Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Single Act, a Punished People: Nigerians Face Backlash

A single act, a punished people: Nigerians face backlash

Funmi Feyide-John
2010-02-10, Issue 469

Ordinary Nigerians, Funmi Feyide-John observes, are experiencing a backlash of discrimination worldwide as a result of the attempted suicide bombing on an American flight by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Following the event, Nigeria has been listed as a ‘terror prone’ country. Feyide-John goes on to reveal that despite most Nigerians having denounced Abdulmutallab’s actions and terrorism, the US is denying Nigerian students their visas, Nigerian travellers are subjected to special ‘rules’ and Nigerian community initiatives in the US are being shunned. He notes that Nigerians are receiving no support from the Nigerian government to overcome these problems. Furthermore, Nigeria’s unstable political backdrop at the moment is one that encourages separation. What is needed, Feyide-John concludes, however, is unity.

The last few weeks have been unprecedented for Nigerians. As a people, they are accustomed to the negative stereotypes and press that come with being known for online princes duping the greedy and unsuspecting, ineptly corrupt government officials, or sporadic outbursts of political and tribal violence and much more. The last few weeks, however, have offered incredible surprises, the first of which was the revelation that a privileged Nigerian attempted a suicide attack on a plane headed to the United States (US). Then, there was Nigeria's surprising inclusion on a ‘terror prone’ list putting the country in the company of state sponsors of terrorism like Iran and Syria. But despite these unexpected incidents, it is the treatment of Nigerian citizens and those of Nigerian heritage that has been the most shocking. Innocent Nigerians and their families have been subjected to embarrassment and sheer discrimination across the world with little support or solace from the Nigerian government, which has a president who has not been seen for months, other authorities that have ineffectively responded to the growing diplomatic crisis, and a senate that chose to wait until it returned from its vacation to address the growing concerns and issues faced by citizens.


On 24 December 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a KLM flight in Accra, Ghana, that took him to Lagos, Nigeria and then on to Amsterdam, where he caught a connecting flight to Detroit, Michigan in the US. The 23 year old, the son of an well respected banker and former Minister, has been indicted with attempting to explode a device over the US. His father warned the US government of his son's radicalisation and that he might be a threat. In addition to this warning, Abdulmutallab was on a British 'watch list' and was refused entry into the United Kingdom (UK). Additionally, American intelligence had information about a Nigerian visiting Yemen for terrorist purposes, and according to President Obama, ‘[t]he U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack’, but failed to do so. And, crucially, the alleged masterminds of the attack were actually former Guantanamo prison inmates who were released by the Bush administration to return to Yemen.

On 3 January 2009, Nigeria was included in a list of ‘terror prone’ countries by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which specified that all travellers flying into the US from a Nigerian airport, regardless of their nationality, would experience additional screening and searches.


Before the full extent of Abdulmutallab's objectives were known, some snickered that he was a ‘silly little boy trying to light Christmas fireworks on a plane’ and dismissed the news story as a soon-to-be-cleared-up mistake. However, as more details were revealed, it became clear that Abdulmutallab became a radicalised Muslim while schooling in the UK and spent considerable time preparing to be a suicide bomber in Yemen. There, he apparently met a controversial cleric who is tied to the recent Fort Hood attack (where a US soldier killed fellow soldiers). Abdulmutallab also spent time in Dubai in 2009.

A Nigerian official announced that full body scanners would be introduced at Nigerian international airports, once it was revealed that Abdulmutallab might have been caught in Nigeria's Murtala Mohammed Airport if the device had been used. Embarrassingly, a New York Times report disclosed that Nigeria's four main international airports are already outfitted with body scanners, which were not used on a frequent basis. Nigeria's government issued an official statement reacting to the incident, specifying: ‘The Federal Government of Nigeria received with dismay the news of attempted terrorist attack on a U.S. airline. We state very clearly that as a nation, we abhor all forms of terrorism. The Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, has directed Nigerian security agencies to commence full investigation of the incident. [O]ur security agencies will cooperate fully with the American authorities in the on-going investigations. Nigerian government will be providing updates as more information becomes available.’ [sic]

Nigerians around the world expressed their outrage that a fellow citizen would make such a murderous attempt. Many spoke out against Abdulmutallab in the media, such as a group of Nigerian Muslims based in Detroit, where the fateful plane was headed. In no time, others used the social networking site Facebook to create a group condemning the terrorist attempt. Various Nigerian organisations in America issued similar statements in reaction to the incident, such as the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization and even the militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).


Immediately after the terrorist attempt, Nigerians in the US expressed their worries of a possible backlash. Nigerian immigrants in Chicago feared that their American neighbours would ‘rush into judgment, criminalizing all Nigerians’ and many Nigerians in the Washington DC metropolitan region also discussed with a local news station their fears of a backlash.

And those fears appear to have been justified as disturbing information on the treatment of those of Nigerian heritage is beginning to emerge. At airports, some Nigerian Americans have been asked to enter special lines for additional scrutiny when travelling to Nigeria, despite their American passports. Delta Airlines officially declared that passengers flying to Nigeria could not check in more than 2 pieces of luggage, even if they are willing to pay for the excess baggage (confirmed via telephone as of 12 January). This is despite the fact that the company's website states that all travellers heading to Nigeria can pay for excess luggage. A Nigerian professor^, travelling from South Africa to the US on the weekend of 9 January, was searched at least seven times. Furthermore, visas for Nigerian students, seeking to come to the US to start Master's programmes, were recently denied. As of 19 January, a sign was placed outside the US embassy in Abuja notifying that student visas were not being processed at the time.

In communities with large numbers of Nigerian immigrants, there is increasing pressure. Nigerian communities in the Detroit town of Southfield have been 'encouraged' to ‘deter acts of terrorism’ despite the fact that Abdulmutallab was radicalised in the UK and Yemen. That city's mayor is now being advised by city officials to withdraw his support for the Nigerian community, its many organisations and activities. Interviews with those^ involved in this evolving situation reveal the worry that the hard work that the Nigerian community has put into entrenching itself into Southfield has been erased by the single act of one misled individual.

And the profiling of Nigerians and those of Nigerian heritage increases in the US. Individuals of Nigerian heritage seeking US government clearance are receiving phone calls from American authorities. They are asked ubiquitous questions about their ties to Nigeria. In one specific case, the individual was of Nigerian descent^, born in America to Nigerian parents, and thus a US citizen via birth not naturalisation. Apparently, that reality did not deter the authorities from impinging on this individual's rights by profiling on the basis of national heritage.


It is situations like this – and the many more that may never come to light – that make it imperative for Nigeria-related organisations to take the initiative to stem the backlash that all Nigerians – individuals and businesses – experience. Although Abdulmutallab acted without consulting the greater Nigerian public, it is that same public and those in the diaspora that seemingly suffer for his actions. Consequently, the advice given to Nigerian groups in the Southfield area of Detroit is wise – do as much as possible to publicly convince those around you that you are not just against terrorism, but will not harbour the thought. That does not mean disowning Abdulmutallab, it means taking the time to think about the specifically Nigerian issues that might have contributed to his 'creation'. There is no mistake that Nigeria, despite its natural wealth, suffers from ever increasing poverty, an underperforming educational system that forces families to send their children to school anywhere other than in Nigeria, health indicators for women and children that are disappointing, and a government that cannot figure out whether it is run by a president in Saudi Arabia for over two months or someone else. Nigeria's problems clearly encourage separation not unity. Yet, it is unity that is needed more than ever in light of Abdulmutallab and the backlash that some Nigerians are experiencing in the US and around the world. Unity is the balm which Nigerians need – regardless of where they live – in order to tackle both the tough issues at home and the international crisis that the nation must unburden itself of.


* The individuals in this article marked ^ have asked that the writer maintain their anonymity.
* Funmi Feyide-John is a Nigerian lawyer and writer living in Washington DC.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.

1 comment:

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