Nigeria’s body scanners unused at international airports
Training needed where Christmas suspect originated
LAGOS, Nigeria — Body scanners bought for Nigeria’s international airports following the Christmas 2009 bomb attempt remain unused months later, though officials said yesterday that US air marshals now protect flights coming into the West African nation.
Harold Demuren of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority said that the government needs to train officers to man the screening devices in place at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos and at the international airport in Abuja. The machines have yet to be installed at the international airports in Kano and Port Harcourt, he said.
Demuren said explosive detection equipment and full body pat-downs for international passengers ensure a similar attack “never happens again.’’
“We want to make our airports extremely unfriendly to terrorists,’’ Demuren said at a US Embassy-sponsored press conference.
The Nigerian government purchased 10 body scanners immediately after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner with an explosive device hidden underneath his clothes. Abdulmutallab started his journey at Murtala Muhammed International Airport and went through one metal detector before boarding his initial flight.
Security officials suggest that body scanners, which create detailed 3-D images of passengers’ figures, would have shown the explosives that prosecutors say Abdulmutallab had hidden inside his underwear. However, that equipment now sits idle as international passengers walk through security screening at Murtala Muhammed, the oil-rich nation’s busiest airport.
The United States gave Nigeria four full-body scanners for its international airports in 2008 to detect explosives and drugs. Those machines remain in use by federal antidrug agents at the Lagos international airport and elsewhere, though Abdulmutallab did not undergo a screening.
Since the bombing attempt, relations have soured between the United States and Nigeria, one of the country’s biggest suppliers of crude oil. The United States initially put Nigeria on a list of “countries of interest’’ that included Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, and Libya, requiring incoming passengers to undergo additional screenings. That sparked a nationalist outcry in Nigeria that calmed only after the United States eased the restrictions.
The bombing attempt did, however, push Nigeria into signing an agreement allowing air marshals aboard international flights between the United States and Africa’s most populous nation. US Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders told reporters yesterday that the air marshal program to Nigeria began several months ago.
Two direct flights now leave Lagos for the United States: a
Nigeria’s aviation history remains marred with air fatalities and lax security. The United States put a six-year ban on direct flights from Murtala Muhammed International Airport in the 1990s over security concerns.
In October 2005, an airplane flown by Nigerian carrier Bellview Airlines crashed after takeoff from Lagos, killing all 117 people onboard. In May 2002, an EAS Airlines jet plowed into a heavily populated neighborhood after taking off from Kano, killing 154 people.
Since the crashes, Nigeria has worked with the US Federal Aviation Administration to improve its safety ratings. While not yet considered in the top echelon on international airports, Nigeria will improve with assistance from the United States, Demuren said.
“It’s establishing a safety culture on a solid rock,’’ he said.