Opinion: Nigerians press for active head of state

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of Senate president David Mark, threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the United States if the listing was not rescinded by this week.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.

However, the Obama administration’s inclusion of Nigeria on its list of nations subject to enhanced passenger security screening is unavoidable and prudent. Radical Islamic sects are active in the north of Nigeria and Nigerian airports have a history of poor security practices. Despite the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s recertification of Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos in November 2009, Abdulmutallab was able to navigate successfully around its security procedures. Furthermore, the absence of the Nigerian president does not instill confidence that the Nigerian authorities will move quickly to address airport security lapses.

The storm over the bilateral relationship needs to blow over quickly because the political class must address more pressing issues. Already thoughtful Nigerians acknowledge that the absence of presidential authority made it difficult for Nigeria to respond to Dec. 25, while some outside of government are even calling the enhanced security procedures a good thing. Others observe that there was no Nigerian president to call President Obama to talk about how to improve aviation security.

Commentators note that the American president interrupted his Christmas leave twice, while the Nigerian president was silent. There is no Nigerian ambassador in Washington — the post has been vacant for months — to provide a Nigerian perspective for the American media. Unlike its predecessor, the Yar’adua government has not hired an American lobbying firm either.

Nigeria is facing much greater issues than injured pride. Thus far, the political class has reached no visible consensus about what to do if Yar’adua, a Northern Muslim, dies or is removed from office, thereby interrupting the alternation of the presidency between the Christian South and the Muslim North. It remains uncertain whether the North will accept even for an interim the current Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian. Yet spokesmen in the south are insisting that if Yar’adua is no longer president, Jonathan must become chief of state. Meanwhile, civil society leaders are suing in the courts for President Yar’adua either to return to Nigeria or to hand over his office to the Vice President.

On Jan. 12, hundreds of Nigerians demonstrated in Abuja for Jonathan to officially take the reins of the government. The march was organized by a wide spectrum of civil society leaders, including Nobel Laureate and long-time political critic Wole Soyinka. Especially disturbing in a country with a history of military coups are whispers of military disquiet. The National Assembly, now in session, needs to focus on peacefully resolving the succession crisis rather than the United States' enhanced security screening of traveling Nigerians. They should take this as a sign that they need to get their act together.