(Swans - January 25, 2010) Religious Nigerians who have been beseeching their various gods to give them some end-of-year solace were given a rude shock when on Christmas Eve 2009, one of their compatriots, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, decided to add his country's name to the list of nations of suicide bombers.
It was unwelcome news for citizens of the unfortunate country where good news is as hard to come by as chickens' teeth. As they already face a virtual sick president with no one clued as to his whereabouts, Nigerians are wringing their hands and asking what they have done to deserve the latest bad news. December, which normally should bring cheery news, has already been spoilt by a biting fuel scarcity across the land. The minister for petroleum, who should be tackling the crippling fuel scarcity, defied the vice president's order and travelled to Switzerland.
Umar Abdulmutallab was caught in an attempt to suicide-bomb Flight 253, on which he was traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit. The incident set off security, political, and diplomatic repercussions that are still reverberating across the Atlantic. It spawned various conspiracy theories. And it also set off a mini-row between Nigeria and her West-African rival, Ghana, where the would-be bomber was alleged to have spent a few weeks before he embarked on his journey.
Umar Abdulmutallab's alleged action totally destroyed the belief among Nigerians that their nation, which was voted as a country of the "happiest people" sometime ago, will never spawn people that are prepared to do themselves in just to make a statement -- religious, political, or whatever.
Suicide is highly frowned upon in many traditional African societies where it is considered a big taboo to take one's life. And Nigerians, like many Africans, simply love life too much to want to waste it.
Umar Abdulmutallab shattered that illusion and belief. Suddenly, Nigerians and Africans woke up to the realization that as with most things they held dear, things have simply fallen apart and their societies are no longer at ease.
But the lad's action shouldn't have surprised any keen observer of the Nigerian sociopolitical scene.
The country has witnessed several mindless and mind-boggling riots by Muslim fundamentalists in the northern parts of the country. Many of these riots assumed the proportions of large-scale uprising that required the intervention of the Nigerian Armed Forces to put down. The last one happened in the Northern city of Bauchi just last month (December 2009). The most serious was the Boko Haram uprising that occurred in July 2009.
In none of these incidences was there any inquiry that led to any reform. Officials seem just to forget as soon as the fires are doused. In the case of Boko Haram, the leader of the sect was arrested. He could have been a mine of intelligence but was cold-bloodedly killed in custody by the police who claimed that he was trying to escape.
When news broke out of Abdulmutallab's attempt, Nigerian officialdom did what they knew best, which was:
i. Go into deep denial
ii. Look for scapegoats
iii. Go into deep nasty funk, and
iv. throw tantrums
The youth was not only a bonafide Nigerian, but he is the son of one of Nigeria's most pampered and topmost elites. His father, a former bank chief, is a director of many of Nigeria's blue-chip companies. To his credit, the elder Abdulmutallab, who is friend to many of Nigeria's powerful men, alerted the authorities about his son's errant behavior. He even reportedly told the American Embassy about his son's new-found Islamic fundamentalist inclinations. Yet, the lad still retained his American visa and was able to escape being placed on the "No-Fly list" maintained by the Americans.
Thus Nigerians might have a point that the blame should be spread around, but the manner they went about it left much to be desired.
It does no one any credit to pretend that Nigeria is a safe place. No, it isn't. And this is attested to by many Diasporan Nigerians who admitted on various Nigerian cyberspaces that they skipped going to their beloved fatherland at the end of last year because of the precarious security (especially kidnapping and hired assassination) currently prevailing in the country.
Security continues to top the list of concerns among Nigerians and for good reasons. They will also readily admit that things have never being this bad in what many of them now call their "country of death."
In today's Nigeria, life has become short and brutish indeed. Lives are lost for a host of flimsy reasons with armed robbery, political thuggery, and religious brigandage topping the list. Kidnapping for ransom is now a common practice in some parts of the country.
Although the country parades a vast number of security organizations with impressive-sounding names, to say that Nigeria's security system is porous is to be charitable; it's simply non-existent.
Nigerian police officers are not only badly trained and ill-armed, they still retain the mentality of the colonial police that spawned them, whose remit was to keep "bloody locals" in check.
As Amnesty International reported recently, the Nigerian Police operates a shoot-to-kill policy. Nigerian officials, as usual, came out to strongly condemn the report but Nigerians knew better. They knew that a former police chief came out to publicly launch what he called "operation fire-for-fire."
And the Nigerian police were embarrassed beyond measure last year when the former head of the Economic and Finance Crime Commission (EFCC), Nuhu Ribadu, who had been declared wanted, breezed in and out of the country to attend the funeral of well-known lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi.
The police boss, in his usual garrulous manner, had earlier dismissed reports of Ribadu's visit and demanded photographic proof of the visit. The Nigerian press duly obliged him. He kept his job until he retired recently.
The Nigerian information minister came out strongly against attempts by US officials to sanction Nigeria, claiming that the lad's action was a "one-time" thing. Nigerians, she claimed, are fun-loving, life-loving, good people.
The minister of foreign affairs was even more insistent that his country should not be penalized for the action of a lone wolf. In a meeting with the US ambassador to Nigeria, he questioned why Britain was not sanctioned because of the action of "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid or the Belgian woman who became a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2005.
Valid as these points are, they missed the larger point of the sheer lack of security in Nigeria, period.
These ministers and other officials need only to leave their sheltered offices and travel to the neighboring country of Benin to have an idea how easy it is to penetrate the country for people with evil intentions.
Seme, the border town between Nigeria and Benin, must rank among the border towns with the craziest security setup in the world. There are uncountable "check points" on the Nigerian side of the border where both uniformed and officials in Mufti man-handle people -- soliciting bribes. Yet Seme must rank high among the smuggler havens of the world.
Any honest Nigerian will tell you that you can smuggle anything into Nigeria provided you are prepared to "settle" -- the parlance for paying bribe in Nigeria.
Instead of bemoaning their sad fate, the Nigerian officials protesting the sanctioning of their country also ought to look at the recent religious riots and the uprising in the Niger Delta and see what can be done to fix a very serious deficiency in their security setup.
The Delta youths, as part of their amnesty agreement, surrendered awesome arsenals of weapons that left many Nigerians quite flabbergasted. Instead of fulminating against the Americans, Nigerian officials should look for ways to shore up the deficient situation in their country's security setup.
This said, the American's reaction to the would-be suicide bombing was knee-jerk and irrational as usual, but that's a story for another day.
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Femi Akomolafe (see his profile on Swans) is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/. (back)