In this interview with INNOCENT ODOH, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Maiduguri, Prof. James Saliba, warns about the dangers posed by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to Nigeria, even as he tasks the Nigerian government to take adequate measures against possible intensification of terrorists activities in the country.
The coming back of Taliban to power in Afghanistan appears to be a very big inspiration for global jihadists perpetrating terrorism. What are the implications of the resurgence of the Taliban for Nigeria?
I will look at it in two ways. One is in terms of implications of the possible reestablishment of international terrorism based in Afghanistan, which can serve as a feeder for terrorist activities in other parts of the world. This is a very legitimate concern of the US and the Western powers at the moment because even if people think that the Taliban are a little more refined from what they are saying so far, they have not reneged from their original core values in relation to the rights of women and that will apply to their commitment to the Sharia system.
So far they have indicated that they do not only want to reestablish sharia in Afghanistan but there is the possibility that they would want to propagate the adoption of sharia globally. In that case, not only the West should be concerned about such resurgence but other countries that have substantial Muslim population in their countries such as Nigeria must take it very seriously.
And I personally think that it will be very difficult for the Taliban not to allow groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to use Afghanistan as a new launch pad for their activities around the world because ideologically, they are in cahoots with each other and then of course it will be part of the survival strategy of the Taliban itself. Distancing itself from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS may be very difficult for the group.
I think a country like Nigeria must be very worried because in the course of the insurgency in Nigeria we have seen very clear attempt by the local insurgents to link up with other international terrorist groups, not only al-Qaeda in the Maghreb but also ISIS in Iraq. Although not clearly established, links between the Boko Haram and al-Shaabab have been suggested.
So, that tendency to link up with other international terrorist groups creates the possibility that with the emergence of Taliban Afghanistan will be a launching pad not only to the Western countries but a country like Nigeria and I think we should pay attention to that closely and if there is anything the international community will like to do to ensure that the Taliban do not offer themselves again as the place where terrorism can be internationalized, we should join hands with other countries of the world to ensure that the concentrate on their domestic concerns rather than wanting to export international terrorism.
The second thing I will like to say is that many are not paying attention to the real crisis in Afghanista. The country is not just about sharia and the attempt by the Taliban to internationalize sharia through terrorism, it is about irredentism and I think people are not paying attention to this.
The reason Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban is because of irredentism among the Pashtuns. In the 19th century, the British made agreement with the Emir of Afghanistan on international borders and it resulted into what is called the Duran Line. The Line created the international boundary between Afghanistan and the Indian sub continent that Britain was ruling, which included present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka and others.
But after 1947 independence, Pakiatan and Afghanistan began to have problem over the recognition of that international boundary. Afghanistan in particular rejected that international boundary because it is interested in uniting the Pashtuns in Afghaniatan and Pakistan. So, they began to export terrorists into Pakistan in order to pursue irredentist cause and that is why Pakistan had to fight for many years against that
When the Cold War came up, the matter changed because the Mujahidden were now created by the US to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which obscured the issue of the irredentism but it never went away. That is why in the post cold war period after 1991, there was resurgence and even in the last regime of Ashraf Ghani, there was still the interest of Afghanistan in the Pashtun in Pakistan.
One of the reasons Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban, including the present takeover is because Pakistan does not want this issue of irredentism to come up strongly again because it will be a destabilizing factor for Pakistan.
So, if the Taliban continues to bring up the issue of irredentism and it succeeds in destabilizing Pakistan it may affect Nigeria because in Nigeria, we have irredentist tendencies. We have ethnic groups that are found in Nigeria and other neighboring countries- the Yorubas in Nigeria and Benin, the Kanuris in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, the Hausas in Nigeria and Niger and even in the Cross River angle, we have groups that are in Cameroun and also in Nigeria. Now, if irredentism becomes an international trend and it succeeds can you imagine what will happen in Nigeria?
Even the Boko Haram was feeding on that, the Kanuri elements in Chad were very much influential in ensuring that arms were coming in from Libya to the northern region of Nigeria.
So, we have to be very careful about some of these things, our analysis should not just be restricted to the religious dimension, we have to look at the irredentist angle also. So, for me these are the true concerns that Nigeria should factor as we examine our foreign policy in the light of these global changes that are taking place right now.
Nigerians are also disturbed that in the face of these global terrorist threats, the Nigerian borders are very porous which will give room for the influx of these terrorists and weapons into the country , especially as they allegedly share ideological background with some elements in the northern region. Another thing is that the security agencies seem to have failed in manning the borders. Do you think Nigeria stands any chance of stopping massive influx of hardened terrorists?
To be frank with you, the government may make pronouncements and demonstrate commitments verbally to protecting our international borders, but the truth of the matter is that in reality it has not been able to do that successfully and it is a major concern. Now, the issue is why is that the case? Is it because the government is not capable of mustering political will and also providing the necessary resources to enable the security agencies in Nigeria, particularly the military, to be able to police our borders well and to better equip the immigration and customs to man our borders any better?
For me, it is lack of political will. Since the President Muhammadu Buhari regime came to power, all we hear is a lot of rhetoric but really not much taking place. That is why there are a lot of concerns about the real commitment of the government in addressing the insurgency. Don’t forget that when Buhari came in, he said he was going to end Boko Haram. But what people forget is that the Boko Haram has been downgraded substantially before the Jonathan regime exited. All they needed to do was to complete that exercise.
But there was resurgence later on. Even if the Boko Haram did not control local governments as they did before, the intensification of their activities ensured that most parts of northern Borno for example remained destabilized. That is why many of the IDPs are still in camps in Maiduguri today.
So, if that is the case, then it begs the question of the actual commitment of the government. Now, if the government has been taking measures and these measures are not working, why can’t they make it work?
We thought changes in military leadership will make things work. General Tukur Buratai left and a new person has come up but we still have these problems all over especially the problems of banditry in the north west not just the north east.
So, certainly there is a need to recalibrate our responses to these issues. But I am not sure that this government has the capability to come up with any fresh initiatives because with the changes in military leadership one should have started seeing substantial changes in the way they are addressing issues of banditry, kidnapping and terrorism. But that s is not the case. Even this morning, we heard that 60 people were kidnapped in Zamfara and you wonder why.
What are the basic elements making it difficult for the government to address these issues? Is it because the military is overstretched in almost the 36 states of the federation or that the police are ill-equipped? These conventional excuses that we hear are they the real reasons or are there, as many people are suspecting, backers and supporters of these crises?
I think the government needs to deal with the real people sponsoring some of these things because the citizens are getting more frustrated.
The Government has talked so much about de-radicalisation of the insurgents to remove them from the toxic ideology of terrorism. But it appears that the more they talk about de-radicalisation, the more the insurgents become radicalized with jihadist ideology and the footprints are there everyone. What is your take on this?
Let me begin with the last part of your question- the ideological content and why it has remained very strong and appealing. I recall that when we started researching on the drivers of the Boko Haram insurgency, many of us were arguing that it was not just the issue of religious ideology.
The religious ideology might have been very important in encouraging people like Mohammed Yusuf, Abubakar Shekau, AlBatnawi and others to think about establishing a sharia caliphate in north east. That might have been a motivation may be because they are convinced about the teachings of 13th century Arabic scholar, Ibn Taimiyya, who wanted to establish a pristine environment for the practice of Islam as it was in the prophetic days. But that alone will not have sustained the insurgency up to this particular point. There are many other drivers that fertilize the insurgency.
The socio-economic condition of the country also feeds into the issue of the deradicalisation that you are talking about. But to what extent can you de-radicalise those who are poverty stricken? They may want to give up on the religious ideology but they still have to face the reality of poverty, lack of education, lack of infrastructure. If the condition they faced before the insurgency still remains the same, to what extent would de-radicalisation work?
To what extent are we providing alternative livelihoods to these youth? To what extent can we give them hope that the society can now offer them better options of survival in life?
So, the de-radicalisation has to be anchored not just in disabusing the minds of people from wrongful religious teachings. As important as that is, we have to address the socio-economic circumstances that contributed substantially to push many of these youth to support jihadist terrorism.
That means, if de-radiclaisation is not working, we have to broaden the scope of understanding, we have to go beyond the ideological. It may be hunger rather than religion that is driving people to insurgency, banditry and kidnapping.