Paying the price in the US for Nigeria’s roguery

2010-01-19 09:55

SO this is what it

means to be “patted down”. I first heard the words after the Christmas Day

attempt by the 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a

Northwest passenger plane over ­Detroit, Michigan. It was not, however, until

nine days and nearly 14?500km later that the meaning of the words hit home –

with a personal force.

My daughter and I departed from Lagos on the night of January 4 and

by morning had cleared two international airports – Lagos and Frankfurt –

without a fuss. We had one more stop to make at Dulles ­International Airport in

Washington on our way to Austin, Texas.

At the Lagos airport little had changed. It was business as usual.

Check-in and airport security ­officials were happy to do things a bit quicker

and to return a smile or two in exchange for a Christmas ­kola nut.

At Frankfurt the officials looked as cold and stern as usual as

they ushered transit passengers through the metal detectors. The only hint of a

tougher time ahead was the frequent announcement at the airport that travellers

to the US must be ­prepared to comply with restrictions regarding items they

could bring into the country.

For me that was nothing to worry about. On this trip I had prepared

myself for the worst – or so I thought.

I had excluded from my suitcases anything I suspected could cause

­delays. Before we left Lagos I took the extra precaution of stripping our

suitcases and getting familiar with all their contents before padlocking them,

just to be sure.

I also recalled the sad experience of another Nigerian traveller

who caused alarm (and made headlines) for an overly long stay in the lavatory of

a plane some two days later, and on the same route of that which Abdulmutallab

had attempted to bring down. I decided on this trip that once I had boarded I

would not stir for the duration of the flight. No in-flight exercises, no

walking up and down the aisle, no food, little or no water. Nothing, I was

determined, would make me take a step from my seat.

Even in the best of times, travelling on a Nigerian passport can

prove tricky. Nigeria’s reputation as the scammers’ haven has cast suspicion

upon this country of nearly 150 million people. Yet this is the same country

that has not only given Africa and the world some of its finest intellectuals –

from Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka to Chinua Achebe, from Ben Okri to Chimamanda

Adichie – but one that has sent thousands of its soldiers to die on peacekeeping

missions and opened its wallet to African countries in need.

The trouble with Nigeria, regrettably, has been a leadership that

is able but perennially unwilling to tackle corruption. The unrelenting roguery

of a few politicians has ­undermined critical institutions and sown the seeds of

desperation in swathes of the country’s largely young population.

Our plane landed safely at Dulles and my daughter and I cleared

passport control and collected our suitcases without a fuss. Just as we were

heading for the exit, however, we were diverted to Lane B, a special, secondary

screening area for travellers to the US from 14 countries now classified

“countries of interest”. It had the ­eerie look and feel of a mortuary.

Our

suitcases were quarantined and we were instructed to sit on cold steel chairs.

Our passports were retrieved and dropped in a box where US customs

and border protection officers wearing latex gloves fished them out for

re-screening. They were courteous but distant, the way it must be with

pathologists in a post-mortem room.

Their gaze moved from passport to computer, computer to passport

and back to computer again. Once in a while they would raise their heads, look

into the crowd of forlorn and exhausted travellers and call out a name.

AN hour passed but brought no clue as to

what was happening either to my passport or to my daughter’s. We still had a

three-hour flight from Washington to Austin and it seemed almost certain that we

would miss our departure. At this point I walked over to the desk: “Officer, we

have a flight to catch in about an hour and we might miss it if we’re not

attended to.

 Can you help, please?” He looked at the clock on the wall and then

turned to me: “I’m sorry sir. There’s not much I can do now. You’ll have to sit

and wait.” After what seemed like an eternity we were called, questioned briefly

by a more cheerful-looking officer, and cleared.

We had barely enough time to make the flight to Austin, but,

­before our suitcases could be checked in a security official asked us to remove

the padlocks and move quickly to the boarding gate with only our carry-on

luggage. After 14 hours of flying we mustered what little strength we had left

and hustled down to the departure gate. ­Before boarding, however, we were

diverted again. A big, stony-faced officer scribbled something on our boarding

passes and asked us to step aside. He summoned assistance by walkie-talkie – the

way police do in movies when they smell a rat.

My daughter and I were once again separated from the queue and

moved to a special lane. While our carry-on luggage passed through the scanner

we were ushered into a glass cubicle with a pockmarked carpet. We waited there

like goldfish in a bowl.

A female officer took my daughter to one side; a male officer took

me to the other. The officer looked at me and said: “Sir, now I’m about to give

you a pat-down. I may be touching very sensitive parts of your body in the

process. Do you understand?”

“I do,” I replied. Not that it would matter if I didn’t. I spread

my hands as if I was being prepared for crucifixion and held my breath in

incredulity as the officer vacuumed me from head to toe and across from one

outstretched hand to the other.

I looked to my left and saw my 17-year-old daughter undergoing the

same ordeal. Tears welled up in my eyes. She had often accused me of being too

fussy about rules. When the Abdulmutallab story broke she said she was sure I

would do what I loved best – making a mountain out of a molehill. I joked that

it was the stuff of journalism; we both laughed. Now there was no laughter –

only the puzzled, frightened looks of a father and daughter who must pay a price

(hopefully a small one) for a safer world.

Eventually, mercifully, the pat- downs were concluded and every

single item in our carry-on luggage had been examined and swiped for explosives

residue. My daughter turned to me and muttered: “Dad, for the first time I think

you were right to make a mountain of a molehill. It was worse than you could

have made it.”

In silence and stiffened by the freezing temperatures, we climbed

the plane’s stairway and finally made it on board. We were hardly surprised on

arrival in Austin to find that not one of our three suitcases was on the flight.

As I clambered into bed that night I checked for news from home.

The Senate was mad that travellers like us should be treated with such suspicion

and had given the US government a seven-day ultimatum to remove Nigeria from the

list of “countries of concern”.

I am grateful for my country’s concern, but let’s spare the

crocodile tears. British travellers did not ­merit such universal treatment for

Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bombing – not because it is a country of saints

but because the world believes it is a serious country with serious leaders.

Ghanaian or Dutch travellers will likewise not be subjected to the same

treatment as Nigerians because the world believes that these countries will make

an honest effort to tackle their demons.

So where are our leaders?

In the heady days after December 25, Nigeria’s president is still

missing in action, consigning the country to an impotent vice-president,

dissembling ministers and a few hangers-on.

The cat is away and the mice will play… at least that’s what I

heard Bob Marley singing as I plugged in my iPod and drifted off to

sleep.

  • Ishiekwene is the executive ­editor of Punch magazine

    in ­Nigeria


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