A recent ban on a militant, Iranian-backed Shiite group raised the spectre of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry spilling onto Nigerian streets as security forces launched a manhunt to find the alleged Boko Haram operatives who killed 65 people attending a funeral.
Nigeria, Africa’s foremost oil producer, banned the Iranian-backed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) last week after demonstrations in the capital Abuja to free its leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, turned violent. At least six people were killed.
“The Saudis watching the Iranians trying to break into northern Nigeria is almost like watching someone else try to befriend your best friend,” said Ini Dele-Adedeji, a Nigerian academic at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, referring to the region’s religious elites that have aligned themselves with the kingdom.
Saudi cables released in 2015 by WikiLeaks reveal concern about Iranian-funded Shiite expansion in West African and Sahel nations including Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
Mr Dele-Adedji said Saudi and Iranian funding was “on the surface…about these countries helping out with ‘charitable work’ activities. But beyond that it’s also a way for those countries to almost create extensions of themselves.”
Mr El-Zakzaky, a Sunni Muslim student activist inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, initially agitated for a repeat in his native Nigeria. When that didn’t work, Mr El-Zakzaky went to Iran, converted to Shiism, and started wearing the white turban of a Shiite cleric. Returning home in the 1990s, he became the leader of the Islamic Movement and turned it into a vehicle for proselytising and gaining followers.
Things got out of hand when Nigerian troops killed hundreds of Shiites in the ancient university town of Zaria in December 2015 and arrested Mr El-Zakzaky and hundreds of his followers. The army accused the Shiite group of attempting to kill Nigeria’s army chief-of-staff, a charge the movement denies.
Iran has been funding Mr El-Zakzaky for years and the area of Zaria he worked in became the “mecca for the dispossessed in Nigeria,” according to Matthew Page, a former US State Department specialist on Nigeria. The Islamic Movement has been receiving about USD 10,000 a month from Iran, he estimated. Mr El-Zakzaky used the money to fund soup kitchens and homeless shelters, Mr Page said. “This was a very inexpensive way for Iran to have a toehold in Nigeria,” he said.
Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the London-based Cornerstone Global Associates estimated that Mr El-Zakzaky’s organisation operates more than 300 schools, Islamic centres, a newspaper, guards and a “martyrs’ foundation.” The network is similar to welfare systems established elsewhere by Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups.
The Nigerian government first declared the Islamic Movement a security threat in 2017, comparing it with the Boko Haram insurgency, according to Nigerian diplomats. Peregrino Brimah, a trained medical doctor who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at colleges in New York, never gave much thought while growing up in Nigeria to the fact that clerics increasingly were developing links to Saudi Arabia.
“You could see the money, the big ones were leading the good life, they ran scholarship programmes. In fact, I was offered a scholarship to study at King Fahd University in Riyadh. I never thought about it until December 2015 when up to a 1,000 Shiites were killed by the military in northern Nigeria. Since I started looking at it, I’ve realised how successful, how extraordinarily successful the Wahhabis have been,” Mr Brimah said.
He decided to stand up for Shiite rights after the incident in which the military arrested Mr El-Zakzaky.
The Nigerian military said that it had attacked sites in Zaria after hundreds of Shia demonstrators had blocked a convoy of Nigeria’s army chief General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in an effort to kill him. Military police said Shiites had crawled through tall grass towards General Buratai’s convoy “with the intent to attack the vehicle with [a] petrol bomb” while others “suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque.”
A phone call to Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari in which King Salman expressed his support for the government’s fight against terrorist groups was widely seen as Saudi endorsement of the military’s crackdown on the country’s Shiite minority. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted King Salman as saying that Islam condemned such “criminal acts” and that the kingdom, in a reference to Iran, opposed foreign interference in Nigeria.
Mr Brimah’s defence of the Shiites has cost him dearly, illustrating the degree to which Saudi-funded ultra-conservatism and Iranian agitation has altered Nigerian society.
“I lost everything I had built on social media the minute I stood up for the Shiites. I had thousands of fans. Suddenly, I was losing 2-300 followers a day. My brother hasn’t spoken to me since. The last thing he said to me is: ‘how can you adopt Shiite ideology?’ I raised the issue in a Sunni chat forum. It became quickly clear that these attitudes were not accidental. They are the product of Saudi-sponsored teachings of serious hatred. People don’t understand what they are being taught. They rejoice when a thousand Shiites are killed. Even worse is the fact that they hate people like me who stand up for the Shiites even more than they hate the Shiite themselves,” Mr Brimah said.
In response to Mr Brimah’s writing about the clash, General Buratai invited him for a chat. Mr Brimah politely declined. When Mr Brimah reiterated his accusation, General Buratai’s spokesman, Colonel SK Usman, adopting the Saudi line of Shiites being Iranian stooges, accused the scientist of being on the Islamic republic’s payroll.
“Several of us hold you in high esteem based on perceived honesty, intellectual prowess and ability to speak your mind. That was before, but the recent incident…and subsequent events and actions by some groups and individuals such as you made one to have a rethink. I was quite aware of your concerted effort to smear the good name and reputation of the Chief of Army Staff to the extent of calling for his resignation,” Colonel Usman said in an email to Mr Brimah that the activist shared with this writer.
General Buratai “went out of his way to write to you and even invited you for constructive engagement. But because you have dubious intents, you cleverly refused…. God indeed is very merciful for exposing you. Let me make it abundantly clear to you that your acts are not directed to the person of the Chief of Army Staff, they have far reaching implication on our national security. Please think about it and mend your ways and refund whatever funds you coveted for the campaign of calumny,” Colonel Usman said.
Mr Brimah’s inbox has since then been inundated with anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian writings in what he believes is a military-inspired campaign. His predicament reflects the fallout of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in West Africa as a result of Saudi and Iranian funding that has let the genie of intolerance, discrimination and bigotry out of the bottle.
Issoufou Yahaya, in the Sahel state of Niger, recalls his student days in the 1980s when there wasn’t a single mosque on his campus. “Today, we have more mosques here than we have lecture rooms. So much has changed in such a short time,” he said.
Dr James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.