Nigeria is sleepwalking into the Saudi-Iranian conflict

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Nigerian Shiites burning the flags of Israel and the USA (Screenshot via YouTube)

The lack of coherent and enduring policies in Nigeria's foreign relations with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Israel are pitching the Muslim and Christian population against each other, writes Nuhu Othman.

NIGERIA'S FOREIGN POLICY towards the Middle East has been largely defined by the person that occupies its presidency, from establishing relations in 1960 with Israel and its severing of such relations in 1973 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, to its oscillating adventure into the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1986.

These frequent oscillations and bizarre flirtations have always had considerable backlashes in this predominantly two-faith country, polarising it further apart along religious lines because these decisions are done as a bragging right on which faith calls the shots in the affairs of the country. These relationships have sometimes been alliance-induced.

These alliance-induced relationships found a perfect demonstration in the recently concluded OIC meeting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, was in attendance. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia serves as its arrowhead, has come under severe criticisms in its handling of the Yemeni War.

The GCC members, naturally, form a bulk of the OIC. The GCC membership composition ensures the dominance of Sunni Islam. Coincidentally, both the OIC and the GCC have been trying to rein in Libya and Qatar respectively. The U.N.-backed Libyan Government accuses members of the GCC for their support to the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), General Haftar’s forces, while Qatar has gone farther afield to cosy up to Iran’s support.

These cracks in both the OIC and the GCC made it more necessary to hold the recently-concluded meeting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Firstly, to show clearly its strength in unity, numbers and diversity in cultural backgrounds — even if its adversaries are among its members. And secondly, to demonstrate its far-reaching power to shape global affairs.

This is especially true if one considers the lesser importance the Muslim population now gives to the much talked about “two-state solution” between Israel and Palestine. The legitimacy of the statehood of Israel is not considered much a topic of debate in Muslim climes now as it was before. This issue was greatly exploited by Al-Qaeda and used as one of its rallying points.

Back in Nigeria, the Israeli Ambassador has recently promised to improve relations with the country, which feeds into the GCC’s support of Jared Kushner’s new plan for peace between Israel and Palestine. This promise of warmer relations is coming amidst rumour of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Nigeria.

As much as the legitimacy and statehood of Israel has been exploited by Al-Qaeda to rally support among Muslims worldwide, it is commendable to look for peace in this troubled spot, perhaps to whittle down Al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists’ leverage on this prolonged and delicate issue. However, Nigeria’s relationship with the OIC and the newly-improved bilateral relations with Israel are making Nigeria walk a tightrope — this calls for a studied diplomatic balancing act.

Nigeria still faces the ravaging activities of Boko Haram in the fringes of the north-eastern region and especially along the Chad Basin. This dreadful terrorist organisation has staged successful attacks on both unarmed civilians and specific Government interests since 2009, even though its activities have been contained to about two states in the north-eastern region. This terrorist organisation, which started its operations in a similar fashion to Al-Qaeda, has now given its allegiance to the Islamic State. This shift prompted its name to change to the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP).

In the north-western region of Nigeria, there are active followers of Shia Islam, whose leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Zakzaky, has been in detention since 2015. Despite his incarceration, thousands of his followers have continued to stage protests calling for his immediate release. The Iranian Government has called for his release to allow the leader medical attention overseas.

This goes to show the extent of Iran’s growing influence in this populous West African region. These twin extreme challenges posed by both ISWAP and the growing Shiites are a clear manifestation of fundamentalist views imported from outside the shores of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s ever-increasing ties with the OIC and Israel are gradually pushing the Nigerian Shiites to resume burning of the United States of America and Israeli flags and also the burning of President Trump's effigy. This action is reminiscent of how Al-Qaeda latched onto this outrage to make the Palestinian cause central to its campaign of Holy Jihad. The Shiites may not have extreme views about establishing an Islamic caliphate, but Iran has been at the forefront of opposing the existence of Israel. This serves as the perfect mix for an escalation in violence, unfortunately.

The worrying aspect of these relations with Israel and the OIC is that the Nigerian Government seeks to explain that OIC involvement will help address the issue of insecurity — Boko Haram and perhaps the recharging of Lake Chad. The warming of relations with Israel could be the Nigerian Government's own version of a balancing act. This, in my reading of the situation, is to largely achieve a rapprochement with people of a certain faith – Nigerian Christians – who had shown their disapproval of Nigeria's relations with the OIC.

But here is the dilemma for Nigeria: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has never hidden its cracking down of dissenting voices in the Kingdom, especially against the Shiites. It has supported this approach in Bahrain, across the GCC countries and in Africa. A proxy confrontation between Nigeria and Iran is highly likely in the long term. The Israeli angle opens up a vast opportunity for terrorist organisations to rekindle the Palestinian cause and the call for a Holy Jihad to liberate Muslim lands. These relationships are easier to make worse than better.

There are no easy solutions for the Nigerian Government getting the confidence and support of its citizens as regards to these relationships. But a quick fix could be made. For instance, Nigeria's involvement in the OIC could be made to be low-key by way of sending a senior Government official for such a meeting rather than the President.

The same approach could be applied in the case of Israel. While this is in play, the Nigerian Government can engage its citizens on the benefits of such relationships with concrete achievements shown over time. If the Nigerian Government does not tread carefully, it stands to tear apart the country. Who would want to have a relationship with a conflict-torn Nigeria, except as a humanitarian relief recipient? I do not wish to see this happen. Nigeria’s foreign policy must not be defined on the basis that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Nuhu Othman is a Nigerian political and security risks analyst. He has written a lot about Nigeria and West Africa. 

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