On the Abuja Terror Alerts
Postscript by Waziri Adio
Last Sunday, the US Embassy and Consulate in Nigeria issued an alert about an elevated risk of terrorist attacks in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. It advised Americans to avoid non-essential travels to Abuja, and for those already in the city to avoid certain places. On Thursday, the US Department of State took it a notch higher: it ordered non-essential US government employees and family members of US government staff to depart Abuja because of the risk of terrorist attacks. The missions of the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia and others followed suit with their own security alerts.
These alerts were primarily targeted at the nationals of these countries, and are another proof of the premium they place on the lives of their citizens. But the alerts were widely circulated on the missions’ websites and on their social media handles, and are thus widely broadcast to Nigerians, especially Abuja’s residents. With the explosion of security alerts within days, the consensus in the city and beyond is that these countries must be in possession of very credible intelligence for them to take such a public and coordinated stand. The fact that some of these countries have some of the best intelligence services in the world reinforced this position.
So, despite the appeals for calm and the multiple assurances by the Nigerian authorities, the air in the city remains heavy with foreboding. Some schools and malls and companies are shutting their gates; and the markets and streets receive less traffic. This is to be expected, as it is natural for most people to err on the side of caution. But it is also important not to lose sight of what may not be the intended effect of the coordinated alerts: they have also triggered a deep sense of panic and siege in the capital city. It is difficult to remain calm when the possibility of a terrorist attack has been invoked. This has implication not just for the socio-economic life of the city and the country but also for security itself.
Clearly, the Americans and others have a primary responsibility to their citizens. And after the 2012 deadly attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, leading to the death of the US ambassador and three others, the Americans have all the reasons not to take anything for granted. But the foreign missions are also not without obligations to the citizens and the government of their host country, and that includes taking ownership of the intended and unintended consequences of their extra-ordinary communications. It is possible to argue that they have discharged that obligation through the urgency publicly telegraphed by their syndicated warnings, which would have put, and definitely put, Nigerians and the Nigerian government on notice.
But it wouldn’t be out of place to use the existing intelligence-sharing channels to communicate with the Nigerian security and political authorities before going on the public blitz. If official feelers are anything to go by, nothing of such happened. There have been speculations about why things may have taken this turn. One is that the Americans and others don’t trust our security forces to act on time on shared intelligence. The other is that they have concerns about the confidentiality of the intelligence shared. Another is that the Americans and others are up to some games. All these are speculations, and they may all be totally off the mark.
However, it is not too late for Nigerian political authorities to follow up properly, and not in the usual defensive and combative way. Nigeria has long-standing relationships with these countries and fighting terrorism everywhere is in the collective interest of all, including the countries that can easily airlift their citizens in emergencies. It is still not late for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to invite the ambassadors and high commissioners of these countries for confidential briefings.
We will always need partners in the war on terror. We should do everything we can to keep our allies onside and we should engage with them closely and continuously so that their actions do not inadvertently complicate things for us. However, one lesson we should take from this is that at the end of the day, we are on our own. At the slightest hint of danger, most countries will ask their citizens to leave or will even fly them out. Some Nigerians may be able to leave too, but most of us will be stuck here. On national security, we therefore need to begin to pull together as a people stuck in the same boat. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold our government to account. We should, at all times, especially on government’s core responsibility: the protection of life and property. But national security is too important to play politics with.
Government and its agents must take the lead not just in making our society more secure, but also in rallying all of society behind its efforts. In response to the security alerts and the immobilising fear that came in their wake, the security agencies, some government officials and President Muhammadu Buhari have offered reassurances and called for calm. But at a time when the federal capital is gripped by fear, we need the government to be more proactive and be more present. The President as the Commander-in-Chief needs to lead from the front at such a moment like this. He should have cut short his trip abroad, and he needs to speak directly to Nigerians, not through aides.