Airline bomb plot strains US-Nigeria ties

LAGOS (AFP) – US security measures in the wake of a failed bomb attack on an American airline have revealed cracks in relations between the US and Nigeria, one of its strategic allies in Africa.

After the botched Christmas day plot, the US placed Nigeria on a list of 14 countries from which travellers would face extra security checks, angering Abuja authorities.

The irked Nigerian authorities warned the move could touch off an unprecedented diplomatic spat and hurt the long-standing relations between the two countries.

Nigeria’s senate threatened to sever ties unless the US rescinded its decision which ranked the country alongside countries including Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was due to appear in court in Detroit later Friday accused of trying to blow up Northwest Airlines’ flight 253 with 290 people aboard.

“We are going to engage all our diplomatic gears to ensure that we either have relations with America or we don’t,” senate spokesman Ayogu Eze warned.

The government’s response has illustrated concerns among the country’s political class that they are continuously “ignored by the US,” said Nigerian commentator Shehu Sani.

On the other hand, he said, the US’s action could be seen as an expression of its frustration at a government whose election in 2007 it chided as “seriously flawed” and marred by “malfeasance and vote-rigging.”

“It’s a kind of trigger of some things that have been bottled up by America,” said Tajudeen Akanji, head of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan.

“The world is not happy with what is happening in this country,” he said in reference to the power vacuum created by President Umaru Yar’Adua‘s long absence from the country due to illness.

Yar’Adua has been hospitalised in Saudi Arabia for a heart condition for a month-and-a-half. He has not delegated official functions to his deputy and commentators have taken to labelling the African giant a rudderless ship.

Uncertainty as to who is in charge of the country has also led to fears that the decade-long post-military democracy could be at risk.

“US-Nigeria relations are suffering from the absence of a political leadership in Nigeria. If the US President wants to talk to someone in Nigeria, who would he talk to?” said Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Initiative in West Africa.

Mistrust between the two countries began just after the 2007 elections when the White House said it was “deeply troubled” by deadly clashes and alleged irregularities in the polls.

President Barack Obama‘s choice of Ghana as his first African destination after he came to power last year riled authorities in Nigeria — the fifth largest source of US oil imports and a regional powerhouse.

“When President Obama went to Ghana and not Nigeria, he was sending a message,” said Princeton Lyman, a former US envoy to Nigeria.

During a visit to Abuja last year, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly chided Nigeria for a lack of accountability saying it has “eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence and reject the authority of the state.”

“The writing may already be on the wall. Nigeria can become much less relevant to the US,” said Lyman in a recent paper.

For the US to rely more on South Africa to resolve conflict on the continent had also hurt Nigeria’s pride, said Sani.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has made the continent’s biggest contribution to African peacekeeping missions.

“Nigeria is today not making a major impact, on its region, or on the African Union, or on the big problems of Africa that it was making before,” said Lyman.

In 2008, Nigeria refused to be used as a base for the proposed US African military command (AFRICOM) — to coordinate all American military and security interests across the continent. It is currently based in Germany.

Diplomats say Nigeria has on various occasions turned down Washington’s unofficial offers to send US marines to help secure the vital, but volatile oil producing Niger Delta.

Another ex-US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, said “Nigeria cannot be a reliable ally if it is consumed by its own corruption and political machinations,” adding it “is rapidly becoming more like Somalia — a failed state with no real government to cooperate with.”

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