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Bomb attempt a wake-up call for Nigeria

By Princeton N. Lyman, Special to CNN
  • Princeton Lyman: Nigerians denounced Nigerian national's attempt to blow up U.S. plane
  • He says AbdulMuttalab's actions don't reflect Nigerian Islam, suicide bombing not in culture
  • But, he says, Nigerian Islam still has sometimes violent clashes between extremist groups
  • Lyman fears growing poverty and corruption could encourage suicide bombing tactic

Editor's note: Princeton N. Lyman is adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was the United States ambassador to Nigeria from 1986 to 1989.

Washington, D.C. (CNN) -- Americans were alarmed to learn of the attempt to bring down an American airliner over Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day. But Nigerians were especially shocked to learn that one of their own, Umar Farouk AbdulMuttalab, was the perpetrator.

Nigerians, from almost every quarter within and throughout the large Nigerian diaspora, were quick to denounce the act and the motive behind it. But they worried, nevertheless, what this said about Nigeria and the world's perception of their country.

Nigerians were right to say that AbdulMuttalab's actions were not reflective of Nigerian Islam or indeed of sub-Saharan Africans in general. Nigeria, like much of West Africa, adheres to a Sufi school of Sunni Islam, with several prominent brotherhoods that define practices and beliefs. It is a moderate, largely tolerant tradition.

For example, in 1999, Nigeria's Islamic leaders and political leaders responded to a popular call for Shariah law in the Muslim northern states. But contrary to some fears, when once instituted, it had little impact on the rest of the largely Christian country and its secular institutions.

Nevertheless, Nigerian Islam is not without its own internal debates, reformist movements and sometimes violent clashes.

Nigerian Islam is not without its own internal debates, reformist movements and sometimes violent clashes.
--Princeton N. Lyman, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria

Several extreme groups have arisen in Nigeria and taken up arms. A group called Boko Haram that denounced all forms of Western education and culture staged an armed uprising in three northern Nigerian states in July 2009. It derived perhaps from the radical Taliban, although any connection with Afghanistan seems tenuous.

For decades, an extreme Islamic group, the Maitatsine, has risen up periodically, only to be put down and to disappear for several years. Nigeria has also been the target of Islamic influences from the Middle East and South Asia, through visiting imams and contributions of money for mosques.

Although AbdulMuttalab appears to have acquired his more extreme views abroad, particularly in Yemen, his actions send a worrisome sign throughout Nigeria.

Nigerians are also quick to point out that with all the violent clashes, and even civil wars in Nigeria and other sub-Saharan countries, there has been no tradition of suicide bombers. It seems outside African culture. That, of course, is what raises such concern in Nigeria and elsewhere with the actions of AbdulMuttalab.

Has this practice been imported into sub-Saharan Africa? It is prominent in Somalia, which has a largely Arab population. And suicide bombers blew up American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the 1990s. Could it become copied by dissidents in Africa, now that it has become so prominently exploited? And could more sub-Saharan Africans be recruited for such acts?

All this puts a greater spotlight on Nigeria and its own issues. Northern Nigeria, the Muslim half of the country, is the least developed, with the lowest levels of education and income in the nation. Failure to invest in power and other infrastructure has led to factories closing and rising levels of unemployment. Like much of Nigeria, this poverty exists side by side with people of enormous wealth.

AbdulMutallab's father is one such person, a prominent banker who gave his son every opportunity to travel and study. It is indeed in these sharply contrasting societies that some of the most bitter extremist views develop.

Boko Haram was led by people who had enjoyed the very kind of university education they were denouncing. Nigeria has in fact long lived on its oil wealth, but so badly misused it that most of Nigeria's population now lives below the poverty level.

An armed insurgency has developed in the oil-producing region of the southeast, and violent religious clashes between Muslims and Christians that have their roots in competing pressure for land and access to government resources have been frequent.

The Detroit event may be a wake-up call for Nigeria. It can perhaps no longer assume that its long, deep religious traditions can protect its citizens from the blandishments of extremists, not when its internal inequalities, history of corruption and decaying infrastructure are pushing more people into poverty and perhaps over the line of Africa's life-respecting culture.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Princeton N. Lyman.