How Bad Is Security at the Lagos Airport?

Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009

International travelers flying out of Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos during the Christmas season are used to being hassled by security. Usually, it’s a demand for tips and gifts. At every point of contact with officials, from check-in to final boarding, the requests are constant.

As a result, many passengers familiar with the Lagos airport aren’t surprised that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young man accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, could have boarded his flight with liquid explosives. “They tell you, Take your shoes off, take your boots off, take your belt off, but the woman who is looking at the X-ray machine is looking at you to give her a tip,” says Victor Chidi Asaba-One, 41, a businessman who shuttles between Detroit and Lagos about 20 times a year, often on the same KLM and Northwest flights that Abdulmutallab used.

The 23-year-old son of one of Nigeria’s wealthiest men and most prominent bankers has lived outside Nigeria for years and had severed ties with his family. On Dec. 24 he re-entered Nigeria and boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam that same night. He used an e-ticket that had been purchased in Accra, Ghana.

Shortly after the thwarted bombing attempt, Nigerian authorities stressed that its airports had recently passed the International Civil Aviation audit and just last month passed a Transportation Security Administration audit as well. “However, in light of our new developments, we have reinforced our security systems in all our airports,” said Information Minister Dora Akunyili.

Nevertheless, Ifeanyi Ukoha, 39, a banker in Lagos who flies from the Lagos airport regularly, insists the security at Murtala Muhammed International Airport is comparatively lax. “Unauthorized persons are allowed beyond the stipulated point mostly because they are in uniform,” he says. “And security personnel will keep soliciting gratification, especially during festive seasons.”

Other passengers say screening processes, particularly at Lagos, are geared toward looking for drugs. In fact, there is an additional checkpoint for local drug enforcement once passengers have passed customs and immigration.

At the airport in Lagos, as well as the one in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, passengers are now subjected to extra screening, with officials there saying everyone will now be subjected to body-screening. “It’s a joke, man,” Asaba-One says. “They may have functioning X-ray machines, even though they are older, but I’m not sure the person looking at the screen even knows what to look for. If, for example, I had a liquid explosive that is going through it, will they be able to tell the difference between a liquid bottle of Coke versus a liquid bottle of PETN? I don’t think they can tell. I know they can’t tell.”

Some passengers also know that liquid gels in plastic containers less than 100 ml don’t set off magnetometers. They say they simply put them in their pockets and let their shirts hang over them as they walk through airport checkpoints in Nigeria — and head for Europe and the U.S.

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