In late August, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria to discuss a variety of issues with leaders in the country. Most notably, these discussions involved methods of addressing the Boko Haram insurgency that has plagued the region since 2009. Kerry’s visit highlighted many of the difficulties the United States has encountered in working to support efforts against the terrorist organization. A principal concern has been the widespread human rights abuses the Nigerian military has committed in its fight against Boko Haram. As the recipient of diplomatic and military support from the United States, the Nigerian government loses reliability as an ally against Boko Haram if such crimes continue to occur, and as a result, the United States has limited the amount of aid given to the Nigerian military.
Kerry’s visit was unique in that it included a meeting between the Secretary of State and the Sultan of Sokoto. The Sokoto Caliphate was a prominent Islamic caliphate that lasted for most of the 19th century. Now a state in northwestern Nigeria, Sokoto is still governed spiritually by the Sultan of Sokoto, traditionally a member of the Qadiriyya Sufi order. As a leader of the Islamic community of Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto plays an important role in the political and social dynamics of the country, especially now, a period in which combating radical Islamic terrorism is a national priority. It is likely that Kerry’s outreach to the Sultan of Sokoto represents a tactical shift in the fight against Boko Haram. Although the United States’ strategy against Islamic terror groups in Africa has historically been to provide military support and training to states facing insurgencies, such as Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia, forming strategic partnerships through religious dialogue could prove to be a more effective tactic.
The current Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, has been particularly proactive in bridging relations between the various religious groups of Nigeria. For example, the Sultan spoke out against the plight of Shia Muslims in Nigeria and reaffirmed the position that Boko Haram’s ideology is inherently un-Islamic. Tapping into spiritual leaders to combat the spread of radical ideologies can be a useful method in countering terrorist groups. The Sultan’s commitment to coordination between religious groups can help address the Boko Haram crisis. Further cooperation among the various religious factions in Nigeria can shift the balance in the war against the militant organization. Deepening divisions between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Christians in Nigeria can only exacerbate the government’s inability to take on Boko Haram.
This kind of religious alliance building could be an effective strategy for the United States’ global fight against radical Islamic terrorism as well as for American foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa, where religious and ethnic pluralism has bred conflict since the independence period. Disagreements among religious groups are also prominent features of civil wars, which comprise most of the ongoing conflicts around the world. Given the tendency of civil wars with multiple factions to last longer, developing a model of religious alliance building could allow the international community to achieve security and stability more quickly. The American incorporation of the Sultan of Sokoto into the fight against Boko Haram can serve as a test and example for other conflicts.
(1) Gaffey, Conor. "Why John Kerry Visited Nigeria’s Sultan of Sokoto." Newsweek. N.p., 26 August 2016. Web.
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