After the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the U.S., Nigeria was added to an American list of countries with ties to terrorism. This, despite the fact that then-president Olusegun Obasanjo spent a significant amount of time visiting the US and proclaiming Nigeria's staunch support of the American counter-terrorism efforts.
As a Nigerian abroad, I was frequently asked questions, such as "Is it true that Nigeria harbors terrorists?" or "Is it safe in Nigeria, what with Al Qaeda and stuff...". With each question, I got protective about Nigeria and explained that Nigerians are not interested in Al Qaeda or terrorism. I would have to point out that Nigerians are considered some of the happiest people on the planet and that our love of 'owambe' (all night) parties, 'awoof' (I will have to rely on my readers for a detailed definition of this Nigerian concept), weddings and the overall good life would overcome any slight risk of even dabbling in terrorism.
Then MEND began to mete out their demands for justice, while its less-ideologically inclined imitators simply demanded money and Johnny Walker. Before I knew it, the uncomfortable questions started again. I would receive phone calls from long lost friends, "Is your mother okay? FOX News says they just bombed an oil rig" or "Some Americans got kidnapped over there. Is your family okay?" All I can say in response is, "My family is fine. The kidnappers will release the victims in no time, don't worry. That's how they do things..." And, with every new kidnapping incident, I paid less and less attention because I trusted that the kidnappers would release their victims and all would end well.
Things started to get better. America's economic recession grabbed headlines and people focused on other things like the battle for the American presidency and the continuing process to pick a Democratic nominee. I started to breathe easier. I even managed to read a widely circulated US government report that the Nigerian Taliban, a small group operating mainly in Kano, has no ties to Al Qaeda or other Islamist militant groups in Algeria, Afghanistan or anywhere else. Hence, all that talk tying Nigeria to terrorists was all a big bad mistake. I poured myself a glass of Riesling and made a mental note to write about it and remind Nigerians and the world of the retraction.
But then it happened. I saw the following attention grabbing headline in my Google Reader - 'R-E-D-A-L-E-R-T: IG Warns over Al- Qaeda Plot to Bomb Nigeria' and my mouth became sour. I went on to read that Nigeria's inspector General (IG) of Police, Mike Okiro, told a group of senior officials that,
"The al Qaeda network has threatened to send time bombs to Nigeria . . . CPs (commissioners of police) of all the commands should be on the alert and ensure that these items (bombs) do not pass through their end,"Why would Okiro say this? And, why would he and the Yar'Adua Administration not do everything within their power to discourage the publication of such a glaringly disadvantageous headline? The IG's statements go completely against any progress that Nigeria is attempting to make in rebranding itself and preparing for the development it proclaims to strive for. Nigeria cannot market itself as a tourist haven if its own IG contradicts the hardwork and collaboration between Nigerian and American authorities in retracting previous claims that Nigeria has terrorist ties. Nigeria cannot calm the fears of needed global investors who are hesitant to invest capital in the economy when our own IG is telling the world that the nation is an immediate terror target. But, even more important than any of that is the fact that in a country where citizens have hardly any light, are spending more and more of their hard-earned income on ever rising food, gas and other necessities, is it really wise to make such statements publicly? It is never wise to create fear in the heart of the populace by telling them that a world-renowned terrorist group plans to set off bombs in Nigeria whether that is true or not. Nigerians do not need this, in addition to all the other 'wahala' (problems) they deal with on a daily basis.
Despite this, I am glad that the IG has started his damage control and is now downplaying his quoted statement by asking Nigerians to ignore published accounts of a bomb plot. The Public Relations Officer of Nigeria Police Force, Agberebi Akpoebi, even went as far as declaring that the published reports were completely false and were done simply to serve "a selfish and private interest". I am not quite sure what that means or whether this is effective damage control, especially as these responses from the IG were delayed by almost a week, but I can only hope that in Nigeria's journey towards a more stable and secure nation, that we take the right steps to prevent the ambitions of those that seek to cause chaos while protecting the interests of the Nigerian citizen. And by interest, I am talking about the right to a peaceful nights sleep without adding terrorism fears to the many headaches Nigerians have to deal with. We cannot continue to give ammunition to those who clearly do not have our interests at heart. Let us try to not shoot ourselves in the foot by tying our lot to the aims of terrorism either intentionally or unintentionally.
May the souls of all those lost in the recent Lagos pipeline explosion, rest in peace. I hope that the IG, the seemingly hardworking Lagos state government and the federal government have an effective plan to prevent these explosions, which are beginning to occur too frequently.