I’m sure Nigerians across the globe let out a collective groan on hearing the news of the attack on Christmas day last year. Most of us knew without needing to be told that we were going to be royally screwed on the visa front. According to some, the very fact of being from Nigeria is a warning sign in itself. It has been reported that US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton will be reviewing the visa procedures so we can be almost certain that US visas which were so difficult to secure in the past will now be practically impossible to get. And as of this week, Nigeria was added to the list of countries to be subject to extra screening at airports. The underlying assumption behind all this noise is that you can tell by looking at people who is likely to be a terrorist. If Umar’s story has taught us anything, it is the falsity of this idea.
Numerous reports have pointed out that nobody who knew him could have predicted that he would be involved in such a thing. Profiling would not have identified Umar as a potential terrorist. In fact, if you were constructing a profile of a perfect/desirable foreigner, Umar would fit the description to a tee. He was intelligent, had a lot of financial resources (so would definitely be contributing to the economy not drawing from the public purse), came from a prestigious family and had attended some of the most reputable schools in the world. If someone like Umar could not have gotten a US visa, it would mean that almost no Nigerian would ever qualify for one. Yet instead of realising the futility of profiling, some loud voices are calling for more of it.
A lot has also been made of the fact that Umar paid cash for his ticket and travelled without luggage. First, there is nothing unusual about cash transactions in Africa. In case these people are not aware, the use of debit/credit cards is not widespread for many reasons which I will not go into. Even people who use credit/debit cards in other locations often switch to cash when they land in Nigeria. Is America planning to supply the infrastructure, wide access to bank services and trust that are needed to eliminate the reliance on cash in the country? If people are to be profiled based on who pays cash for a flight, they might as well ban most of us from travelling. Secondly, travelling abroad from Nigeria with nothing but hand luggage is something that can also reasonably be explained. Anyone who knows how Nigerians love to capitalise on the opportunity to shop would be able to understand why someone might decide to leave home with only hand luggage and stock up on everything on their way back. This is especially relevant in the case of long-term visitors who would probably buy most of what they need at their destination rather than taking stuff with them that they wouldn’t be able to bring back.
The critical failure here is not that US intelligence did not have enough information about Umar. The problem is that they didn’t put it together in such a way as to draw useful conclusions from it. Instead of rectifying that problem, the US in what I consider an over-reaction, apparently intends to punish everyone else by adopting more draconian measures that cause people more hassle but do not necessarily make traveling any safer. You would have thought that American policy makers would have learnt the lessons of Iraq and Guantanamo Bay but if the talk of the last week is anything to go by, this is not the case. If they keep heading down this path, they’ll end up spending tons more money on security and still be left wondering why the war on terror is not being won.