A failed bombing, an opportunity for Nigeria

By Lekan Oguntoyinbo
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"What do you have in your bags?" bellowed the customs officer at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Dressed in plain clothes, he seemed a jovial fellow. It was Dec. 26, 1999. I was checking luggage in Lagos, Nigeria, before boarding a flight to Detroit via Amsterdam.

I ticked off my list: clothing, books, toiletries, wood carvings and dried foodstuff. And a rusty sword that I had purchased as a souvenir from a street vendor in Lagos.

"Would you like to see it?" I asked the official.

"Oh, no," he replied in mock horror. "I don't like weapons. But where is my Christmas present?"

Since the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day, many have asked how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student whose father flagged his radicalization to U.S. authorities, was able to get highly explosive material through airport security checkpoints and even on board a plane in Lagos. It may be a while before U.S. and Nigerian investigators present concrete responses to apparent security flaws. But some things are already clear.

The problems at Nigeria's largest airport are symptomatic of issues plaguing the West African country. Once one of Africa's greatest hopes, Nigeria, a nation about the size of Arizona, California and Nevada combined, has become an embarrassment, a lawless country run by plutocrats. Nigeria has all the makings of a failed state: Less than half of its 148 million people have access to running water, the World Health Organization and UNICEF's Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation have reported. Electricity is epileptic. The K-12 and public university systems are frequently beset by strikes. Roads are poor, often unpaved and unpassable. Crime is the order of the day. Nigerian police officers don't protect and serve; their uniforms allow them to exploit, extort and oppress. If victims are not from Nigeria's small protected class, they are sometimes murdered. Borders with neighbors such as Niger, which is known to host al-Qaeda cells, are notoriously porous.

In 1996 and 1997, Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Nigeria the world's most corrupt country. When Nigeria came in second behind Cameroon in 1998, some joked that Nigerians had bribed the Cameroonians.

Officially, Nigeria is a democratic federal republic. Since adopting a U.S.-style government in 1999, the civilian administration has made some efforts to attack corruption in both the private and public sectors. But there is a growing feeling that the war on corruption is highly selective. It is still widely understood that certain politicians, business executives, and current and former high-ranking civil servants and military officers and their families are above the law. And elites are not subjected to the "indignity" of airport screenings.

Two decades ago Murtala Muhammed International began earning a reputation as a home to criminals who sometimes attacked planes as they taxied down runways. Robbers roamed the terminals and parking lot looking for prey. Even immigration and customs officers harassed passengers for bribes, sometimes threatening new arrivals with deportation or confiscation of their goods. From the mid-1990s to 2000, direct passenger flights between the United States and Nigeria were banned because of the Nigerian government's failure to curb drug traffic.

To be sure, Nigeria has made improvements. In the airports, non-passengers' entry to terminals is restricted and runways are more closely monitored. But a commentator noted Sunday in the Nigerian national daily newspaper the Guardian that lax security at airports still raises concerns. Airport personnel still sometimes extort passengers. And many elites and their guests are escorted to planes without being required to pass through metal detectors.

In recent days Nigerians around the world have expressed concern about the failed bombing. "Mutallab: Man Who Shamed Nigeria" blared one headline in a Nigerian daily. "Mutallab: The Nigerian Agent of Al-Qaeda" read another. For many of the estimated 1 million Nigerians living in this country, a number of whom are enterprising and highly skilled workers, the incident tarnishes an image already soiled by a reputation for narcotics smuggling and Internet fraud. Nigerians at home have expressed worries about visa opportunities being restricted.

I, however, am not among those fearing the repercussions of this incident. I dare to dream that a reassessment of security at Nigeria's airports could lead to a broader discussion about security in my home country. Maybe that security discussion could beget a push to transform Nigeria into a true democracy, where each man and woman is equal and subject to the same rules -- even at the airport.

Lekan Oguntoyinbo is a freelance journalist and an assistant professor of journalism at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.


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