How to Lose Nigeria and Alienate Africa

Nigeria may have problems, but it is not the world's next hotbed of extremism. Muslims and Christians there have forged a mostly harmonious co-existence that is rare and desirable.
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In Dale Carnegie's popular 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People, he gives some good advice for basic statecraft, such as giving an "honest and sincere appreciation" and "arouse in the other person an eager want."

Clearly the U.S. government is reading from a different script in its reaction to the Christmas bomber over Detroit. This week Washington enacted a new policy which will treat travelers arriving from Nigeria the same those from the state-sponsors of terrorism list. It's not only outrageous and ineffective, it's also the quickest way to lose Nigeria and alienate Africa's largest country.

Consider what we know about the 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He is far from a typical Nigerian, and comes from an elite and prestigious family (his own father responsibly reported his concerns to the authorities). He studied engineering at the privileged and expensive University College of London, where many believe he was recruited, while he apparently obtained the relatively rare PETN explosive from Yemen.

In other words, Abdulmutallab couldn't be more different than most of his compatriots, yet the U.S. is punishing 150 million innocent Nigerians with this ill-considered policy. If the U.S. insists upon treating so many people like terrorists, perhaps in the future their wish might be granted. Besides, if anybody should be made to stand in a special line at customs, it should be those folks from the TSA, FBI, and CIA who failed to connect the dots with so much information to prevent this.

As someone who has worked in Nigeria on-and-off for more than 30 years and traveled there many times, I can tell you that the country may have problems, but it is not the world's next hotbed of extremism. Nigerian Muslims and Christians have forged a mostly harmonious co-existence that is rare and desirable, and culturally there exists the type of moderate Islam that is a beacon for the future. On a personal level, I have known many peaceful, honest, and hard working Nigerians, and it is disappointing to see them discriminated against because of this one errant individual.

We often hear critics bemoan the absence of moral voices in the responsible Muslim community denouncing terrorism, but in Nigeria, there is widespread outrage, abhorrence, and rejection of the Abdulmutallab attack and terrorism in general.

It's not hard to understand why President Barack Obama put Nigeria on the list. It's pure political expediency, as the assailed Democrats have to prove that they are "tough on terrorism" (although I would point out the previous government did not put Saudi Arabia on the list after 11 nationals brought down the Twin Towers). Additionally, there is also the problem that Washington has no trustworthy partner in Nigeria given the country's current constitutional crisis.

For those unfamiliar with Nigeria, it may seem strange that no media outlet has published a single comment or interview from President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. The fact is that nobody has heard one word from him since he disappeared almost two months ago to receive medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. With the president out of the country, his entourage has refused to give up power. There are even unconfirmed rumors and hearsay circulating that the president suffered irreversible brain damage during the flight, and that control of the government has fallen into the hands of opportunists in the palace circles.

Though unable to communicate, the president mysteriously signed a supplementary budget order from his sick bed, releasing $2.4 billion dollars to the government caretakers, which naturally caused these rumors of state capture to accelerate.

There are numerous legal challenges, petitions, and protests calling for his resignation. Next week the courts will hold the first hearings on a major lawsuit launched by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) against the president demanding that he comply with the constitution and hand over power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. Richard Joseph, a Nigeria expert associated with the Brookings Institution, has argued that "Nigeria is experiencing a crisis of performance in virtually every area of public policy," and that the president's disappearance has "heightened the dismay and anxiety."

The costs associated with this vacuum of leadership have been high. Deficiencies in security, electricity generation, transportation infrastructure, health, and education have all soared under President Yar'Adua. Oil, the life blood of the nation's economy, has also suffered, with production falling from 2.6 million barrels per day in 2006 to around 1.2 million today.

Meanwhile, the corruption of the judicial system has become more and more flagrant. James Ibori, the infamous Delta State governor who has had more than $35 million frozen in the United Kingdom on corruption charges, recently had 170 corruption charges against him dropped by Nigeria's federal high court. Allegedly one of the most fabulously corrupt men in the country walked away from court free as a bird, while the rumors that he substantially funded Yar'Adua's presidential campaign gained traction among the skeptics.

Instead of tackling the country's worst problem, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has been transformed into a political weapon, mounting cases and show trials against many of Nigeria's leading reformers. Nasir El-Rufai, the highly respected former minister of Abuja and a client of mine, has been the victim of one of these campaigns of persecution, and Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of the EFCC, has also had false cases brought against him.

In summary, we have here the largest African state with the largest youth population and the most Muslim citizens, governed by a severely ill and president who hasn't been in office for months, where the corrupt walk free and the reformers are persecuted. I strongly maintain my conviction that Nigerians are peaceful people who do not deserve the insult of being included any watch list, but urgent changes are required from the government to insure against the emergence of extremism.

Terrorism is not the problem with Nigeria, it is corruption and poor governance which pose the greatest security threat - and that's where diplomatic efforts should focus, not these kinds of insulting lists which just further punish the victim. The 2011 elections represent a critical moment in Nigerian history, presenting the opportunity for the second consecutive civilian transfer of power. The international community should have a considerable interest in helping guarantee a safe, equal, and legitimate vote. Cooperation around the time of the elections could be considerably more difficult if this terrorism watchlist still exists.

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