Nigeria’s police say they are boosting security as the United States ordered the families of diplomats to leave the capital, Abuja, due to a “heightened risk of terrorist attacks”.
The details of any threat were not known on Friday, but residents of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have been advised to be on high alert since Sunday after several Western embassies changed their travel advisories, citing an elevated risk.
The US embassy in Abuja said possible targets include government buildings, places of worship and other public places. It has urged US citizens there to avoid all non-essential movements and crowds.
Nigerian security forces are battling armed groups mostly in the northeast of the country, where an armed campaign by Boko Haram launched in 2009 has killed thousands and displaced millions. More recently, however, ISIL (ISIS)-allied fighters have claimed recent attacks near the capital.
In July, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram now allied with ISIL, claimed responsibility for a raid on a prison in Abuja, freeing some 440 inmates and raising fears that fighters were spreading further.
In a statement late on Thursday, Nigerian police instructed “all strategic police managers in charge of commands and tactical formations within the country to beef up security in their respective jurisdictions, especially in the FCT”.
The inspector general of police, Usman Alkali Baba, said “all emergency numbers” should be activated to help ensure “a 24/7 prompt response with combatant officers and men on standby”.
He urged residents of the city of about six million “to remain vigilant and report any suspicious or abnormal occurrence and persons to the police”.
The statement came as the US State Department on Thursday ordered the departure of diplomats’ families and also authorised the departure of non-emergency government employees from Abuja.
“Terrorists may attack with little or no warning,” targeting malls, markets, hotels, places of worship, restaurants, bars or schools, the State Department said in its country summary for Nigeria, but did not give further details.
On Thursday, Jabi Lake Mall, a large shopping centre in Abuja, was temporarily shut down for unspecified security reasons.
In addition to Abuja, the US advised citizens not to travel to a number of Nigerian states, including Borno and Yobe in the northeast.
Australia, Britain and Canada had also issued warnings last weekend, although the three countries had not ordered any evacuation of staff or their families as of Friday morning. Some European embassies and international organisations in Abuja have not updated their risk assessments or travel advisories.
“We have no crisis to manage, we are managing the panic,” a senior security manager with an international organisation based in the capital told AFP news agency, asking to remain anonymous.
“We don’t know what the motive is [behind the US evacuation]. We are taking some precautionary measures/actions, but activities are normal,” he added.
Calls for calm
The government said Nigerians and foreigners in the country “should continue to be alert but must not panic”.
“I can assure all that our military and other security agencies have continued to do everything possible to secure and protect Nigerians and foreigners living in Nigeria,” said Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture.
“Terrorists have been hard hit and put on the run,” he said during a news conference on Tuesday.
Armed groups in Nigeria generally operate in the northeast of the country, far away from the capital, though they have small cells in other parts of the country.
The last time one of the groups – Boko Haram – attacked the city centre was in 2014.
In addition to the groups’ threat, the capital is also surrounded by states with high levels of banditry – gangs of gunmen who kidnap and kill with no ideological motivation.
Analysts have warned that insecurity could worsen with the start of political campaigning for the general election to replace President Muhammadu Buhari next year.