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Nigerians Are Not The Enemy

Unwarranted Security Focus Brands An Entire Nation As Potential Terrorists

OKEY NDIBE

January 17, 2010

It's never been easy to be a Nigerian immigrant in the U.S. Thanks to some Nigerians who send out scam letters and e-mails around the world, there's the perception that Nigerians are financial predators prowling the cyber world for gullible victims.

When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1988, I found it difficult to open a bank account. The FBI and other agencies had sent out bulletins to banks, credit card companies and other financial services firms to beware of Nigerians. In the end, a bank opened an account only after I had lined up several longtime customers to vouch for me.

Fast-forward to 2010 and Nigerians face a different kind of peril. It's now going to be a nightmare to fly, domestically or internationally, while carrying a Nigerian passport.

On Christmas Day, a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was foiled as he attempted to ignite a fire inside a Northwest flight that was about to land in Detroit. The would-be suicide bomber, a former engineering student in London, is a child of privilege. As a student, he lived in his father's $4 million apartment in London. His father had held cabinet positions in Nigeria and, until last year, piloted one of the country's largest commercial banks.

Mr. Abdulmutallab's privileged background has baffled American commentators trying to come to grips with his dastardly plot, which would have killed close to 300 fellow passengers and crew members aboard the flight from Amsterdam.

Nigerians are just as amazed. They are also troubled by the haste with which the Obama administration put Nigeria on a list of 14 nations deemed breeding grounds for al-Qaida terrorists. Other nations on the list include Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Somalia, Libya, Algeria and the Sudan are the only other African nations on the roll.

I travel abroad several times a year and I dread the consequences of this designation. Even though I now carry an American passport having become a U.S. citizen in 1996 I travel frequently to Nigeria, and that makes me a target for increased security screening.

Many Nigerians sympathize with the thinking that informed the recent branding of their country, but some strongly contend it's an unfair policy. That's my position. The Obama administration's decision was, in the end, driven less by sound considerations than by hysteria.

One doesn't advocate laxity in the screening of Nigerian passengers. The reality is that, in the post- 9/11 climate, few passengers ever get by without being thoroughly searched. My argument is that, despite Mr. Abdulmutallab's depraved plot that was blocked by some vigilant passengers, Nigerians do not pose a unique terrorist threat to America.

From what we know so far about the bombing suspect, Nigeria played little or no role in his action. He apparently became radicalized as an extremist Muslim during his student days in England, and then received his preparation and equipment in Yemen. Besides, the moment his father got a whiff that his son had fallen in with Yemeni radicals, he alerted the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. That the young man was subsequently able to board a flight bound for the U.S. was a terrible lapse by American intelligence.

I don't believe that Nigeria deserves to be stigmatized as a terrorist haven on account of one sick man's murderous designs.

Many Nigerians who have traveled in recent weeks have had a taste of the unsavory experience of being treated as potential terrorists. A day after the aborted Christmas Day bombing, a Nigerian traveler suffering from diarrhea was forcibly removed from the toilet of another Northwest flight, bound also for Detroit. Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel laureate in literature and a frequent traveler, has described his recent trips as "stressful." A Nigerian editor who visited Austin, Texas, has written about the mental torture of subjection to multiple "pat-downs" at Dulles International Airport in Washington.

At 140 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation. A huge number of Nigerians live in the U.S., and work hard at a variety of jobs to support themselves and contribute to America's competitiveness in the world. Many Nigerians also visit the U.S. each year, on recreation or business. They are inspired by America's openness, ingenuity and enterprising spirit. Far from wishing America ill, they were just as shocked and outraged by Mr. Abdulmutallab's action as any.

It's sad to portray and treat these innocents as vile terrorists out to harm America.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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