Why Nigeria Should Think Twice Before Joining Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance

An abridged version of this article was published in 'Africa Arguments' on 8 January 2016.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman announcing the establishment of its anti-terror alliance at a rare press conference in Riyadh on December 15 2015. Photo Credit AFP

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 to official statements it seems there will be a military component which includes intelligence sharing, a messaging component to combat extremist 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 “Nigeria has been formally invited to be a member of the alliance”, but that the “decision to join has not been taken yet”.

Islam and OPEC in Nigeria-Saudi Relations

If Nigeria were to join, it would signify a major step-change in relations with Saudi Arabia.

Islam has historically anchored the relationship between both countries. It has facilitated trade, enhanced people-to-people contact and deepened cultural ties – especially with northern Nigeria. For example, the station in Jeddah which managed the affairs of Nigerian pilgrims during colonialism “became the nucleus of a fully-fledged Embassy” after independence.

The late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a towering figure in the history of Islamic reform in postcolonial Nigeria, was “an important broker in Nigeria-Saudi relations”. His extensive connections with Saudi Arabia’s religious and political establishments made him “one of Nigeria’s first semi-official diplomatic representatives in the kingdom” in the years preceding independence, and “the most important … [channels of] … investment … from Gulf states” in succeeding years.

In 1971 a new vector was added to the bilateral relationship when Nigeria joined OPEC, the Saudi dominated oil cartel. This aspect of the relationship however, hasn’t been as promising as expected in forging real strategic ties. Both countries haven’t always seen eye-to-eye over OPEC policies. Saudi Arabia is the only ‘swing producer’ in OPEC and the organization’s influence over global oil prices is largely underwritten by the Kingdom’s spare capacity, making Saudi oil policy prone to unilateralism.

As a result, during periods of crisis such as the current collapse in oil prices, OPEC members like Nigeria have often been unwillingly pulled along in the slipstream of Saudi policy. 

Some Advantages

Given their shared terrorism challenge, adding security cooperation to the Nigeria-Saudi 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 polarizing factor in the country’s interreligious relations.

The intense controversy that trailed Nigeria’s membership of the Organization 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 paralyzed Nigeria’s participation in the organization.

“In order to satisfy Muslims, [Nigeria] has not officially withdrawn its membership”, said historian 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.

Saudi Arabia’s Geopolitical Motives

The second problem derives from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical motives and regional ambitions.

Most responses to the new anti-terror alliance have expressed skepticism as to the real reasons behind the initiative. The exclusion of Iran in particular – a country with which Saudi Arabia is locked in an intense struggle for regional supremacy – is seen by many as being indicative of Riyadh’s desire to galvanize the Sunni world against its rival.

A striking feature of the Middle East’s geopolitics is Iran’s prominent place in Gulf Arab threat perceptions – Oman being the notable exception, perhaps due to the country’s unique religious make-up (neither Sunni nor Shi’a but Ibadi, an entirely different sect. Oman neither joined the Gulf Cooperation Council’s war in Yemen, nor has it joined the new anti-terror alliance).

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is a perfect example of how the ‘Iran threat’ now drives Gulf Arab foreign policy behavior. GCC member-states have never used military force abroad, except as part of a US-led coalition. Perceptions that US disengagement from the region is encouraging the expansion of Iranian power triggered that intervention and drives the GCC’s subsequent military activism.

“In private GCC officials make no bones in saying they felt compelled to [act in Yemen]”, said Ken Pollack at a prepared testimony before Congress in July 2015, “because the United States was embracing Iran rather than deterring or defeating it”.

Therefore, Nigeria’s membership of the anti-terror alliance could entail, if not explicit support, then at least implicit endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical objectives – objectives that are much broader than simply countering terrorism.

The sectarian undertones of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could also have domestic repercussions for Nigeria given the unresolved tensions between the Nigerian state and its own restive Shia minority.

Whose Terrorists?

Linked to the question of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical motives is a third problem: which militant groups will command the alliance’s focus?

Saudi Arabia says the new alliance will confront “any terrorist organization that appears in front of us”. But it is clear that the alliance’s leading states will have different perceptions of who the main threats are.

For Turkey, for example, the role of Kurdish separatists looms large in its concerns. Ankara’s attention is focused on unseating Syria’s President Assad and preventing its nightmare scenario of an independent Kurdistan emerging amidst Syria’s wreckage. Defeating Islamic State comes an important but distant third in its list of priorities.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s view of what constitutes terrorism – as enshrined in its 2013 anti-terror law – is so broad as to practically include “any act of protest or criticism” against the monarchy. The law was recently used to execute a prominent Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi monarchy, further inflaming regional tensions and leading to the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.

A truism in international relations is that the heavyweights in any alliance generally define its objectives. The danger for Nigeria in joining Saudi Arabia’s initiative therefore is that it may find itself having to stand by the controversial, and sometimes reckless, policies of its powerful friends in the name of solidarity. 

No Algeria

The fourth problem for Nigeria’s possible membership of the alliance is the absence of Algeria.

Nigeria’s defence planners differentiate the country’s national interests into three levels of importance: ‘vital’ interest, identified as the country’s survival and the preservation of its territorial integrity; ‘strategic’ interest, identified as the stability of immediate neighbours and West Africa; and ‘peripheral’ interest, identified as the country’s “obligations to the international community” such as participation in UN mandated peacekeeping missions.

If one were to map the landscape of Nigeria’s security threats using this framework, a picture would emerge of three separate geographical levels of concern: stability in the Lake Chad region, where Boko Haram is concentrated, would constitute a ‘vital’ interest; the broader Sahel, which potentially offers Boko Haram strategic depth and connects Nigeria to the chaos in Libya, would be of ‘strategic’ interest; and stability in the Levant, where the so-called Islamic State is based, and beyond would come under ‘peripheral’ interests.

This perspective illuminates Algeria’s importance to Nigeria’s broader security. Stability in the Sahel is crucial for Nigerian security, and Algeria is the regional power in that neighbourhood. Despite its reticence about using military force – its constitution explicitly forbids external military adventures – Algeria’s potential as a stabilising power is undeniable. It is an “indispensable broker of stability in … the Sahel”, says a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

The Sahel is both a barrier and a highway straddling Nigeria and Libya, the latter of which is arguably home to Islamic State’s most important outpost. And Nigeria’s limited capability to project its power means close cooperation with Algeria is essential if the region is to push back against the further spread of IS.

Since March 2013, intelligence chiefs from eleven countries across the region – including Nigeria and Algeria – have met every two months, with foreign ministers meeting every three, as part of the Nouakchott Process to discuss Sahelian security. Diplomatic energy may well be better spent improving the performance this multilateral initiative, where matters affecting Nigeria’s direct strategic interests are concerned, than in the broader Saudi-led alliance.

In assessing whether to stay in or out of the Islamic Military Alliance, Nigeria should be careful to weigh the clear potential advantages against these equally formidable perils.

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