ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigerians are still struggling to come to terms with the news that Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old son of one of this country’s most prominent and wealthiest bankers, allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight as it landed in Detroit on Dec. 25.
“The man who shamed Nigeria,” is what the local newspaper, "The Guardian," dubbed Abdulmutallab.
In a country where the majority of people live on just $2 a day, people are asking how someone who’s been born and reared with a golden spoon in his mouth could throw it all away?
And if the privileged young man could be drawn by Islamic extremism into a suicide bombing plot, what does this say of about Nigeria's efforts to encourage its Muslim and Christian populations to live together peacefully? Muslims make up about 50 percent of Nigeria's 149 million people, while Christians comprise 40 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up a passenger-filled airliner has left Nigerians angry and puzzled. And it comes at a time when officials here are trying to improve Nigeria's image.
“This singular act has done unquantifiable damage to the nascent re-branding project,” said Steven Douglas, an executive with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company. “He was simply unenlightened and stupid to allow himself to be used."
Abdulmutallab’s father Umaru Abdulmutallab, 71, is at the top of the heap of the Nigerian elite, and has been for years. His 16 children and two wives share massive homes around the world. His home on Asa Street in the tony Maitama district of Abuja is palatial, as is his country home in the sleepy Funtua in the nearby Katsina state.
He just retired as chairman on First Bank, one of the nation’s largest, after serving on its board for 13 years. And before that he ran the large United Bank for Africa (UBA). For decades Abdulmutallab, has worked the corridors of power here, serving as a federal minister, as far back as 1975 and currently heading up the current president’s Business Support Group. He has racked up national honors over the years.
In a country where some 90 percent of the people struggle economically, Abdulmutallab's wealth allowed him to give his son, Farouk, an international education that most Nigerians can only dream of.
Abdulmutallab sent his son to a posh boarding school, the British International School in Lome, Togo and then to the University College, London, where his son lived in swanky apartment. The younger Abdulmutallab seemed destined for success.
After graduating in the U.K., the quiet young man, who was dubbed "alpha" and "the pope" because of his saintly ways, went off to Dubai for post-graduate studies.
He never completed them and reportedly left due to nonpayment of fees. The younger Abdulmutallab instead went to Yemen to study Arabic. By August he was severing ties with his family and his worried father was calling the U.S. embassy to warn of his son, who he was worried was now under the sway of extremists.
The son re-entered Nigeria on Dec. 24 in order to board the KLM flight to Amsterdam that same night. He used an e-ticket that had been purchased from Accra, Ghana. And he boarded the international flight with just one piece of hand luggage and no checked in luggage, which is most unusual in Nigeria, where traveling light means two checked bags.
“The man in question has been living outside the country for awhile. He sneaked into Nigeria on Dec. 24 and left the same day,” said Dora Akunyili, Nigeria's information minister.
From the bustling seaside metropolis of Lagos with its searing skyscrapers, to the red soil dirt roads of Asaba, on the banks of the River Niger, Nigerians can’t understand what has transpired. And it’s the talk of many towns.
“It is a reflection of poor family values but more importantly it is a clear evidence of the disadvantage of allowing very young children to live a life away from family from a very young age,” said Ifeanyi Ukoha, 39, a banker in Lagos. “The young man's values would have been so mixed up thus opening him up to extremism.”
Ukoha added: “Nigerians in the diaspora will suffer in terms of a renewed perception as terrorists. Already Nigerians are grappling with issues relating to immigration abuse and advanced fee fraud.”
Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan said Abdulmutallab’s actions may lead to a clampdown on all Nigerians.
"A Nigerian has created an additional problem for us by wanting to blow up an aircraft," he said after a church service here. "That means that those Nigerians who travel out of this country will be subjected to unnecessary harassments and searches."
Timothy Obiorah, 43, an oil and gas industry manager concurred: “Everyone will be a suspect now. This was the bleakest Christmas in this country.”
One Detroit-based businessman who landed in Abuja right after Christmas said that when he withdrew thousands of dollars from an American bank for his trip, he did not want to tell the teller that he was traveling to Nigeria, because of the hysteria about Abdulmutallab.
“I said I was heading to Kampala [Uganda]," said the traveler. "With all this stuff, she might have thought to herself, out of an abundance of caution, to call the FBI and say ‘this black guy just withdrawn all this money and is heading to Nigeria.’ I just don’t want the hassle.”