Christmas 2009


The Delta Airlines would-be underpants bomber turned out to be an unpleasant Christmas surprise but not of the “wow, you shouldn’t have” awkward gifts sort. 23 year-old Umar Abdulmutallab cast an unwelcome spot-light on the perennially trouble-plagued nation of Nigeria, of which he is a citizen, raising questions on a new terror threat theatre.

That parts of Nigeria are hot-beds of Islamic fundamentalism is not new. Indeed in the days after the Christmas attack, religious riots have broken out in a northern state resulting in several deaths . It is the <em>internationalization</em> of Nigeria’s simmering domesticated terror that may spell an escalation to a “clear and present” danger.

This incident comes at a very bad time for Nigeria. Invalid president Umar Yar’Adua has been bed-ridden in a Saudi Arabian hospital for over a month. His failure to initiate the constitutional process for an acting president has created a leadership vacuum so palpable that it has pushed the country recently ranked 15 out of 177 on the failed state index closer to the top of that unenviable distinction.

Without clear command and control, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, who is reportedly under pressure not to assume power during the “time slot” for a northern Muslim president, is politically hamstrung from moving against the region’s powerful Islamic interests, terrorism or no terrorism. The US and UK leaders, conversely, have been proactively engaged in the present situation.

That said,it would perhaps have been more personally embarrassing for president Yar’adua, if he were not indisposed. Terror-suspect Abdulmutallab is from Yar’adua’s home state of Katsina and his father remains extremely influential in a country where geographical origin is a factor in selecting the president. Mutallab grew up in practically the same settings and circles as some of the Nigerian president’s nine kids.

Even if president Yar’adua were on the saddle, his own antecedents are dubious. As governor of Katsina, he imposed the controversial Taliban-style sharia law that led to a death sentence by stoning on a woman convicted of adultery. This led to an international outcry from countries including the United States and even Nigeria’s then president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who did not support Yar’adua’s extremist policy.

Under President Obasanjo, US and Nigeria enjoyed commendable bilateral relations. In November 2001, President Obasanjo flew to Washington DC to commiserate with President Bush, just weeks after the 911 terror attacks. At a breakfast interactive session just before he left, I asked Obasanjo if he was aware that Osama Bin Laden’s secretary, who was tried in the US, had been in Nigeria and what the levels of intelligence cooperation were between both countries. A usually non-perturbed retired General, Obasanjo blurted out that cooperation was on-going. To me, this was an indication that this information that was in a New York court transcript and mainstream US media was unknown to him.

Security cooperation improved thereafter though. In 2005, a senior intelligence officer posted to the Nigerian embassy in Washington spoke to NBC about an alleged terrorism financier operating in Nigeria. By this time, Bin Laden had labeled Nigeria part of his own “axis of evil” governments deserving to be overthrown. It is not known if Bin Laden has reversed that Fatwah since the transition from Obasanjo, a Christian from  southern Nigeria, to Yar’adua.

However, just this year, President Yar’adua fired the intelligence officer formerly based in Washington, who had risen to become the Director General of Intelligence at the agency responsible for international cooperation. At issue was a scandal on the denial of passport renewals to Nigerian dissidents abroad, which was a new priority of the presidency.

It gets worse. Earlier this year, security agents at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos detained the three, seven and nine year-old kids of former Nigerian government minister, Mr. Nasir El Rufai, who was attending Harvard (a perceived presidential rival) while returning to the country with their mum from abroad. It is this same Lagos airport that Abdulmutallab flew out of unfettered by security agents, inspite of a report by his connected dad.

That the government of Nigeria is focused on fighting political criticism instead of fighting religious terrorism is all too clear. Annual reports of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom have flunked Nigeria’s handling of domestic terrorism which has claimed thousands of lives. The export of terrorism, whether homegrown or foreign-radicalized, is a new low for the country.

This year, President Obama went out of his way to avoid traveling to Nigeria on the maiden Africa visit of his presidency – an foreign policyapproach, no doubt, vindicated by this new development (although the ulterior concern then, I surmised was more the host president’s health than the guest president’s). It still remains stunningly ironic that president Obama’s security could have been more at risk on the continent of his forbears than his security team realized.

But during Hilary Clinton’s subsequent visit, she decried Nigerian law enforcement’s failure in another area of past mutual cooperation, anti-corruption, since the current administration came in – and failure across all levels of government in Nigeria. Again the Nigerian government has shown more gusto issuing international arrest warrants for its celebrated former anti-corruption czar, Mr. Nuhu Ribadu, while suppressing foreign evidence requests regarding corrupt ex-governors with ties to the president.

All said and done, while a couple of Nigerian recruits have been spotted in Afghanistan training as foreign fighters, none has had the dubious distinction of making it to Guatanamo detention. But the Christmas day surprise lies in the fact that Africa’s oil resource, which has been viewed as a strategic alternative source for the US to de-fund terror financing, is now in danger of petro-terror cross contamination.

The spectre of an oil-exporting and terror-exporting Nigeria (whose muslim population exceeds the entire population of each country in Africa) is one that will no doubt agitate the mind of President Obama. Saddest of all, even if the US president were to call the president of Nigeria today, it is unclear if there is anyone to pick up on the other side. And that is where the real threat lies – a power vacuum in Africa’s powerhouse.