Nigeria's first suicide bomber?

At 10:55 a.m. this morning, smoke billowed out of the parking lot of Nigeria's police headquarters in downtown Abuja. A bomb went off seconds earlier, lighting cars on fire and killing dozens. The building sits on one of the main roads near the presidential palace, just on the way to one of nicest areas in the capital city, Asokoro. If the bomb proves intention, which seems likely given everything we've learned so far, this was a suicide bomber -- the first in Nigeria.

The now-infamous Islamist group Boko Haram is the likely culprit. Local media 234Next is reporting that the group issued a statement in Hausa, the language spoken in Nigeria's north, claiming that its operatives have just returned from Somalia. The group also sent a warning letter to a newspaper in their home city of Maidugari calling for citizens in Abuja to "restrict their movements." Throughout the last several months, bomb attacks in the north of the country have grown more prevalent. And neither is this the first one in the capital city; a particularly nasty one went off last October on the country's 50th anniversary of independence.

If this is Boko Haram, it's no accident that the police where the target; Boko Haram likely still has a vendetta for the death of its leader, which Nigerian security forces killed in a nasty shoot out in 2009. Since then, the group has had a nasty relationship with the security forces, and they have been targeting their local stations in the north for the last week. For months, they have knocked off officers here and there, for example when they attacked a police checkpoint in January.

More broadly, the police force is symbolic of everything that Boko Haram wants to "cleanse" from Nigerian society. Many scholars believe that Boko Haram is an extreme expression of grievances felt throughout Nigeria, and particularly in the North. The complaints have everything to do with poor government: politicians are corrupt,public services are non-existent, and the economy seems to rise and fall on patronage given to the kin of those in power. The police are a particular source of anger; they often take bribes, use excessive violence, and use shaming and other socially destructive techniques to detain alleged criminals. This has been widely documented, including most recently by Human Rights Watch.

In short, every expression of the Nigerian state that the average citizen encounters is somehow broken. Seeing no other outlet, many in the north started calling for a religious solution; witness the imposition of Sharia law in the region a decade ago. When even that didn't restore order to the state, groups like Boko Haram emerged, calling for an end to all Western institutions (their name means "education is forbidden") and the imposition of total Islamic rule. Their means are crude, violent, and place them on par with any other terrorist group -- which apparently is their goal if Boko Haram really is training in Somalia. They are an aberration of Nigerian society. But that doesn't mean that what they come from isn't real.

Nigeria has a freshly elected government with a president, Goodluck Jonathan, from the south. The patronage of a northern president will be missing in the coming months, meaning that the means for real political progress (instead of the usual bandaging with handouts) will be needed to gain the region's trust. (This loss of patronage is certainly one reason that tensions in the north have escalated; when you're destitute and your one lifeline disappears, it's rough.) In the meantime, this attack is a wake up call of how high the stakes are. Local problems aren't staying local anymore.


Unlucky number 39?

Afghans who live under Taliban-controlled areas these days have suffered abuse for not growing a beard, not praying, and, more generally speaking, for being a woman. But ridicule for your license plate? As of this spring, that's a Kabul specialty:

Afghanistan's booming car sales industry has been thrown into chaos by a growing aversion to the number "39", which almost overnight has become an unlikely synonym for pimp and a mark of shame in this deeply conservative country.

Drivers of cars with number plates containing 39, bought before the once-harmless double digits took on their new meaning, are mocked and taunted across Kabul.

"Now even little kids say 'look, there goes the 39'. This car is a bad luck, I can't take my family out in it," said Mohammad Ashraf who works for a United Nations project.

No one's quite sure about the origins of the obsession; the most frequently reported story pins it on an Iranian pimp from the western city of Herat who lived in an apartment numbered 39 and had a 39 on his license plate.  Whatever the cause, though, it's becoming a problem for more than just car drivers:

Afghans with 39 as part of their cellphone numbers have to endure so much derision that some have blocked people from seeing their number when they call. Others have switched their phone numbers altogether.

To avoid being needlessly ridiculed, Afghans who are 39 years old will sometimes tell people they are "one less than 40."

Kabulites aren't alone in their distaste for a specific number.  In 2007, Brussels Airlines had to add a dot to their 13-dot logo to assuage customer fears. The Chinese have a long-standing animosity towards the number 4, which, in Chinese, sounds like the word for "death". The superstition prompted government last year to stop issuing license plates with 4's. You never know when your license plate will come back to haunt you.