Obama wrong on Nigerians

by Okey Ndibe

The title of this column, which sets out to make a subtle differentiation between Nigeria and Nigerians, is carefully chosen.

President Barack Obama has every reason to be dismayed with the Nigerian state, and specifically with the misbegotten lot who pass for the country’s leadership. Nobody is more ashamed of the mediocrities presiding over Nigeria’s affairs than enlightened Nigerians. The absence of even a credible pretence to a legitimate leadership in Abuja is a source of embarrassment and great pain for Nigerians. The Nigerian daily, Next, scooped last week that Umaru Yar’Adua, who has occupied space in Aso Rock since May, 2007, was brain dead. A brain dead “leader” pretty much sums up Nigeria’s tragic story.

Nigeria’s leadership gap must gall the first person of African descent to occupy the US presidency. And especially at a time when the US just managed, by sheer luck verging on a miracle, to escape a heinous plot orchestrated to inflict maximum psychological damage on Americans and the world. Had Farouk Abdulmuttalab and his al Qaeda sponsors realized their dastardly designs, they would have sent tremors down the spine of America and its allies around the world.

President Obama stood to pay a huge political price if the Delta flight had exploded over Detroit, as the foiled bomber had planned. A calamity on that colossal scale would have poured fuel into extreme rightwing charges – anchored by former Vice President Dick Cheney – that Obama was not only unserious about combating terrorism, but was, in fact, cozying up to rabid groups out to destroy America.

To his credit, Obama recognizes that the war against terrorists is far more complex than the George W. Bush crowd allowed. Obama has steered the war away from the Bush mindset that often came close to pillorying Islam – and which emphasized extravagant displays of firepower.

For all its pyrotechnic moments, the Bush approach made little progress in its mission to cripple terrorists. In some ways, in fact, Bush’s anti-terrorism doctrine, with its binary focus, its us-versus-them template may well have fertilized al Qaeda’s radicalization and recruitment of otherwise moderate, educated and liberal Muslims.

Obama was right to chart a different course. Far from abandoning the option of force, he merely rejected the abuse of that response. He reckoned that force ought not to be deployed where diplomacy had better prospects to promote dialogue and establish a sense of shared values or common interests.

My fear is that, in the wake of the aborted bombing by Abdulmuttalab, the Obama administration has moved too hastily to tar Nigerians. If there was an occasion when the sins of one depraved young Nigerian should not be visited on other Nigerians, this was it.

One point has been made again and again, but it bears belaboring. Abdulmuttalab’s odyssey as a terrorist had very little, if anything, to do with Nigeria. By all accounts, he fell under al Qaeda’s spell in the UK and was trained and equipped for his deadly mission in Yemen. Nigeria came into the picture of his plot at all only because he passed through a Nigerian airport en route.

And here’s another fact to consider: the moment the young terrorist’s father got an inkling that his son had fallen among zealots intent on wreaking havoc on the US, the man told US authorities what he knew. That the young man was able to board a US-bound flight sporting his lethal underwear bespeaks a profound failure on the part of an extensive network of US intelligence.

Obama has admitted that American intelligence did worse than fumble the ball; it did not even come close to having its eye on the ball. Even so, President Obama has balked at suggestions that he fire one or more custodians of intelligence. His argument is that the failure was a systemic one, not a matter of personnel laxity.

Perhaps that’s the right call. But it’s baffling that an Obama who has chosen to be magnanimous towards inept officers and intelligence agencies has signed off on a policy that amounts to grave injustice to Nigerians. Everything considered, there’s neither logic nor justice in portraying Nigeria as an address to watch for terrorists when Britain and Saudi Arabia are not on the list.

Shock, disgust and disbelief defined Nigerians’ collective reaction on learning that Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the would-be Christmas day bomber, was a Nigerian. Until the enterprising saharareporters.com produced the first photo of Farouk, and identified his father, many Nigerians were certain that he was an impostor who had somehow traveled under the cover of a Nigerian passport.

Nigeria has had a long and ugly history of outbreaks of religious violence – on the domestic front. Adherents of some extremist or fringe Islamic group often trigger these sprees of sectarian bloodletting by launching unprovoked attacks on Christians and other perceived “infidels.”

On the whole, the Nigerian state has a shameful record of confronting these homegrown zealots. It has often deployed mere words of warning, even exhortations of moderation, to these bloodhounds. It’s hardly come down hard on these killers in God’s name, nor has it mounted serious prosecution of arrested fanatical thugs. Official apathy to episodes of religious mayhem has served to encourage their recurrence.

In fact, the frequency and gruesomeness of such attacks seemed to wane only when the victims, figuring out that the Nigerian government lacked the will and muscle to protect them, learned to arm themselves and repel their assailants.

If Nigerians pose any serious threat to Americans, it’s likely to be Americans visiting Nigeria. A Nigerian transporting mass violence to America is extremely rare.

That’s why Nigerians regard Abdulmuttalab, rightly, as both a fluke and a “non-Nigerian” threat. He’s Nigerian by birth, sure. But he is, fundamentally, a hired-in-Britain, trained-in-Yemen al Qaeda operative. Nigeria had little or no role in his logistical preparation for the mission of death he undertook. He does not in any way represent an emerging trend in Nigeria. One concurs with the conclusion of a friend who speculated that, had Farouk lived in Nigeria, he might have menaced Nigerian “unbelievers,” but he would never have taken up explosives against the US.

Perhaps, as some Nigerians suspect, the Obama administration has chosen to exploit the terrifying circumstances of December 25 as an opportunity to further underscore Nigeria’s pariah status. If that’s the idea, it’s a sad mistake and the timing is atrocious.

Nigerians would welcome it if Obama toughened his administration’s stance against the imposed government of Mr. Umaru Yar’Adua. It’s a different matter when the US imposes strictures that compound the travails of innocent Nigerians.

The designation of Nigeria as a garden of terror could not have come at a worse moment. Nigeria is in the midst of a crisis never seen in its history – the absolute disappearance of a man who presumes to be the country’s “president.” And then there’s his cohorts’ insistence on using his name to hijack and monopolize.

As the power game plays out, nobody has bothered to address a nation-wide fuel scarcity that’s crippled the country. Nobody is doing a thing about ever worsening power failures. The parasites exploiting Nigeria are too comfortable to care.

Obama’s policy is ill-advised. It consigns Nigerians to the undeserved category of terrorists, and places the onus on every Nigerian to prove otherwise. He would do better to review that policy in a manner that recognizes that there’s a veritable chasm between Nigeria’s “leaders” and its people.


y all means, America should officially declare those who are running Nigeria aground as terrorists, but it should spare the vast majority of Nigerians who have nothing in common with Abdulmuttalab.

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1 comment

Naijabased January 16, 2010 - 8:18 am

The US has been warning Nigeria for some years now tha Al Qaeda is gradually taking root in the country, yet we chose to ignore the warning. They have seen this in the various religious Jihads which occur yearly in the Nortern states, yet the key perpetrators or sponsors are never revealed or brought to book.

Since we are not tackling the problem at home properly, the US has decided to take a bold step in ensuring all Nigerians are properly checked and regulated before entering the US. As a Nigerian it pains me that we have been so classified but if I were a US citizen I would hail the government for taking a step in the right direction.

If our government is smart, instead of wasting their time and money trying to appeal to the US to get us off their list they should spend more time tackling the problems at home. Deal squarely with any relegious or ethnic uprisings, improve infratructures in the country, develop other industries apart from oil and you would see that less Nigerians would be interested in travelling out of the country talk less of going to the US. Infact Americans who are very capitalistic in nature would queue up to come into Nigeria to conduct business.


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