Nigerian Community Shaken By Focus On Alleged Christmas Day Bomber

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged attempted bomber of a Christmas Day commercial airliner, was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury. But his actions have also had a dramatic impact in Nigeria, where many officials and commentators quickly condemned the attempted bombing. Host Michel Martin discusses the reaction from Nigerians and Nigerian Americans with reporter Constance Ikokwu, with This Day newspaper in Nigeria, and Mobolaji Aluko, a professor of Chemical Engineering at Howard University and Nigerian community leader in Washington, D.C.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, undocumented versus illegal, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor caused a stir when she used the term undocumented immigrant in her first court opinion. Our regular contributor Ruben Navarrette caused another when he defended the use of the term illegal. So, which term is more accurate? We'll have that conversation later in the program.

But first, to Nigeria where the alleged involvement of a young man from that country in the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day is causing soul searching, anxiety, and resentment. The alleged would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury.

In this country, the debate continues over security procedures and whether he deserves to be handled by a civilian court. But his actions have also had a dramatic impact in Nigeria, where many officials and commentators quickly condemned the attempted bombing. But Nigeria is now in the list of 14 countries of interest along with Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia whose citizens will be subjected to additional screening when they come to the U.S.

We wanted to talk more about how the incident is playing out in Nigeria and how Nigerians in the U.S. are reacting to all this. So we called Constance Ikokwu, the deputy editor of the newspaper, This Day, in Lagos, Nigeria. She just returned to Nigeria after a stint reporting in the U.S. I'm also joined here in the studio by Mobolaji Aluko. He's a professor of chemical engineering at Howard University and a Nigerian community leader here in Washington. I welcome you both. Happy New Year to you both.

Professor MOBOLAJI ALUKO (Chemical Engineering, Howard University): Thanks for having me.

Ms. CONSTANCE IKOKWU (Deputy Editor, This Day, Nigeria): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Constance, how is the story being covered in Nigeria? Is it front page news?

Ms. IKOKWU: Oh, definitely. All the papers have been covering this story since it broke. People are looking at government reaction to the alleged bombing. People are looking at the implications on Nigeria. People are looking at what gave birth to Abdulmutallab's radicalism. And people are also asking questions: Is he a victim of his parents' decision? Do you send away a child at a very young age? What are the implications? So, you know, all the papers are covering the story. So, it - everyone is literally consumed by it at the moment.

MARTIN: Professor, you lived in the U.S. for about three decades now, as I understand, and you're a dual citizen...

Prof. ALUKO: That's right.

MARTIN: ...of both the U.S. and Nigeria. What's it been like to watch the story unfold here from the U.S.?

Prof. ALUKO: Well, it's one - it's been one of shock. It couldn't have happened at a worse day, Christmas Day, when everybody was home, and CNN talked about it a thousand times mentioning the name of Nigeria each time. To also see later on such a young handsome man be so deranged really to want to kill not only himself but 300 other people without caring about the good name of his family or that of Nigeria that has been a shock. And as Constance has said, that has really consumed not only Nigerians - but those of us - Nigerians at home, but those of us abroad.

MARTIN: Do you feel it as a slap in the face as it were to...

Prof. ALUKO: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...you as a Nigerian.

Prof. ALUKO: It's more than a slap in the face. If he had succeeded, 300 people would have died, many of them Nigerians. One of them was my friend who was on the plane. He told me later on that he was on that very flight, about 25 seats away from him. His wife, who's also a friend, would have been a widow. So it's really a heinous attempt and we just thank God it didn't happen. We are, of course, very happy to that his father had alerted the world to it. So, that was something to the good (unintelligible) for the Nigerian parent who was concerned enough to alert the security forces.

MARTIN: You know, if you just - I understand that there is some resentment in Nigeria about the Nigerian citizens being placed on the list of countries where its citizens will be subjected to special or additional screening upon - for those who are heading to the U.S. And earlier this week, Dora Akunyili, Nigeria's minister of information appeared on NPR's MORNING EDITION, and she talked about the sense that Nigeria is being unfairly singled out here. Here it is.

Ms. DORA AKUNYILI (Minister of Information, Nigeria): If al-Qaida could recruit a Nigerian, why did Mutallab need to go outside the country to get recruited? We don't have al-Qaida in Nigeria. We don't have people that would indulge terrorist and any form of suicide bombing. It's not in our culture. It's not in us. It's not part of our system.

Once in a while, not too often, we have religious conflicts, which has died down. It has not happened for quite some time now. Yes, I accept it has happened in the past, but that's not terrorism, that is conflict.

MARTIN: I wonder, I'm raising this because, Constance, some bloggers particularly those Nigerian bloggers, particularly those writing outside of the country are suggesting that these kinds of remarks suggest some sense of denial about the realities. For example, there's a group of people reporting under saharareporters.com, which publishes reports from Nigerian writers living all over the world suggest that there's just not an acknowledgment to the seriousness of all this by suggesting that, oh, this isn't part of the culture and stuff like that. So, Constance, I just want to react how you are reacting to both of those perspectives.

Ms. IKOKWU: Well, I do not think so. I do not agree with the blogger. We have serious problems in Nigeria. We do have religious violence. We do have problems of bad governance. We do have a problem of corruption, but including Nigeria and the list of, you know, terrorist from countries, especially with countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia have taken it to another level. Having said that, I think that government at the same time has to begin to look at modern Nigeria.

And we live in a global village, where people can send money across borders and easy to recruit all sorts of people. So, I think with this incident, it's a wake up call that, yes, we might not have al-Qaida in Nigeria. At the same time, let us begin to look at the future and what might happen in the future. So, that's the way that some people in Nigeria are looking at it. And we're also looking at our relations with the U.S. Some people argue that the U.S. should have contacted Nigeria before doing anything. So, the wider implications for this, for Nigerians, is a problem at the moment.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with journalist Constance Ikokwu and university professor Mobolaji Aluko, and we're talking about Nigerian reaction to the attempted alleged Christmas Day bombing by a Nigerian national.

And, professor, what's your take on this? In fact, one blogger, I just want to mention, Sammy Obayuri(ph) criticized Nigerian media accounts that refer to Abdulmutallab as a child or as a boy. He says some Nigerian commentators speak as if Farouk Mutallab is a small boy, hear them, the boy, child, the child had no guardian and all that. They said, for God's sake, the guy is an adult by any standard. So, in - just in your reaction?

Prof. ALUKO: Well, it's true the guy is an adult. He's 23 years old. He has a degree in mechanical engineering from a prestigious university. So, he cannot really be dismissed as a boy. At the same time, the United States has a right to try and protect its citizens by all means necessary and it has set up a list - two lists, one in which Nigeria is a country of interests. One would have hoped, as Constance said, that the Nigerian government was contacted before the list was sprung on us. This was just the very first and only attempt at external terrorism that we've ever heard. We don't ask that Britain be put on it, but that I think some of the...

MARTIN: You're talking about Richard Reid?

Prof. ALUKO: Yes, Richard Reid, yeah.

MARTIN: The so-called shoe bomber who was a British national.

Prof. ALUKO: You know, if Britain could be excluded, there's no reason why Nigeria could not be excluded. I'm not, again, asking that Britain be included. It says that if they were excluded, then we should have been excluded. What I don't want from the Nigerian end is any bluster, any attempt at saying that if the U.S. does not do something within seven days, what do we do? I don't think that's the way to go diplomatically. I think this is something that must be handled with finesse. The men in Nigeria also want to travel back and forth and there's no need to raise the tension between the two countries.

MARTIN: You know, you went to the Nigerian embassy yesterday, as I understand it, to meet with embassy officials and some other members of the Nigerian-American community to talk about how best to respond to this. What did you come up with?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALUKO: Well...

MARTIN: What was the sense of the room, as it were?

Prof. ALUKO: No, no, I mean the Nigerian government has reacted. The embassy here has reacted. Quite a number of Nigerian organizations have reacted, and sometimes some of them not all helpful. I mean some blame one part of the country. Some blame Islam. Some blame the government. Some blame the north.

MARTIN: The north which is a predominantly Muslim part of the country...

Prof. ALUKO: Muslim conflict...

MARTIN: ...for those who don't know Nigeria. It's about evenly divided, as I understand it, between those who practice Christianity and those who practice Islam.

Prof. ALUKO: Exactly. The embassy just wanted to have some leaders within the community here come and, I mean, critic maybe what has been done and how we can move forward. And I think it was a useful exercise. And the outcome of it will be seen in a few days to come.

MARTIN: The role of the father, I know, it had to have been very painful. And I can imagine a scenario in which - I don't know, professor, perhaps, you have children...

Prof. ALUKO: Yes, yes, I'm...

MARTIN: I'm just interested in how that - how his role is being perceived here. One cannot - you have to think about how painful it must have been for him to have to go to the authorities of another country to suggest that his son was engaging in possibly dangerous activities. And I just wonder how that his role is being discussed?

Prof. ALUKO: Well, his role is being discussed in a very commendable fashion. That he was able to do what he's done. All the post analysis about to why he's got many children, they are quite valid. But again, this is all because of the fact. Many, many people who've had many children have not had somebody come out and want to bomb a plane.

Let's face the facts. The fact is that Nigeria is not a terrorist country. This child, this young man was not radicalized within Nigeria. And if the American government believes that there are places within the country where there are seeds of radicalism, let us know it. And let us nick them right now, so that we don't have a recurrence of this.

MARTIN: That was Mobolaji Aluko. He's a professor of chemical engineering at Howard University. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. He was talking about the reactions of Nigerians living in the U.S. and Nigerian-Americans to the Christmas Day events. We were also joined by Constance Ikokwu, deputy editor of the newspaper This Day. She's on the line with us from her office in (unintelligible). I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Prof. ALUKO: Very happy to be here.

Ms. IKOKWU: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, what part of illegal don't you understand? Some critics say a lot.

Professor KEVIN JOHNSON (Dean, University of California Davis School of Law): Just because the New York Times does something or USA Today or San Diego Union Tribune says something repeatedly, doesn't make it right.

MARTIN: The debate over calling people illegal versus undocumented. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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