ALLIANCE AGAINST TERROR
By Fidelis Mac-Leva, Isiaka Wakili, Ibraheem Hamza Mohammad, (Abuja) and Isa Saidu (Zaria) | Publish Date: Mar 27 2016 5:00AM
Nigeria’s membership of the Saudi Arabia-led Islamic Coalition against terror has been attracting mixed reactions among Nigerians. Daily Trust on Sunday reports on the controversies and what lies ahead for the country in the membership.
President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, during his recent visit to the country.
“We are part of it because we have got terrorists in Nigeria that everybody knows, with claim that they are Islamic. So, if there is an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism, Nigeria will be part of it because we are casualties of Islamic terrorism.”
Those were the words of President Muhammadu Buhari while justifying Nigeria’s resolve to join an anti-terrorism coalition that Saudi Arabia leads. Buhari made the disclosure early this month during an interview with the international satellite news channel, Aljazeera. Saudi Arabia itself is part of a coalition led by the United States of America against the Islamic State (IS) and is also leading a military intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia had, last December, announced the formation of the Islamic Coalition Against Terrorism, otherwise known as the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), aimed at sharing information, providing training and equipment and, if necessary, forces, for the fight against Islamic State militants.
The coalition, whose joint operations centre is to be established in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, comprises 34 largely Muslim countries namely: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, the Palestinians, Comoros, Qatar, Cote d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Yemen.
Saudi’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, had at a press conference in Paris on December 14, 2015, explained the reason for the formation of the coalition thus: “It is time that the Islamic world takes a stand, and they have done that by creating a coalition to push back and confront the terrorists and those who promote their violent ideologies.”
Responding to a question on whether the new coalition would include ground forces, al-Jubeir said: “Nothing is off the table. It depends on the requests that come, it depends on the need and it depends on the willingness of countries to provide the support necessary. The decisions will be made by individual countries in terms of what to contribute, and when to contribute it, and in what form and shape they would like to make that contribution.”
The Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, had explained that the formation of the coalition came from the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting the terrorism scourge so it can be a partner, as a group of countries, in the fight.
“Today there are a number of countries that suffer from terrorism. For example, Daesh in Syria and Iraq; terrorism in Sinai, terrorism in Yemen, terrorism in Libya, terrorism in Mali, terrorism in Nigeria, terrorism in Pakistan, terrorism in Afghanistan, and this requires a very strong effort to fight. Without a doubt, there will be coordination in these efforts”, he said.
The Saudi authorities had disclosed that the coalition would operate on two tracks, which are, one, security and military involving the exchange of information, training, providing equipment and providing forces where necessary; and, two, combating ideology, involving the use of religious scholars, educators, political leaders and other experts to “drown out the message of the extremists.”
The news of Nigeria joining the Islamic anti-terrorist coalition has been greeted with mixed reactions by Nigerians. While some have condemned the move and called for caution, others welcomed it as a necessity in the country’s war against terror.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), through its General Secretary, Rev. Musa Asake, reportedly said: “This singular gesture of the Buhari government betrays so much, and tends to confirm our fears that underneath everything this government is doing, there is an agenda with strong Islamic undertones, aimed at undermining Nigeria’s pluralistic character and neutrality regarding government’s affiliation to any one religion”.
Admitting that there was a need to fight the terror group, CAN was quick to condemn an attempt to brand Nigeria as a Muslim country, saying: “While joining hands with other countries to fight ISIS is something good, our country must not be tagged as a Muslim or Arab nation. Christians must make a public statement showing their discontent on this development, which portends great danger to national unity and integration.”
The Nigerian Christian Elders Forum (NCEF) also condemned the inclusion of Nigeria in the coalition. At a news conference in Abuja, the NCEF chairman, Solomon Asemota, argued the action was a clear negation of the rights of Nigerians, as well as a lack of regard for the views of non-Muslim Nigerians who took part in bringing the new administration to power.
“Including Nigeria in the Saudi Arabia military coalition of Muslims/Arab nations would appear that the foreign policy thrust of the current administration is to make Nigeria a satellite state of Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding: “Any nation in which Islamists believe that they are sufficiently strong to exercise influence rarely experiences peace.”
Maintaining that the inclusion of Nigeria in the Organization of Islamic Conference, OIC, in 1975, as well as its recent inclusion in the Saudi-led coalition was an attempt by Muslim leaders to dominate the country, Asemota said: “Mr. President should kindly remember that over 50 per cent non-Muslims of Nigeria did not vote for the nation to become Sharia-compliant.”
Ekiti State governor, Ayodele Fayose, who is known for his criticism of President Buhari, also condemned the decision. Speaking at the inter-denominational thanksgiving held in Port-Harcourt to celebrate the victory of the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, after the Supreme Court ruling, Fayose reportedly said: “They have started subtle moves to make Nigeria an Islamic nation, but God will stop them. This was done in 1984, it failed, and it would fail again.”
President Buhari, however, debunked the allegations by some Christians that he was giving an Islamic identity to the country, saying, “It is Nigeria that matters, not the opinion of some religious bigots. How can I change the religious identity of Nigeria? Why can’t those Christians that complain go and fight terrorism in Nigeria or fight the militancy in the South?”
What does Nigeria stands to gain from the coalition?
Dr. Amaechi Nwaokolo, a specialist on international terrorism, said the President was right in taking the decision because Nigeria stands to benefit from the coalition. Dr. Nwaokolo poined out that not all the 34 members in the coalition are Muslim countries.
“We have Togo and Benin Republic and we have Sierra Leone, though they have a Muslim population”, he explained, saying the country stands to benefit from the coalition, especially in the area of intelligence gathering.
“It is part of international counter-terrorism strategy to belong to such kind of coalition to be able to easily grab information and share intelligence with other countries. First of all, you feel committed to the other countries in that coalition to pass information to them”, Nwaokolo said.
He also noted: “Saudi Arabia has one of the best counter-terrorism strategies in the world. So joining forces with them is not like entering an Islamic organization like the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). On the contrary, this is a strategic coalition.”
The terrorism expert stressed that Nigeria would benefit more from its membership of IMAFT because “our people are being radicalized all over the internet and people are travelling to Tripoli, Yemen and Sudan, where they are radicalized in Islamic language without our security men knowing.” While Nigerians being radicalized are abroad, he said, intelligence agents there could identify them and tip off Nigeria’s security agents before the radicalized could return to Nigeria to cause harm.
Recalling the involvement of Boko Haram in Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic, as well as events in Mauritania and Ivory Coast, Dr Nwaokolo said: “The coalition has nothing to do with the Islamization of Nigeria or Saudi Arabia coming to put their boots on Nigerian soil. The Saudis are busy in Yemen and other places and they know they have problems about their youths on their hands. The Saudis rely on intelligence to tackle their security issues and they have been succeeding, while we make a lot of noise in our fight against terrorism and lack the required intelligence. Therefore, we need the kind of assistance that the coalition will provide.”
Paul Iza, a professor of International Relations at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, cautioned Nigerians to be careful of their utterances on the matter, saying under international relations, Nigeria as a nation has the right to belong to any organization it feels would promote its interest.
“This is why we recognize the Vatican as a state. We exchange ambassadors with the Vatican, and this has not made Nigeria a Christian state”, he said, adding, “If Nigeria seeks the assistance of the Vatican or other Christian states, there is the tendency for some Nigerians to say that it is a crusade against them. Therefore, diplomatically, this option of Muslims fighting so-called Muslims is the best option.”
Justifying Nigeria’s membership of the coalition, Professor Iza said: “This coalition is aimed at fighting terrorists who claim to be representing Islam. Nigeria is a major victim of this terrorism. Should we say because we are a multi-religious state, we would not join hand to fight these people? It is in Nigeria’s interest to join whoever is willing to assist us in fighting our own terrorists. Nigeria has the right to collaborate with any nation that is willing to assist her to end the suffering of its people, which is caused by terrorism.”
On the benefits of the coalition, he said apart from receiving intelligence, Nigeria would join the Muslim countries to tell the world that terrorists are not Muslims.
“This is a major significance. The areas that Boko Haram destroyed in Northeast are mostly Muslims areas. Therefore, these people that are criticising this decision, do they want Christians to come and fight them? For me, another benefit of this coalition of Islamic countries is Muslims fighting some people who claimed to be Muslims, and this is the best option,” he said.
Speaking in the same vein, Ambassador Sulaiman Dahiru, a career diplomat said it was “rather unfortunate that everything in Nigeria is given tribal or religions coloration,” which he said should not be the case.
Amb. Dahiru remarked that the criticisms against Nigeria’s membership of the Islamic anti-terrorist coalition were misplaced because it does not mean that Nigeria has become an Islam country, “as some people are trying to say.” Nigeria’s major concern, he said, is to defeat terrorism, and argued Nigeria would be equally willing to join a coalition of Christians formed to defeat terrorism.
“The coalition against terror is made up mainly of Islamic countries, but just because it is referred to as Islamic countries does not mean that the countries are Islamic culturally. If you look at Nigeria we say we are a secular country, but we also recognize Christianity and Islam”, Dahiru said.
Amb. Dahiru said critics of the coalition have failed to understand that terrorists do not operate by sparing anybody. “Whoever they meet is slaughtered, whether a Muslim, Christian or even if you don’t believe in the oneness of God. They destroy your house and means of livelihood. If Muslim countries will defeat terrorism so that Muslims will live in peace, what is the fuss about? So, I don’t think Nigeria has done anything against the diplomatic way of doing things.”
No deployment of troops.
Malam Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, said Nigeria would not deploy troops for the coalition. Shehu said, “People who are thinking of Nigeria contributing troops to the coalition are going too far. Nigeria needs help now and, given the situation of the country, will anybody be reasonable in thinking that we would be sending troops to Syria and Iraq? We recalled our troops from Mali because we needed them and our military is recruiting in order to fill the vacuum so that there would be enough men out there. So it is Nigeria that needs support in this regard.”
He said that contrary to criticisms, Nigeria stands to gain knowledge and insight into what has largely come to be known as terrorism coming from radicalized versions of Islam.
“We stand to gain intelligence because these people are networking and you know that before we realized it, Boko Haram was in alliance with the ISIS. They were the ones who said they were going into partnership with ISIS and the ISIS immediately responded by saying they welcome Boko Haram.
“It has been internationalized and you cannot lock yourself up around Lake Chad and say you don’t want to listen to what is happening. Do you know that some of the arrests that have been made or the victims who have been shot and killed in this war are not even black men? Where are they coming from, and the sophistication of their weapons, where is it coming from? If you don’t network in the international system, you are unlikely to know where their resources are coming from”, he said.
A retired federal permanent secretary and columnist with the Daily Trust, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, declared in his column last Friday: “Let’s be very clear about this. Even if it stays firmly at a symbiotic level, there is nothing wrong in Nigeria’s participation in any coalition that fights terror, a phenomenon that is miles ahead in establishing global linkages than those who are its victims.”