In the post 9/11 world USA and the rest of the Western hemisphere are at war with terrorism and terrorists. No terrorist threat, real or imagined, is taken lightly. Right now, Barack Obama is up to his ears with increasing American concerns about his ability to secure the U.S., and by extension, the rest of the West. What if Abdulmutallab's bomb had gone off? What was done about the father's alarms about his son? Airport loopholes? The Western security agencies will have their hands full for sometime to come.
But my concern is the home front. It is no longer news that USA has included Nigeria in her terrorist watch list, in effect blacklisting her. And our government is busy protesting the inclusion to the high heavens. But I think the Nigerian authorities are missing the whole point. In fact they do not seem to understand what is at stake.
By no means do I support my countrymen being treated cavalierly by America or any other country at airports, embassies, consulates, etc. While much of the unbecoming treatment Nigerian travelers have suffered overseas is because of Western stereotyping of all Nigerians as criminals out of a land of darkness misruled by misfits, our official and individual actions have also been significant contributory factors. But Umar Abdulmutallab's misadventure on December 25, 2009, drastically upped the ante. The West has been enveloped in a climate of fear since 9/11. An aborted terrorist attack by a Nigerian, especially one who outsmarted all their sophisticated checks, is a shock to the system.
The Nigerian government is giving the would-be victims (USA) a less than reassuring picture. First, it condemns the attack and assures the world of Nigeria's readiness to cooperate fully with the rest of the world in the war against terrorism. Mindful of the impositions the situation will bring on Nigerians, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora stated: ‘The committee urges Nigerians traveling to cooperate, even if vigorously searched at airports.' (Guardian, December 29). Then the same government enters a blame game with Ghana on the terrorist's take-off point, just to shore up Nigeria's image as a country incapable of breeding terrorists.
Those actions are a chase after the wind. The following issues should concentrate the minds of the Nigerian government: far-reaching measures to permanently end the peculiar brand of religious terrorism in Northern Nigeria. Those movements springing up there with their anti-Western, anti-intellectual messages are getting their backing from somewhere. Covertly or overtly, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are in town and the socio-cultural/political situation up North is what they need to flourish. Obama and Gordon Brown of Britain are not going to view us through rose-tinted spectacles when we spawn a would-be suicide bomber and a band of fundamentalist killers within a gap of days. There may be no connection between Abdulmutallab and the Kala-kato movement of Bauchi. From all indications there is no proven link but what if the seeds of madness were sown by the same sowers? Abdulmutallah was radicalized outside Nigeria. Boko Haram, Kala-kato's predecessor, had Yemeni antecedents.
While terrorism may not be in the DNA of Nigerians it would be wrong-headed to conclude that Nigerians are incapable of terrorism. Given the right conditioning (brainwashing, if you like) and environment, most people from EVERY country can become terrorists. White Americans have successfully carried out terrorist acts against the USA. For example, in 1994 Timothy McVeigh, a decorated white American soldier, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma. Terrorism is not new to Nigerians. In 1993, in the heat of the June 12 crisis, a group called Movement for the Advancement of Democracy hijacked an Abuja-bound plane and diverted it to Niamey.
If the Nigerian security agencies are trained for the challenges of the post 9/11 world and face their job, they can nip in the bud the latent monsters of home-grown terrorism. Some Nigerians traveling abroad are picking up bizarre ideologies and as Abdulmutallab's case show, they are not the dregs of Nigerian society. By no means can anyone in good conscience classify Nigeria as a terrorist state. But for far too long she has closed her eyes to the fact that post 9/11 terrorism knows no borders, and that her unpalatable situation may be giving the monster the match to light up the pyre.
Then there is the seeming rudderlessness of the government since President Umar Yar'Adua fell sick. It does not inspire global confidence in the face of this threat. Maybe Yar'Adua would not have done anything different from what VP Jonathan is doing. But since I am no legal expert I ask: are there measures the VP ought to take on this matter which he cannot because of the constitutional-cum-power juggling logjam created by his boss' absence? In the world's councils of the high and mighty there is a tool of statecraft called the quiet word. It is not advertised in newspapers. Leaders use it to exert influence and push for policy changes. In his current position can VP Jonathan have any impact-making quiet word with Obama or Hilary Clinton to moderate any planned measure which, while aimed at protecting USA, will hurt Nigerian interests?
The Nigerian elite should realize that the principle of enlightened self-interest behooves them to change their attitude to Nigeria. The way the world is shaping up, if their parochialism, greed and lunacy hurls Nigeria into the abyss, they may find no safe havens. There will be no hiding-place if those lands with sane values are affected by their misdeeds. Post 9/11 terrorism for the most part is a product of the elite; the commoners are the foot soldiers: Osama bin Laden's father was a construction multimillionaire.
Henry C. Onyema is a writer and teacher in Lagos, Nigeria