President Muhammadu Buhari launched his second term on a wrong and divisive footing by immediately jetting out to Saudi Arabia to attend a religious conclave, leaving many Nigerians distraught and unenthusiastic. Opting for a very brief inaugural, and failing to deliver the traditional address to the country amidst continued bloodletting by terrorists and bandits, Buhari reaffirmed his priorities by travelling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to personally attend the 14th heads of state and government summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Four years on the job and a fresh mandate, Buhari is yet to “belong to everybody” as he so famously declared at his first inauguration in 2015. Just after his swearing-in, he muddied the waters again by flying to Mecca for the OIC summit. His action, which attracted a welter of criticism, has been stoutly defended by the Presidency. According to Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant, Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, Buhari’s attendance was in “the overall national interest,” and that he “preferred not to worry about the storms.” He affirmed that “President Buhari, leading other African leaders, got key support for many issues of concern or interest to Nigeria and the African continent at the meeting. Top on the list is strong condemnation of terrorist acts”. The meeting agreed that fighting terrorism is a major priority, resolving to work together to prevent and suppress terrorist acts through strong international solidarity and cooperation in full recognition of the UN’s central role in that regard. Among others, it was also advertised that a resolution to support the “G5” Sahel countries (Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, established in 2014) in their efforts to fight terrorism and ensure development was passed.
But let us be blunt: Nigeria has no business being in the OIC. The OIC exists to promote Islam, nothing else. Every other activity flows from this overriding objective. It is the world’s second largest inter-governmental organisation after the United Nations. Our membership is a manifestation of the brazen impunity that has characterised national affairs since independence 59 years ago. The 1999 Constitution expressly forbids the adoption of any faith as state religion as enshrined in Section 10, which states: “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” This expressly guarantees Nigerians the freedom to practise whatever faith they wish or no faith at all. But in practice, however, the federal and state governments actively promote Islam and Christianity as if they were state religions.
The OIC is not a secular global organisation like the United Nations, the African Union or ECOWAS. It does not also pretend to be an international economic organisation. It describes itself as “the Collective Voice of The Muslim World.” In a diverse and multi-faith country, it is wrong for the government to proselytise for any faith. Whatever reasons the military advanced for dragging Nigeria into such a purely religious grouping are no longer relevant today. For instance, the present OIC Charter adopted in 2008 makes it “the pillar of the OIC future Islamic action in line with the requirements of the 21st century.” The OIC’s overwhelming interests are geared towards “safeguarding the true values of Islam and the Muslims,” according to its website.
Secular societies ensure that public policy is not based on any religious book, especially in a multi-religious one. Nigeria should define its own vital interests and pursue an independent foreign policy that places the advancement of its interests above narrow sectarian preferences. Both the late Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, as presidents, blundered by attending previous summits. While the military dictatorship that ill-advisedly took the country into the OIC was unelected and unrepresentative, a President freely elected by Nigerians of diverse faiths should be more sensitive to the letter and spirit of the constitution. An earlier move to upgrade Nigeria from observer status to full membership during Buhari’s first outing as military head of state in 1984/5 was stalled by wise counsel from the then External Affairs Ministry headed by Ibrahim Gambari, who cited Nigeria’s secularity as enshrined in the 1979 Constitution and its potential to polarise Nigerians along religious lines. One of his successors, Bolaji Akinyemi, recalls that it was after the formal accession to full membership in 1986 that “religion became a tendentious issue in Nigeria.”
The OIC summit, for instance, instinctively opposes Israel in world affairs; but Nigeria should have freedom of choice in the foreign policy, unfettered by religion, and in accordance with its contemporary interests.
Buhari’s assault on the country’s secularity and freedom to manoeuvre in international affairs also saw him rushing into the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition formed in December 2015 to fight the Islamic State and other counter-terrorism activities. Its stated objectives are to “protect Muslim countries from all terrorist groups,” a noble objective, no doubt: but while all assistance to crush terrorism is welcome, the government does not need to belong to explicitly religious groupings to achieve this purpose.
Besides, the IMCTC is viewed as a Sunni majority grouping used as a counterpoise against Shia-dominated governments like Iran, Iraq and Syria that have not joined, according to a EURONEWS research. Nigeria should not be drawn into the global Sunni-Shia rivalry that has become violent in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
Too much blood has been shed in Nigeria in the name of religion: Buhari’s responsibility is to unite the country, douse tension, maintain Nigeria’s secularity and run an inclusive government. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2008 annual report, said more than 10,000 Nigerians were killed in sectarian and communal attacks and reprisals between 1999 and 2008.
More than any other head of state, Buhari has deepened the sectarian and ethnic gulfs in the polity. Alas, in his second term, he has not telegraphed intention to erase his reputation for being blatantly divisive. Buhari should retrace his steps and pull Nigeria out of the OIC and IMCTC without further delay.