“We are part of it because we have got terrorists in Nigeria that everybody knows which claims that they are Islamic,” the Nigerian president said in reference to Boko Haram, the group whose activities has caused the death of about 20,000 people since 2009.
Mr. Buhari’s decision to push Nigeria into the coalition announced by Saudi Arabia last December appears to have been taken after a meeting with Saudi King, Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz.
According to a statement by his spokesperson on February 23, the Nigerian leader had expressed reluctance to join the coalition when he met the Saudi king.
“Even if we are not a part of it, we support you,” he was quoted to have said at the meeting held in Saudi Arabia in February.
The Aljazeera interview is believed to have been held in Qatar, where Mr. Buhari visited after his trip to Saudi Arabia.
Many analysts have described the coalition as Saudi Arabia’s way of challenging Iran’s growing influence in global Islamic affairs.
Saudi Arabia is home to mainly Sunni Muslims while Iran is the base of Shia Muslims worldwide.
Most Muslims in Nigeria are Sunni and the country’s military recently attacked a Shia procession, killing hundreds, according to Human Rights Watch, after the military claimed they planned to assassinate Army chief, Tukur Buratai.
The decision to join the Islamic coalition also goes against the calls by many Nigerians who asked that the country not join the coalition.
The Christian Association of Nigeria had in December cautioned against joining the 34-member coalition, called ISMAT.
“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,” Vanguard Newspapers quoted the coalition of Nigerian Churches as saying in a statement by its General Secretary, Musa Asake.
PREMIUM TIMES had also warned against joining the coalition. In an editorial published in January, this newspaper stated that “Nigeria should not join ISMAT, created specifically under pressure to fight ISIS.”
“The national interests of Saudi Arabia are not Nigeria’s national interests. On the sound and legitimate issue of fighting terrorism locally, regionally and globally, Saudi Arabia has shown that her interests come first before any commitment to fight terrorism.”
However, defending his decision, Mr. Buhari told his interviewer that, “If there is an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism, Nigeria will be part of it because we are casualties of Islamic terrorism.”
When asked how the coalition would work in Nigeria’s interest, the president said it would be within the framework of Lake Chad basin coalition against Boko Haram which comprises of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin.
“I don’t think we need to tell the press the details of that,” he said, in relation to the number of troops to be deployed by the Lake Chad coalition that would be part of the Saudi-led coalition.
When asked whether or not his decision would go well with Nigerian Christians who make up about half of the country’s population, Mr. Buhari said, “I have just told you it is the Boko Haram itself that declared loyalty to ISIS. Now, ISIS is basically based in Islamic countries. If there is a coalition to fight terrorism, why can’t Nigeria be part of it.”
“Why can’t those Christians that complain go and fight terrorism in Nigeria or fight the militants in the South. It is Nigeria that matters, not the opinions of some religious bigots,” he added.
The Nigerian leader denied seeking to change Nigeria’s multi-religious nature by his actions, saying, “How can I change the religious identity of Nigeria?”