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ABUJA, Nigeria – The alleged attempt by a Nigerian man to detonate a bomb on a U.S.-bound flight has frayed Nigeria’s diplomatic ties with its number one buyer of oil: the U.S.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe said that the country does not want to alienate its “traditional partners,” but when the U.S. Transportation Security Administration recently included Nigeria among 14 countries of interest — an effective security watch-list — officials and politicians in the West African nation were incensed.

AFP/Getty ImagesPeople rallied in Abuja to protest a power vacuum created by the absence of President Umaru Yar’Adua.

“The goodwill America enjoys here is tremendous,” Foreign Minister Maduekwe said in an interview. “Was there no way of dealing with security concerns without putting that goodwill in jeopardy?”

The move, which followed Nigerian Umar Farouk Adulmutallab’s alleged attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas day, means that Nigerians traveling to the U.S. will face increased security screenings upon arrival. Mr. Abdulmutallab has pleaded innocent to the charges against him.

Nigeria is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the U.S. And the U.S. is Nigeria’s biggest oil buyer. But Nigerian officials lately have been firing anti-American salvos, saying that Washington’s moves risk pushing the West African nation closer toward U.S. rivals China and Iran.

On the Streets in Nigeria

Afolabi Sotunde/ReutersPolicemen stood on a truck during the protest in Abuja Tuesday.

The diplomatic sparks have added to tensions in Nigeria, where there’s an active anti-government militancy and mounting dissatisfaction with the long absence of an ill president. On Tuesday, hundreds of Nigerians protested the president’s prolonged convalescence in Saudi Arabia for a heart condition.

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute met with Foreign Minister Maduekwe and several other Nigerian officials. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and the State Department in Washington declined to comment on the meetings and possible frictions between the two countries.

“I think people are making more of it than it is,” one Western diplomatic official said. “It’s just people posturing.”

Along with India, China and Iran have been courting oil and infrastructure deals with Nigeria.

China has expressed interest in a number of oil assets controlled by Western companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp, just as the western companies are considering scaling down their Nigeria operations due to militant violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

On Tuesday four expatriate oil workers contracted by Shell were kidnapped while driving to work by unknown attackers in Port Harcourt, the largest city in the Niger Delta. A pipeline operated by Chevron was attacked last week.

Meanwhile, China’s biggest energy companies are eager to pile into the country. China National Petroleum Corp. is a possible buyer of several assets, officials say. Iran and Nigeria signed an agreement in 2008 to share nuclear technology for power generation.

Taminu Yakubu, economic adviser to the President of Nigeria, played down the potential damage to business due to diplomatic trouble. But he also added: “It is not good to put unnecessary pressure on a friend who has always cooperated, been helpful and helped America with international responsibility.”

The tensions between Nigeria and the U.S. are becoming part of the country’s political problems. On Tuesday, some of those who protested the absence of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua said the addition of Nigeria to the watch list was a positive development.

“I think it was a good thing for Nigeria because the politicians will wake up now,” Auwal Ibrahim Musa, the Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre in Nigeria, said. “We hope the action from America will only bring sanity and some responsibility. From our leaders so far it’s just noise.”

Protesters wore t-shirts stating, “Enough is Enough” and chanted, “Umaru, where are you?” One held a cardboard sign that read, “Good Governance Will Erase Nigeria from U.S. Black List.”

President Yar’Adua spoke publicly for the first time since October in an interview with BBC Radio on Tuesday, saying that he was getting better and would return to Nigeria as soon as his health permitted. The interview, audio of which was posted on the BBC website, could not be independently verified.

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