Lagos, Nigeria – A stampede at a political rally killed 11 people and injured dozens more as President Goodluck Jonathan spoke, highlighting the insecurity in Africa’s most populous nation as it prepares for national elections in April.
Authorities in this volatile West African giant often have little training in crowd control, and militants already have attacked one event attended by the president in recent months. Western nations hope Nigeria’s elections will be calm: The country is a top supplier of easily refined crude oil to the US
As Jonathan began his speech on Saturday at the soccer stadium in Port Harcourt, some attendees tried to leave to beat the traffic out of the stadium, while others pushed their way inside to hear his speech, said Ibim Semenitari, a Rivers state government spokeswoman.
Eleven people died in the crush, Rivers state police spokeswoman Rita Inoma-Abbey said. Semenitari said at least 46 others had sought treatment at hospitals.
“I am sad and heavily weighed down by this incident,” said Jonathan, who canceled his campaign events scheduled for Monday.
“It is sad, unfortunate and regrettable. I mourn with those who mourn tonight. May God grant us all the fortitude to bear this irreparable loss.”
While stampedes are not uncommon at large public events in Nigeria, such crowd violence is rare at an event where presidential security is present. Violence, though, did mar an October celebration in Nigeria’s capital that Jonathan attended.
One car bomb exploded during those festivities marking Nigeria’s 50 years of independence, drawing police, firefighters and others to the street near a federal courthouse. Five minutes later, a second car bomb exploded, apparently intended to target those drawn to the scene. At least 12 people were killed.
On Sunday, authorities in southern Nigeria said they were setting up an investigative panel to look at the cause of the stampede at the political rally.
Political parties often pay the unemployed to attend such events to swell numbers, while organizers often hand out free hats and shirts to attendees – a valued gift in a country where most earn less than US$2 ($2.60) a day.
Stampedes are “usually a thing that happens at a rally,” Semenitari said.
Even before the event, Jonathan’s visit was marred by deaths. One vehicle in his large presidential convoy crashed into a civilian automobile outside Port Harcourt. Local newspapers reported at least two people died instantly in the crash, though authorities would not confirm that Sunday.
Accidents are common on Nigeria’s poorly maintained roads. Even main cities are linked by pitted, two-lane roads crammed with passenger buses, trucks laden with goods and rickety private vehicles. Drivers often travel at high speed and overtake slower vehicles, leading to head-on collisions and high death rates.
Convoys are also accused of disregarding the country’s long-flouted traffic rules, with armed men with machine guns using threats and force to push traffic out of the way.
The rally Saturday came after a week of campaign stops for Jonathan, the presidential candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party for the upcoming April election. Jonathan’s rallies also have been troubled by attendees in the Muslim north walking out before his speeches, a sign of unease that the Christian southern will be the ruling party’s flag bearer.
Jonathan became president only after the death last May of Nigeria’s elected leader, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim from the north who had only served one term. For that reason, some within the party believe its presidential candidate should be another northerner.
Jonathan cast himself as the leader able to change a nation blessed by natural resources but cursed by years of military dictatorships. However, the regional and religious tensions have flared across a country troubled by violence and extremism more than 40 years after the end of its brutal civil war.