Mutallab: We Are Guilty By Association
By Reuben Abati
Nigerians were not favourite air travellers before the Christmas Day Flight 253 bomb scare incident involving our 23-year old compatriot Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: the rest of the world looked upon Nigerians as potential crooks (even if there are more crooks in Italy and Russia). We were accused of being too noisy and aggressive (one Nigerian got chased off a British airways flight and was promptly banned for life from all BA flights: this caused so much furore). Part of our profile is the label of being the biggest load carriers in the world. On nearly every route, Nigerians tend to have more luggage than other travellers (British Airways has had to create a special luggage re-pack area for Nigerians at Heathrow's Terminal Five, the only nationals that have been given that curious distinction).
Nigerians were also regarded as potential drug couriers or illegal immigrants: the country's green passport received detailed attention, to be sure that the passport belonged to the man or woman holding it! Visas originating from Nigeria were screened more than averagely. As a Nigerian flight arrived at an international airport, sniffer dogs were directed to check out the Nigerians. Since Nigerians like to travel with foodstuff, many of them ended up with their ogbono seeds, processed melon, fish, kilishi being sent to the laboratory for proper examination to detect possible traces of cocaine. Others could be handpicked and asked to use the toilet by force. Not even our national icons are spared such humiliation. Before December 25, 2009, Nigerians loved to protest that the humiliation that they received at local embassies issuing visas and at international ports was most undeserved. Young visa officers at the embassies treated Nigerian applicants like vermin. We didn't like that at all.
Now, the Mutallab effect seems to be shutting us all up. The shame is collectively shared. The collateral damage is resulting in embarrassment and self-doubt. After December 25, 2009, this was a foreseeable development. Our apprehension was further confirmed by the Sunday December 27 incident involving another Nigerian who again was travelling from Amsterdam to the United States. The Nigerian passenger, suffering from incontinence had reportedly stayed a bit longer in the lavatory. Two days earlier, his compatriot whose suicide-bombing attempt had failed had also spent a little time in the lavatory. Both are black men. Other passengers therefore jumped to a convenient conclusion (here is another suicide bomber from Nigeria!). The poor man was treated as if he was another terrorist trying to finish off what his compatriot had bungled on Christmas day. Mutallab may go to jail for attempted suicide-bombing etc., but all Nigerians travelling internationally would henceforth also pay a price, for we have all been adjudged guilty by association.
A cousin who is home on Christmas Holiday couldn't have expressed the dilemma better when he pointed out 72 hours to his departure that he would also be travelling through Amsterdam.
"Mutalllab travelled through my route. I don't want to imagine what would happen when I get to Amsterdam," he had said.
"They will search you from head to toe, that is all."
"No. It is not that simple. They will do it in a way that you'd feel you have been pronounced guilty by association. Every Nigerian will now be treated like a Mutallab; as if there is a Mutallab in all of us. "
"You don't have to worry. As long as you don't go to the toilet too often, or appear too motionless, nobody will treat you like a suspect."
"Are you saying Nigerians are now banned from using the lavatory on international flights? I can't believe that"
"I have not said that. But don't go into the toilet and start grunting the way many of you do, or spend more time than necessary as if you are busy mixing substances."
"But why is Ghana not being criticised? The young man travelled through Accra. Why is Holland not being asked to talk about the security at Amsterdam Schiphol International? Why is the focus on Nigeria?
"Simple. It was your man that tried to blow up an aircraft with explosives."
Since December 25, 2009, there have been reports of airports across the world beefing up their security systems with three dimensional (3D) image scanners. Again, this is causing so much concern among Nigerians. One other fellow, also based in diaspora, had observed that airport authorities need to provide more information about how the 3D scanners work.
"I mean they can't just go and give somebody cancer because they are looking for explosives. I understand that scanning the entire human anatomy, with electro-magnetic waves could have implications for health. I travel a lot. So does it mean that at every airport, I'll be exposed to a full scan."
"And I can bet we Nigerians will be targeted specially. We should speak up."
"Yes and No."
"You know what bothers me?", one fellow who had been busy battling with a plate of cow leg interjected. "It is this thing they call 3D."
"It is not new really. It has always been there."
"But my attention has just been drawn to it. I understand that 3D scanning, the type that airports are now using will capture the human anatomy from all angles and indicate every part of the body, showing if anything is hidden anywhere."
"Looks like. It is an advanced security check mechanism."
"But there are ethical and legal issues."
"How? You are asking me how? You tell me how combatting international terrorism or a threat of it should allow any agency to use a see-all, tell-all machine that invades the body of another human being. That is not security; it is voyeurism. Peeping Toms may derive much fun from it, but I don't like it."
"As if your opinion matters... A 3D will only show outlines. How do I explain it? It is like the luggage screening machine."
"You see. I am saying the same thing. It will show every hidden thing."
"An outline actually."
"That is unacceptable. My wife travels a lot. She is not a terrorist, not a would-be bomber."
"How do you know?"
"I know because I am her husband."
"You are not making sense."
"I may not be making any sense to you. But what I am saying is that the West should know what it is introducing when it says it wants to fight international terrorism by all means. Using a three dimensional scanner to scan the outlines of the anatomy of a female homo sapiens is immoral. Can you imagine an airport official scanning my wife's body? If they are not careful, they will create more suicide-bombers, they will turn decent men into international militants!"
"Look Mr Man, go and sit down. World peace and the lives of other human beings are more important than your wife's outline. Woman-wrapper. The whole world is talking about peace and security, you are reducing everything to 3D scanner and your wife."
"I know what I am talking about. As a Muslim, I have a duty to protect my wife."
"That is precisely what visa officers don't want to hear at this moment. If you go to an embassy as a Nigerian and you declare that your name is Farouk, Sulaiman, Abdulrazak, Abdul, Mujahiddin... You see, the moment those cynical visa officers type your name into the computer and it brings up the names of terrorists and suicide bombers who share the same names, they won't waste a minute before stamping your passport: No visa, no visa, no visa."
The discussion soon focussed on the report that since the Mutallab incident, airports across the world have been subjecting Nigeria-bound luggage or luggage originating therefrom to heavy security screening. In effect, many Nigerians arrive at their destinations without their luggage, or when it eventually arrives, it bears all the imprints of tampering, excessive examination and so on, in a few cases, the luggage is declared missing.
"Not funny", my cousin said. "Do you know what that means in terms of time and cost? If your bags don't come in when they should, it means you'd have to go back and check, phone calls and all that, time that should be spent on other things will be devoted to a journey that has not been allowed to end because the airline is looking for powder and liquid explosives."
"That is the Mutallab Effect."
"But the young man has not even been found guilty yet. Let them punish the offender and not punish a whole country. I don't even know what a bomb looks like if I see it. So, why punish me?"
"These things don't work like that."
"The world has never been fair to anyone."
"If any airline plays around with my luggage, I'd sue. I will go to court. They can only try that at the Nigerian end, not in the United States. You misplace my luggage, you pay for it."
"Come to think of it," I said. "May be there is a good side to all of this."
"What is good in all Nigerians been tagged a Mutallab by the international community?"
"May be Nigerians will now behave better at airports around the world, knowing that they are being closely watched, May be our people will spend less time in aircraft lavatories. Have you not observed that when a Nigerian gets into the lavatory in an aircraft before you, he or she actually settles down there as if it is a sitting room?"
"Get away. You like to criticise everything. Make man no offload?"
"Well, may be all of this will teach Nigerians to travel light. If you know that your luggage may be delayed or you may lose a bag or two, then you'd reduce everything to hand luggage."
"That will never happen. By the time you buy shoes for Ekaette, perfume for Ngozi; handbag for Mama Silifa, clothes for the children, the ones at home and the ones outside, with special emphasis on the latter, the bags are bound to multiply. It is only oyinbo travellers who don't buy anything for anybody. We are Africans."
"I know. Your ancestors were load carriers. It is in the genes."
"How do you tell Nigerian travellers on the Dubai route not to carry baggage? I once saw a woman with five bags. When customs opened the bags, they found toilet rolls. Toilet rolls from Dubai!"
"I can imagine the Customs officials begging to be given a pack. We blame the Police all the time, but if you know the level of corruption in Customs, you'd scream E-F-C-C."
"No. I will scream Fari-da Wa-zi-ri."
"Be careful. That is another man's wife."
"What? Mr Waziri has donated his wife."
"That is interesting. To you?"
"To public service."
We concluded that after the initial expression of surprise, and the many questions that have been raised, the Mutallab incident is invariably about all of us as Nigerians. It presents government with special challenges, to the extent that the country's image has been dealt a heavy blow which needs to be managed, and all Nigerians have now become guilty would-be terrorists, they are in the dock along with their compatriot, and Nigeria finds itself in the ugly situation of being classified as part of the axis of evil. The international media is feeding on the story, seeking a story behind every possible lead. By the time they are through, they may discover a lot more that will further tarnish the country's image. The initial statement by the Federal Government is now inadequate, the world needs to be reassured continuously that Nigeria has not yet become a haven of terrorists.
We, the good ones are in the majority, and we are the real Nigerians not the boko haram, not the kala kato, not the treasury looters, not the sick leaders, not their wives, not the armed robbers and assassins, not the agents of Lord Lugard. Because every Nigerian who loses his or her mind brings shame upon the rest of us, the challenge of rescuing Nigeria is invariably the collective responsibility of the good majority. Those who mouth the rhetoric of citizens' diplomacy should now do some work; and they need not embark on estacode-guzzling trips around the world to discharge that function. This is the 50th year of Nigeria's independence, 50 years after the writing of Chinua Achebe's No Longer At Ease. It is sad that Nigeria is still No Longer At Ease.