Islamic Military Coalition: Nigeria’s Dangerous Liaison, By Chris Ngwodo
For ideological, historical and strategic reasons, Nigeria should not allow herself to be conscripted into the Saudi sphere of influence. Nigeria’s national security interests are best served by a measured, rather than an uncritical engagement with the Saudis. A definite priority should be strengthening cooperation with regional neighbours to adequately police the chaotic ungoverned spaces in the Sahel and the Maghreb… The National Assembly, which is constitutionally tasked to ratify international agreements, should scrutinise the particulars of this alliance and spare Nigeria possible geostrategic embarrassment.
Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari announced his administration’s decision to join the Islamic Military Alliance against Terrorism formed and led by Saudi Arabia. The 34-member coalition had been unveiled by the desert kingdom in December 2015 with the stated aim of combating terrorism all over the Islamic world. Buhari’s decision to accede to the Saudi invitation has been criticised in Nigeria where Christian activists are sensitive to international affiliations that obscure Nigeria’s secular or multi-religious character or which project her as having an Islamic national identity.
However, beyond nomenclature, a more cogent critique would question the geostrategic utility of aligning with Saudi Arabia. To begin with, the objectives of the alliance are ambiguous even to its purported members. Pakistan, Lebanon and Indonesia seemed to express surprise at their inclusion which they apparently learnt of through media reports. Some members have said they will seek clarification on the exact nature of the coalition and its operational scope. When asked if the initiative could include deploying troops to conflict spots, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, “Nothing is off the table.” It is not clear that the Nigerian government is sufficiently aware of the terms and conditions of her engagement in this initiative. There is ample reason to proceed with extreme caution.
Saudi credentials for leading an international war on terror are decidedly dubious. The desert kingdom is the world’s biggest purveyor of extremist ideology. Following her enrichment by the 1973 oil boom, Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars building mosques and forming Islamic associations all over the world. The Saudi ministry for religious affairs distributed millions of Qurans in Europe, Asia and Africa, along with doctrinal texts written from the extreme perspective of Wahhabism – a violently ultraconservative theology of medieval austerity conceived in 18th century Arabia and based on a harshly legalistic and literalist interpretation of Islam (known as Salafism in Saudi Arabia) which is the foundational ideology of the modern Saudi state.
Nigeria was impacted by this Wahhabi missionary campaign and it fanned a revival of fundamentalist fervour most notably in the form of Jama’at Izalat Al Bidi’ A wa Iqamat Al Sunna (JIBWIS) otherwise known as Izala but also in an amorphous movement of madrassahs and groups across Northern Nigeria. It was also in the late 1970s that the Nigerian government began funding pilgrimages to Mecca (and subsequently to Jerusalem), sponsoring a record one hundred thousand pilgrims to the Hajj in 1981. This reflected both an official cluelessness as to what to do with her oil wealth and the gravitation towards the Saudi orbit.
Saudi missionary exports have been so successful that more tolerant and pluralistic versions of Islam have been supplanted to the extent that Wahhabism is now deemed synonymous with Sunni Islam in many places. Much of the contemporary jihadist terror groups are directly or indirectly influenced by Saudi sponsors. Al Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and Boko Haram (otherwise known as Islamic State West Africa Province, ISWAP) are all ideological progeny of Saudi missionary foreign policy, guided by murderous ideas with their roots in Wahhabism.
Given her large Muslim population, Nigeria can offer an alternative perspective on the global discourse on Islam’s compatibility with democracy and pluralism. She can serve as a laboratory for the sort of sociopolitical experiment direly required but stridently forbidden by repressive regimes in the Middle East. Nigeria can be a model of ecumenical coexistence, civic mutuality and social democracy.
The international propagation of Wahhabism is part of a Faustian bargain between the House of Saud and the religious establishment. By exporting its home-grown radical discontent abroad, the Saudi elite prevent their extremist clerics from turning their fury against a ruling family that is seen as apostate and decadent. As the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II once remarked, “Muslims who are unduly influenced by the puritanical ideology of Wahhabism are…a major source of instability in plural societies. The equilibrium established among adherents of various faiths through the agency of a common citizenship based on respect for each group and equality of individuals is undermined by the call to a superior and exclusive religious identity that rejects common citizenship.” This makes Wahhabist ideology an existential threat to the Nigerian state.
It is more likely that this global military alliance is part of the Saudi strategy to counter and contain the resurgence of Iran – which is pointedly excluded from the coalition. Saudi-Persian rivalry is coterminous with the Sunni-Shia struggle to shape Middle Eastern politics and global Islam at large. This contest for primacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, rooted in a succession struggle, theological dispute and civil war that occurred in the early days of the Islamic community, is the most toxic fault line in the Middle East and has fueled proxy conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. With the lifting of nuclear sanctions against Iran, the Islamic republic is poised to resume pursuit of its longstanding goal of becoming the preeminent power in the Middle East.
Like Saudi Arabia, Iran has impacted Nigerian society. The 1979 Islamic revolution radicalised many young Nigerian Muslims and led to the formation of the Shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria headquartered in Zaria. Ironically, some of the newly minted Shiites were erstwhile Izala members who had been radicalised by visits to Iran and returned home with revolutionary zeal. They derided the Izala as too soft and sometimes attacked official mosques. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the Izala and the Shia embodied the broad currents of radical Islamic militancy in Nigeria.
Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are two major radicalising (and potentially destabilising) influences in Nigeria. Nigeria, which has to manage tensions between her Sunni majority and Shia minority, must exercise extreme caution in her dealings with these two Middle Eastern power houses which are deeply vested in local anti-establishment movements. The recent clash between the Nigerian military and Shiites which resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Shiites elicited intense reactions in the Shia world and an official reaction from Iran. It was on the heels of that clash in December that the Saudis invited Nigeria to join the anti-terror coalition. Nigeria’s large Muslim population makes her an important prize in the Saudi-Persian struggle for primacy. Our posture should be one of strategic non-alignment, engaging with Riyadh and Tehran on the basis of a reasoned calculus of our national interests, which it must be stressed, are not coterminous with Saudi or Iranian interests.
We must wrestle with Northern Nigeria’s peculiar vulnerability to Middle Eastern extremist currents – a debility to which Southern Nigerian Muslims seem immune. The root cause of this plague in Northern Nigeria is Arabophilia – a racist inferiority complex which idealises Arabian culture as the sole authentic repository of Islamic values and posits Arabs as the highest manifestation of Muslim piety.
There is a broader geostrategic imperative that the Nigerian foreign policy establishment should be cognisant of. Most of what the international media portrays as the “Muslim world” is actually the Middle East which accounts for just one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population. Some of the countries with the largest Muslim populations such as Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Nigeria are outside the Middle East. Significantly, these non-Middle Eastern countries with huge Muslim populations are typically secular or, at the very least, sustain a constitutional recognition of pluralism. In these countries, the degree and definition of secularism is the subject of debate. Indeed, while secularism is one of those concepts that appear to mean different things in different places, none of its diverse manifestations accommodates the wedlock of religion and the state found in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Given her large Muslim population, Nigeria can offer an alternative perspective on the global discourse on Islam’s compatibility with democracy and pluralism. She can serve as a laboratory for the sort of sociopolitical experiment direly required but stridently forbidden by repressive regimes in the Middle East. Nigeria can be a model of ecumenical coexistence, civic mutuality and social democracy. This requires us to chart a course away from Levantine strife, Saudi religious tyranny and Persian theocratic totalitarianism.
At this point, the lines between foreign policy architecture and domestic nation-building must blur. We must wrestle with Northern Nigeria’s peculiar vulnerability to Middle Eastern extremist currents – a debility to which Southern Nigerian Muslims seem immune. The root cause of this plague in Northern Nigeria is Arabophilia – a racist inferiority complex which idealises Arabian culture as the sole authentic repository of Islamic values and posits Arabs as the highest manifestation of Muslim piety. This perspective renders Northern Nigeria extremely susceptible to subversive influences from the Arab world. Nigeria must tackle the crisis of governance that enables these influences to thrive.
For ideological, historical and strategic reasons, Nigeria should not allow herself to be conscripted into the Saudi sphere of influence. Nigeria’s national security interests are best served by a measured, rather than an uncritical engagement with the Saudis. A definite priority should be strengthening cooperation with regional neighbours to adequately police the chaotic ungoverned spaces in the Sahel and the Maghreb. A more robust (and perhaps less servile) relationship with the Saudis would necessitate a close interrogation of the financial and moral support flowing from the Gulf States to anti-establishment actors in Nigeria. It is doubtful that tackling these channels of support for extremism is part of the Saudi-led alliance’s mandate. The National Assembly, which is constitutionally tasked to ratify international agreements, should scrutinise the particulars of this alliance and spare Nigeria possible geostrategic embarrassment.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.