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Turkey, the Gulen Movement and Nigeria

Last month President Buhari made a four-day visit to Turkey – his first to the country since his election in 2015. Though Buhari’s trip was…

Last month President Buhari made a four-day visit to Turkey – his first to the country since his election in 2015. Though Buhari’s trip was essentially to attend a meeting of the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation ( made up of Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey), he was hosted by President Erdogan, one-on-one, in Ankrah, for a full day in the Turkish capital in what some called  the ‘compressed state visit’. It was reported that during the visit, the two leaders discussed issues of security, anti-terrorism and agricultural and trade cooperation – among others.  President Erdogan was said to have specifically mentioned the ‘menace’ of the Fetullah organization, which the government accused of terrorism.  President Erdogan had in March this year paid a state visit to Buhari in Abuja.

What is the Gulen movement and why did President Erdogan declare it a terrorist organization? Is Erdogan trying to twist Nigeria’s arms to extradite some members of the movement?

The Gulen movement is a well-organized Islamic transnational religious and social movement led by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen who acquired a sort of cult status in Turkey after arguing that many young Turks had lost their way and that education was the best response for that.  The Gulen movement grew by leaps and bounds and attracted a growing number of middle class followers. Very quickly it began to open schools and expand into other businesses, including the media. Variously known in Turkey as ‘Hizmet’ (the service) or ‘Hizmet Hareketi’ (the service movement) by its followers, it is now active in education (including private schools and universities) in over 180 countries. Many of its followers operate American charter schools in the USA.  

The Gulen movement used to be an ally of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), of President Erdogan which came to power in 2002. Through that alliance, many Gulenists gained influence in the Turkish society, with some members being appointed into influential positions in Erdogan’s government.  From about 2012, the alliance began to go sour with President Erdogan accusing the movement of attempting to overthrow his government.  After the failed coup of 2016, the government of Turkey blamed the group for the coup and in May 2016, declared the movement a terrorist group.

Fethullah Gulen denied any involvement in the coup and suggested that his former ally Erdogan might actually be behind the coup himself, given the sheer wave of arrests after the coup. The BBC of July 21 2016 argued that whether the Gulenist were responsible or not, it was convinced that Erdogan was planning to purge the military anyway.

Following the coup and subsequent declaration of the Gulen Movement as a terrorist group, Turkey requested USA to extradite Gulen, who has been living in the country since 1999 but the USA demurred, saying it needed clear evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the coup. Just as they rightly did with IPOB, both the USA and the European Union declared that they did not consider Gulen a terrorist organization. The World Terrorism Index has also not listed the Gulen Movement as a terrorist organization. In fact in 2008 the Dutch government investigated the movement’s activities in the Netherlands following questions from the parliament. The series of investigations concluded that the movement was neither a breeding ground for radicalisation nor was it impeding integration in the country.

As a movement said to be operating in about 180 countries (and with between 200,000 to four million followers), it has both supporters and critics. While its supporters laud it for its ‘moderate blend of Islam’, (which emphasizes altruism, modesty, hard- work and education), its technology friendliness, its support for multiparty democracy and for being the ‘modern face of the Sufi Ottoman tradition’, its critics accuse it of aspiring to become the world’s leading Muslim network, of being a secretive organization or even a religio-political cult – along the lines of the Catholic Opus Dei. It is estimated that there are about 300 Gulen movement schools in Turkey and over 1000 worldwide. In Nigeria, the movement owns the Nile University (among other schools) and the Nzamiye hospital (both in Abuja).

The point here is that the Gulen movement does not meet the tests used by terrorism scholars in designating any organisation as a terrorist movement. For an organisation to be called a terrorist organization in a technical sense, it must have the following features – it must be part of a recognized international terrorism franchise; it must operate either in cells or as individuals, it must be driven primarily by revenge and renown and it must measure the success of its activities by their media impact and ability to generalize fear in the civilian population. The Gulen movement does not meet these criteria.

What seems clear is that the rift between Erdogan and Gulen is that of alliance gone sour. Of course any one can use terrorism on any group or even government as a way of de-legitimizing the activities of such a group or government. 

How does Turkey want to suck Nigeria into its internal dog-fight?

Recall that at the height of the IPOB crisis one Abdulkadir Erahrahman, widely reported in the media as a ‘Turkish diplomat’ (before it was corrected that he was President of the International Nations Commercial Association – whatever that meant), visited the IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu at his home town. While receiving Erahrahman Nnamdi Kanu’s brother Emmanuel was reported to have said that Turkey was looking for ways of partnering with IPOB leadership.

Again in September 2017 the Nigerian Customs claimed that a syndicate operating from Turkey had been discovered to be behind illegal arms importation in the country. The Nigerian Customs claimed that since the beginning of the year, four batches of arms illegally imported into the country from Turkey had been intercepted.

If you add the two stories above, there are suspicions that the Turkish government might be playing a sort of gun-boat diplomacy – using Abdulkadir’s purported support for Nnamdi Kanu and the impression that Turkey was supplying arms to IPOB as a bargaining chip. This may be just a hunch but it is not beyond the sort of games nations play in international politics. There are an estimated 1,000 Turks living in Nigeria, many of them affiliated to the Gulen movement. It is not clear how much of Buhari’s trip to Turkey and meeting with Erdogan was influenced by ‘fears’ that Turkey might be arming IPOB.

In fact after Buhari’s meeting with Erdogan in Turkey, it was reported by some media houses that the 1000 Turks living in the country might face deportation. The Foreign Affairs minister Geoffrey Onyeama was said to have told reporters: “There was the request for the extradition of some of the Turks in Nigeria who have been given asylum and recognized by the United Nations as political refugees and the Turkish government requested that we extradite some of them.

“There was also the request that the schools and hospitals established by the Gulen movement should be closed in Nigeria”. The Minister was to later claim that there was no agreement between the two governments to extradite certain Turks.

The point is  that Nigeria should not be blackmailed or  lured with niceties into behaving like a ‘Banana Republic’ by allowing itself to be sucked into Turkey’s internal political problems. The problem between President Erdogan and Gulen appears to be that of an alliance gone wrong – as we often see here between political god fathers and political god sons.

Obviously all foreigners living in the country must not only respect our laws but must also not use our country to destabilize the government of their home countries.  However, unless incontrovertible evidence of subversive activities by the Turks living here exists, the country must be careful about its long-term reputation by refusing to rush any extradition treaty or order the closure of schools and hospitals owned by the Gulen movement in the country.

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