WATCH NBC NEWS REPORT ABOUT ABDULMUTALLABHAD AND NIGERIA
Hearing on Christmas Day that a terrorist suspect had been found attempting to detonate a device on a plane was bad news. Finding out that the suspect – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabhad – was Nigerian was, for me and many other Nigerians, even worse.
Unfortunately, we Nigerians already have a bad reputation around the world. Fraud, corruption, e-mail scams and a whole host of other unsavory behaviors usually come to mind when people talk about Nigeria. Adding international terrorism to that list is far from what the country – which in recent years has been working hard to transform its image – and its citizens, both in Nigeria and in the diaspora, need or want. The speed with which the Nigerian government, as well as other key Nigerian organizations, condemned the incident attests to a strong desire to lessen the damaging impact of this incident.
The impact is already being felt, though. Traveling on a Nigerian passport was already hard work before Christmas Day. Those of us who are citizens of other countries (I’m British) tend not to bring out our green Nigerian passport unless absolutely necessary since the stereotypes precede us and immigration officials in the US or Europe often greet Nigerian travelers with suspicion. This incident will no doubt lead to increased scrutiny and profiling. This seems to be happening already, in fact: another Nigerian man who spent a long time in a bathroom on a plane shortly after the Christmas Day incident sparked a security alert although it turned out the length of time he spent in the bathroom was due to stomach issues. Before Christmas Day, he would have been another Nigerian man traveling on business. Now, he’s a potential terrorist.
The heightened tension and awareness is, of course, understandable. However, it should go without saying that the average Nigerian is a law-abiding person, disinterested in doing any of the things for which we have unfortunately become known around the world. A small minority have been allowed to shape and taint the perception of Nigerians and, just as the average Nigerian is not involved in e-mail scams, the actions of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabhad, who is certainly a disturbed young man, should not speak either for Nigerians or Nigerian Muslims.
However, as is often the case when a country with which many people aren’t familiar becomes the focus of the intense glare of the media, it becomes easy for stereotypes, distortions and misperceptions to become the order of the day. So let’s set some facts straight. Nigeria does indeed have a large Muslim population. Its Muslim population – which numbers 78 million, 50% of the entire population – is one of the largest in the world and is the largest in Sub Saharan Africa.
Violent conflicts between Muslims, who tend to live mostly in the Northern part of the country, and Christians have taken place over the years, with the most widespread violence being in the early part of this decade. However, considering the various tribes and hundreds of ethnic groups that exist in Nigeria, the different Islamic sects and the various types of Christianity, the many indigenous religions, as well as the socioeconomic and political issues of the country as a whole and its 36 states, it would be a gross oversimplification to believe that it is solely religion that has led to those conflicts. The picture is a lot more complex than that. For the most part Nigerians of all religions co-exist peacefully.
There is a militant group – known as Boko Haram – who engaged in violence earlier this year and who have been given the moniker “Nigerian Taliban”, a tag which is something of an exaggeration – and is also used as a term of derision – since they are largely unorganized and have little in common with either the Afghan Taliban or other radical Muslim groups that governments may be concerned about. They are not a mainstream Muslim group and their wish to impose Sharia Law throughout Nigeria has little support. The group’s rejection of Western culture is also considered outlandish by Nigerians, especially among those who have lived, been educated, do business or spend a great deal of time in the West.
There’s no doubt that militant groups require monitoring and pose a threat to society. There is also no doubt that there are people with extremist views in Nigeria, just as there are people with extremist views of every kind in every country in the world. This does not mean, however, that Nigeria is fertile ground for the production of would-be international terrorists. Although Al Qaeda is said to have a hold on some Eastern and Northern African countries such as Somalia and Algeria, the religious, social and cultural characteristics of those countries is very different from Nigeria. For a start, Nigeria, unlike the other countries is a secular and not a Muslim country. And even if it was a Muslim country, that would not automatically make it a terrorist training camp since the majority of Muslims around the world are peaceful people.
In fact, what’s probably most interesting about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabhad’s case, and worthy of more examination, is that he does not at all fit the profile of what one might expect of a radical religious terrorist. Not only does he come from a high profile and well respected family, but his education – and indeed his radicalization – took place in the West. We should also do well to look at what really might drive a 23-year-old to want to kill himself and others. Mental instability rather than just religious fanaticism might have something to do with that.
As a result of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabhad’s actions on Christmas Day, Nigeria and Nigerians will be under more scrutiny than ever before. This is unfortunate for both Nigerians and those who are now afraid of what might happen to them should they board a plane. Nigerians have been stereotyped as many things, and often we’ll laugh them off. The terrorist tag is not one that we’re willing to accept. We are as opposed to terrorism as any other person or nation.