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Opinion: Nigerians press for active head of state

Inactivity of President Yar'Adua prevents government from responding to US security crisis.

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, center, speaks during a protest rally against Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua's long absence without handing over power in the capital Abuja, Jan. 12, 2010. Doubts over Yar'Adua's health and the fact he kept full powers despite his silence had brought growing unease in the country of 140 million, slowed official business and put at risk a truce in the oil-producing Niger Delta. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The Nigerian government is vigorously protesting the country’s inclusion on the U.S. list of 14 nations subject to enhanced aviation passenger security screening.

At the same time, the more politically involved elite of the country are doing all that they can to distance themselves and Nigeria from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to bomb an American airplane on Christmas day.

Nigerian President Umaru Yar’adua, currently in a Saudi Arabian hospital, has only been heard from once over the last eight weeks, in a short BBC interview, and there are unconfirmed reports that he suffers brain damage. The confluence of these two crises has triggered growing Nigerian recognition that the country cannot continue without executive authority, as well as anxiety and uncertainty about how a presidential transfer of power will take place.

Nigerians have been falling over themselves in denouncing the U.S. inclusion of Nigeria on the list. Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe summoned the U.S. ambassador in Nigeria to protest officially. Nigeria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Joy Ogwu, has complained publicly that Nigeria should not be labeled as a terrorist country because of the actions of one man. Minister of Communication and Information Dora Akunyili characterized the U.S. step as “unfair … because Nigerians do not have a terrorist tendency.”

In addition, the Senate Spokesman, claiming to speak on behalf of Senate president David Mark, threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the United States if the listing was not rescinded by this week. Prominent Nigerians ranging from Wole Soyinka to former President Yakubu Gowon have expressed similar sentiments. Others have accused the United States of applying a double standard. They note that in the aftermath of 9/11, Saudi citizens were not subject to enhanced security screening, nor were British subjects after the apprehension of the shoe bomber.

This reaction may be driven by the Nigerian elites’ desire to be thought well of by the United States. They are sensitive to American criticism, which they see as akin to a family betrayal. They and the media have downplayed Abdulmutallab’s Nigerian nationality and his elite status by arguing, often emotionally, that he spent little time in Nigeria and was radicalized abroad. To many of the Nigerian elite, Yemeni claims that Abdulmutallab procured terrorist training and explosives in Nigeria is anathema.