Ten minutes saved me from a terrorist attack. Sometimes I wonder if life is about chance, and timing.
In 2010, I represented Canada at the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence in Abuja. It was a colourful celebration of the country’s jubilee: fifty years of independence from British colonial rule.
It was a warm October day. Our hosts had arranged a shuttle bus to carry foreign visitors from the downtown Sheraton Hotel to Eagle Square for festivities. It’s a vast square half a kilometre long, flanked by Nigeria’s parliament and Supreme Court and ringed by picturesque hills. It was a big day.
That morning I received a last-minute invitation to meet with American Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson for breakfast. The meeting ran ten minutes late and I missed the Eagle Square shuttle. It was 10:30; the official program was about to begin and I didn’t want to be late, so we drove in an embassy car to the stadium.
Unknown to us then, a terrorist group called Emancipation of the Niger Delta had issued a Twitter alert at 10 that morning; at 10:15 the U.S. embassy ordered all staff to stay indoors. There would be trouble at the square.
I remember the brilliant sunshine and sidewalks thronged with happy crowds. Flags were waving, children dancing, military bands playing in accompaniment to an air force flypast overhead. There was danger too, though I didn’t know it then. The U.K. Foreign Office had cancelled a visit that day by former prime minister Gordon Brown due to security worries.
Five minutes into our journey a bomb exploded in the street we’d passed moments before, Shehu Shagari Way. There was bloodshed and panic, and 29 casualties. It could have been me.
We didn’t know of the terrorist strike till we arrived at the square. I had just taken my seat next to the South African foreign minister when my Blackberry lit up with a message: car bomb on Shehu Shagari. The Nigerian president left quickly; we stayed till the end of the official program when the shuttle bus with armed escorts took us back to the hotel.
A member of the Canadian Forces Special Services, who had just completed her assignment in Afghanistan, was waiting there. “Pack your baggage now,” she said. “You are going to the High Commissioner’s residence to stay there till you depart.” She escorted me there; I left the following day.
Only later we learned what occurred. Two bombs were detonated five minutes apart, the second exploding as police and fire crews arrived at the scene. Victims were scattered on the sidewalks.
Nigeria was not my first visit to a risky place. I was born in Tanzania, a nation surrounded by trouble spots. As parliamentary secretary I visited Kabul, a frequent target of Taliban attacks. I have been to Mali, where terrorists killed four United Nations peacekeepers and two French journalists in 2013. I have seen Darfur in the grips of a Sudanese civil war, and Jakarta where random terrorist gunfire killed a Canadian at a Starbucks this past January 14.
Of course we all remember the October 22, 2014 gun attack on Parliament Hill. I was in a caucus meeting that morning when the shooting began in the corridor. It was more shocking to me than the Nigerian bombings, since we’d known Parliament Hill as a peaceful home. That day brought a sadness I hadn’t experienced before; it can even happen here, I thought.
The world is a troubled place. I have been lucky, and mourn for those who are taken by time and circumstance beyond their control. Even today I vividly recall those ten minutes in Abuja, when a wonderful holiday celebration descended into fear and despair.
(Editor’s note: the author was seven-term MP for Calgary Forest Lawn. Mr. Obhrai’s commentary was originally published February 13, 2016)