Nigeria celebrated its independence Saturday with a muted, security-conscious ceremony at the nation's heavily guarded presidential villa amid a campaign of bombings and attacks carried out by a radical Muslim sect.
President Goodluck Jonathan joined foreign diplomats and dignitaries in watching goose-stepping soldiers parade at the Aso Rock presidential villa, which remains shielded from public view by its mountain namesake in the capital of Abuja. The event, aired live on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority, had some empty seats and a noticeable presence of security agents.
Africa's most populous nation typically holds memorial ceremonies at the capital's Eagle Square parade ground, a large venue that allows the public a rare opportunity to be close to the oil-rich nation's elite. However, authorities moved the event to the secure villa as the radical sect known locally as Boko Haram carries out increasingly bloody sectarian attacks in the nation.
The nation faces other security threats as well. Last year, the main militant group in the country's oil-producing southern delta claimed responsibility for a dual car bombing outside the capital's Independence Day celebration that killed at least 12 people and wounded dozens more.
In an address aired on television and radio stations across the nation Saturday morning, Jonathan promised the country's 150 million people that the "Nigerian spirit cannot be broken."
"The current incidents of violence and terror in parts of the country will surely be overcome," he said. "We will secure the safety of our citizens for only when we do this will we be able to build the needed peace and tranquility in all parts of the federation."
Yet Nigeria's security services remain unable to stop the threat posed by Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 suicide car bombing at United Nations headquarters in Abuja that killed 23 people and wounded 116 others. The commander for U.S. military operations in Africa has said that Boko Haram may be trying to coordinate attacks with al-Shabab of Somalia and with the North African branch of al-Qaida.
Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960. In the 51 years since, the nation struggled under military rulers, crushing poverty and endemic corruption. The problems persisted after Nigeria became an uneasy democracy in 1999.
At the ceremony Saturday, a soldier played an electronic keyboard and sang "We Are The World." The military guard presented flags and twirled their rifles. At the end, Jonathan took a dove into his hands and threw it into the air, as others released from a cage flew into the sky. Aides brushed feathers off the president's traditional black caftan.
As the television broadcast ended, the state-run broadcaster aired a commercial showing ambulances and the aftermath of bombings, asking mothers to stop the "wanton killing of innocent people."
"Nigeria is not at war," the female announcer said. "It is a country of peaceful people."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.