Mr. Buhari had stayed away from the stadium after the country’s security services warned him about a potential bomb attack.
The Nigerian Railway Corporation said that more than 360 passengers were on board when the attack occurred on Monday, but several local news reports said it was nearly 1,000.
The victims included Chinelo Megafu Nwando, a dentist who was coming back from Abuja after collecting her visa to travel abroad; Abdul Isa Kofar-Mata, the director of Nigeria’s top organization for technical education; and Farida Sule Muhammed, a 29-year-old banker.
“I’m in the train,” Ms. Nwando wrote on Twitter shortly before 10 p.m. “I have been shot please pray for me.”
Another passenger, Maimunnat Ibrahim, 29, said she was sleeping when she felt the bump in the track and the train stopped. She heard gunshots and gunmen breaking windows. As they stormed the first class coach that was next to hers, Ms. Ibrahim realized that she was bleeding: She had been shot in her thigh.
Ms. Ibrahim said in a telephone interview from a hospital on Wednesday, where she was still being treated, that several passengers in her coach had either died of gunshots or in a stampede when they rushed to get off the train.
Many families on Wednesday were still looking for relatives who were unaccounted for.
“I haven’t heard from her and her phone isn’t connecting,” Peter Aboi said of his 28-year-old twin sister, Peace, who was returning home to Kaduna. Their cousin, who was traveling with Peace, is also missing.
In a statement confirming the death of Ms. Nwando, the dentist, a representative for the Nigerian Medical Association said the rampant insecurity was a tragedy that is driving educated professionals to leave the country.
“Needless bloodletting and senseless loss of lives is fast becoming a recurrent decimal in our country,” said Aniekeme Uwah, the representative, “thus worsening the alarming effects of brain drain, which in many instances have been attributable to the worsening security situation in the country.”
A saxophone and tennis player, Ms. Nwando was known for her enthusiasm and her nonjudgmental attitude toward others, according to Chimeze Ibe, 31, a friend and former university classmate.
“She loved life, she just enjoyed being herself,” Mr. Ibe said.
Train traffic remained suspended as of Wednesday, blocking countless residents who rely on the route and who don’t want to use the even more dangerous highway.
In a telephone interview from her home in Kaduna, Ms. Ngorngor, the librarian who hid for two hours in the train, was still in shock. “The kidnappers said that more would come,” she said. “They said they were just starting.”