Nigeria's terrorism notoriety
By Okey Ndibe
Nigerians received a bizarre Christmas gift Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, a 23-year old man from a privileged background, tried to pull off what could have been the bloodiest suicide bombing in the US since September 11, 2001. Umar Mutallab had planned to detonate explosives strapped to his body in order to bring down Northwest Airline Flight 253 as the jet neared its destination in Detroit, Michigan.
Had his gory plan succeeded, Umar – an engineering student at the University of London and son of Umaru Abdul Mutallab, the just-retired chairman of First Bank of Nigeria – would have unleashed mayhem and terror not only on Americans but the world as a whole. Thanks to vigilant passengers who wasted no time in pouncing on him the moment they heard popping sounds, this bone-chilling disaster was averted.
Even so, this sickening plot by a sick child of privilege has become an instant disaster for Nigerians everywhere, but especially those who live or frequently travel abroad.
Fair or not (and there's a lot of argument to be made on both sides), Nigeria is portrayed in the foreign media as one of the great centers of corruption and scams. Despite a well-established history ofreligious fanaticism that spills out, intermittently, into orgies of killing in Allah's name, Nigeria somehow managed to escape being baptized a haven of religion-induced terrorism.
Until, that is, last Friday when Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab imprinted the name of Nigeria on the global consciousness as an address where terrorists teem. Through his depraved bombing plot, this young man has smudged the image of millions of tolerant Nigerian Muslims in the eyes of the world. In fact, he's given all Nigerians a notoriety they can ill afford.
Nigerians who travel, or live abroad – especially in Europe, Asia and North America – will bear the brunt of this dangerous new perception. In a post 9/11 world where the lines between vigilance and hysteria are often blurred, to be identified as sharing citizenship with a young man who tried to incinerate a plane mid-air can mean great ordeal.
Throughout last week, I received calls from Nigerians living in the US, the UK, or Europe. In each caller's tone was a touch of dread. Some wondered what Abdul Mutallab's crazed design meant for the future of Nigeria, a country already prostrate. Others were more concerned about how the aborted drama of a bloody bombing would reshape their lives.
One friend, a professor at a top American university, told me about the traveling trials of a colleague of his, a professor of Sudanese nationality. On numerous occasions, the Sudanese scholar has been taken off flights, or prevented from boarding one – all on account of the man's "Islamic" name and the Sudan's reputation as a grooming ground for al Qaeda terrorists. Another friend, a young executive at a major American financial services company, related the experience of a colleague of his, an Egyptian-American. He said that when he and his colleague traveled together, the Egyptian-American was frequently subjected to exacting, even intrusive, searches and exhaustive questioning.
Travelers who carry the Nigerian passport know that they can count on a certain level of scrutiny and hostility at foreign airports. Who needs the added aggravation of being regarded as a terrorist – until you prove otherwise?
In the 1990s, at the height of 419 scams and other forms of schemes targeted at banks and gullible individuals, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued alerts warning American financial institutions to be wary of hiring Nigerians. Such directives took a toll on the career aspirations of many highly qualified Nigerian professionals in the US who were turned back from jobs the moment their passport gave them away. Many Nigerians who were working for financial corporations were subjected to surveillance that presumed them to be criminals – or, at least, crime-minded.
All that travail would pale to insignificance compared to the price Nigerians resident abroad stand to pay if – God forbid – the impression takes root that their country is a fertile soil for rabid zealots willing to inflict mass-murder and other forms of mayhem on "infidels."
How exactly did we get here?
One answer, of course, is that al Qaeda is a global scourge, with cells embedded not only in Islamic nations but also in such liberal democracies as Britain, Denmark, Canada and the United States of America. In that sense, then, there's nothing really extraordinary that a Nigerian had stepped up to play his hideous part in a tragic plot.
But there's also a sense in which Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab's emergence is the culmination of years of official nonchalance towards the phenomenon of domestic religious violence. Tens of thousands of Nigerians have perished in outbreaks of sectarian violence often instigated by members of some fringe Islamic group or another. It's depraved, but not altogether unexpected, that zealots would from sometimes arise in a frenzied spree, fueled by a hunger to massacre non-believers in the name of their deity. But what's even weirder is that the government – whose primary mandate ought to be the protection of lives and property – habitually indulges the slaughterers. On numerous occasions, the Nigerian police and army elected to snore away as fiends killed and destroyed in the name of "God." Few, if any, of those murderers were ever prosecuted, much convicted.
The Nigerian state, in permitting sanctimonious fanatics to get away with their cruel sport, helped create Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. In the end, the difference between domestic religious terrorism and its exportation is only a plane trip away.
Dora Akunyili, Umaru Yar'Adua's "rebrand" guru, once disparaged Nigerians resident abroad for tarring their country's image through excessive criticism. Akunyili should know better, but those were the early days of her commission – and she was, it seemed, desperate to convince her paymasters that she was equal to the magic, not of clearing out shit, but applying deodorant on it.
Akunyili's barbs at foreign-based Nigerians sought to create a false dichotomy. She implied that some Nigerians – the homebound ones – view their country more positively than the disconnected "exiles." The truth, and she knows it, is that there are indeed two groups of Nigerians, but not along the lines she suggested. There are those – the vast majority – who are dismayed by their country's missed opportunities and derailed promises. And then, there are others – a tiny group – who profess to love Nigeria exactly the way it is.
Whether one is located abroad or at home has nothing to do with one's response to Nigeria. Interest is everything. Nigerians are like people everywhere else: they want a decent country where they can live as humans, secure in their lives and property. But there are the few, leeches and parasites whose appetites are as huge as their minds and consciences are miniscule, who take callous pleasure in a dysfunctional Nigeria. For them, dysfunction is a necessary condition for the kind of primitive accumulation in which they thrive.
Once the majority awakes to the fact of its numerical superiority – and, from the way things are shaping up in the country, that's bound to happen sooner than later – then they will stand up and reclaim their country from the calloused hands of the few manufacturers of misery and death in our midst. That's one way to ensure that the Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab and his ilk don't define the rest of us.