The hallmark of great philanthropists is that they don’t boast about every good deed they do. We assume that is why the most generous President Muhammadu Buhari didn’t announce that he gave away $1 million of Nigerian taxpayers’ money to Afghanistan.
He would have got away with it too, if not for the big mouth of the people he donated the money to. The Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Hissein Brahim Taha, announced on March 3, 2022 that Nigeria donated the $1 million to the Humanitarian Trust Fund for Afghanistan.
Remember the Taliban?
When the United States of America withdrew its military presence from Afghanistan in August 2021 after 20 years of fruitless war, the country’s democratic government quickly fell to the Taliban. The jihadist group taking over the country was a bad look for America, so sanctions rolled in. International organisations froze billions of dollars in aid and assets to Afghanistan, plunging the country into a huge humanitarian mess. As a result, millions of Afghans are now facing starvation.
The OIC resolved at a December 18, 2021 meeting to launch the Humanitarian Trust Fund for Afghanistan to address the humanitarian crisis. The organisation begged its members to help prevent an economic collapse in Afghanistan by making donations to help millions of Afghans that are in danger.
What’s Nigeria’s business with an Islamic group?
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world”. The organisation exists to safeguard Muslim interests in economic, social and political areas. It was founded in 1969 by 30 Muslim-majority countries following the burning of a mosque in Jerusalem. Today, the OIC has 57 member states including Afghanistan, and Nigeria, even though our country is not a Muslim-majority state.
So how did we get in?
In 1969, the Nigerian government was fighting a civil war to prevent Biafra from breaking away. General Yakubu Gowon, a Christian from Plateau state, desperate to win the war, tried to shake hands with every potential ally he could find.
This was his groove:
The OIC held its first Islamic Conference in Morocco in September 1969, over two years after Nigeria’s war started. Gowon sent a delegation with Nigeria granted an observer status, which is like the talking stage of a relationship. Over the next nearly 20 years, the OIC fell in love and started pressuring Nigeria to regularise and fully enter into a proper marriage. Many Nigerian governments, including Buhari’s military administration of 1983 to 1985, refused to cement the relationship because of Nigeria’s status as a multi-religious state.
General Ibrahim Babangida eventually made Nigeria a full member in 1986 without the approval of the governing organs of the military government at the time.
Critics have always condemned Nigeria’s membership as a ploy to “Islamise” the country, a theory that gained more ground since Buhari became president and attended an OIC meeting a day after his second term inauguration in 2019. But former Christian presidents, Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, have similarly attended OIC meetings and ignored calls to pull Nigeria out of the organisation. The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also attended.
Back to that $1 million
The Nigerian government has failed to address last week’s announcement, but it’s easy to draw a straight line between Buhari’s donation and Nigeria’s OIC membership.
And despite whatever good intentions were behind it, critics have questioned why a country that’s a recipient of foreign aid itself is spreading aid around.
Some critics are also quick to point out that the humanitarian problem Buhari is trying to solve with that donation is also an immediate concern in Nigeria. 22.8 million Afghans face acute food shortages, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP). The same agency estimates that 13 million Nigerians are facing hunger, including 4.4 million of them in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. Other critics are just worried the money is going into the pockets of the Taliban even though the OIC has pledged to have safeguards against that.
More than anything, the big picture of this whole episode is that Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution forbids Nigeria from adopting any religion as the state’s religion. Yet, Nigeria is a member of an OIC whose overriding objective is to safeguard the interests of Islam.
Buhari’s donation should once again resurrect debates about whether Nigeria should continue to be a member.