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Nigeria should think twice before joining Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance 0

On 15 December, Saudi Arabia made a surprising announcement as it unveiled to the world what it said will be a 34-state “Islamic military alliance” to combat terrorism “all over the Islamic world”. This ambitious initiative, said Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, “emanates from the keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which has harmed the Islamic world’s standing in the international community”.

Little is known about how exactly this alliance will operate, but according official statements it seems there will be a military component which includes intelligence sharing, a messaging component to combat ideology, and a sanctions component focused on “stopping the flow of funds” to terror groups.

As for the countries involved, there are notable absentees such as Iran, Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, those said to be part of the alliance are drawn from across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It remains to be seen which countries will formally join the Saudi-led coalition, but one of those considering membership is Nigeria.

On 17 December, Presidential Spokesman Garba Shehu said that “Nigeria has been formally invited to be a member of the alliance”, but that the “decision to join has not been taken yet”.

If Nigeria were to join, it would signify a major step-change in relations with Saudi Arabia. Islam and membership of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have traditionally anchored the two country’s relationship. But adding security cooperation to that relationship could have real potential.

Boko Haram clearly has a transnational dimension – it is increasingly engaging in cross border attacks and has links to other Islamist militant groups beyond West Africa – and an international security platform for intelligence cooperation could be hugely useful to Nigerian security forces. Additionally, further support from the alliance in the form of funding or training could also significantly enhance counterterrorism efforts.

However, there are also potential perils from membership that the Nigerian government should consider seriously as it ponders the Saudi invitation.

What’s in a name?

The first possible danger comes from the name of the group – the Islamic Military Alliance – and how this could play in Nigeria’s fraught domestic scene.

Soon after news broke of Nigeria’s supposed membership of the Saudi-led initiative, the Christian Association of Nigeria, the umbrella body for the country’s Christian groups,registered its protest, saying membership harms “Nigeria’s pluralistic character [and] portends great danger to national unity and integration”.

Should President Muhammadu Buhari sign-off on Nigeria joining, informing the public early, being transparent about how the decision was reached, clearly articulating the advantages for Nigeria, and securing broad elite consensus will be essential to avoid the anti-terror alliance becoming a polarising factor in the country’s interreligious relations.

The intense controversy that trailed Nigeria’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1986 offers salutary lessons.

When “out of the blue” news broke in January 1986 that Nigeria had “secretly” become a member of the OIC the previous month, it sparked a political crisis. The non-transparent attainment of OIC membership exacerbated what in any case would have been a contentious issue, and the controversy it sparked effectively paralysed Nigeria’s participation in the organisation.

“In order to satisfy Muslims, [Nigeria] has not officially withdrawn its membership”, saidhistorian Toyin Falola, “and in order to satisfy Christians, it has refused to play an active role in the OIC”.

If Nigeria joins the Islamic Military Alliance, it will have to be careful as to how it presents this move to the public.

Continue reading on African Arguments

By Muktar Usman-Janguza

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