Saudi Arabia, Iran said to stoke Sunni-Shia tensions in Nigeria

Sunday 13/11/2016
An August 2016 file picture shows protesters from the pro-Iranian Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in northern Nigerian city of Kano demanding the release of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat. (AFP)

Kano, Nigeria - Northern Nigeria has be­come the latest battle­ground in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with violent clashes between supporters of rival groups from the two main branches of Islam.

Members of the Izala movement, backed by mainly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, have attacked the Is­lamic Movement (Nigeria) (IMN), which is sympathetic to Shia-ma­jority Iran.

IMN ceremonies in at least four northern cities to mark the annual Shia day of mourning, Ashura, were targeted, with the worst riots in Ka­duna, an Izala stronghold. At least two IMN supporters were killed. Witnesses and local media said mobs looted and set fire to homes and businesses and shouted: “No more Shias”.

Sectarian tensions in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north were high, especially in Kaduna, after the state government banned the IMN as an unlawful group and a security threat. That followed a recommen­dation from the judicial inquiry it commissioned to investigate clash­es in Zaria city last December in which soldiers killed more than 300 IMN members.

Those clashes and the recent es­calating tension indicate that the proxy Saudi-Iran conflict — well-known in places such as Lebanon, Yemen and Syria — is being played out in Nigeria, experts said.

“It is a fact that Saudi Arabia has been financing anti-Shia campaigns in many areas of the world,” said political scientist Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria.

“If the attacks against the Shias escalate, of course Iran will sup­port them and Saudi Arabia will support the attacks on Shias.”

Izala leader Abdullahi Bala Lau has been accused of stoking anger by declaring that Nigeria’s constitu­tion only recognises Sunni Islam. His group has close relations with Riyadh and Nigeria’s government and its satellite television station, Manara, broadcasts fiery anti-Shia rhetoric.

Leaders from Saudi Arabia and Iran both contacted Nigerian Presi­dent Muhammadu Buhari after the Zaria attacks.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani called for restraint and accused “a group” of “sowing the seeds of discord among Muslims in Islamic countries” in what was considered a reference to Saudi Arabia.

Nigerian media reported that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud backed Abuja’s crackdown on the IMN, describing it as a “fight against terrorism”. The Sunni jihad­ists of Boko Haram have killed at least 20,000 people in north-east­ern Nigeria since taking up arms against the government in 2009.

Riyadh has largely refrained from openly backing Nigeria’s fight against ultra-conservative Salafist rebels but Mohammed noted it was “quick to do so in the case of IMN”.

“The responses of Iran and Saudi Arabia to the Zaria clashes belie sectarian undercurrents,” he add­ed.

Saudi clerics attended an Izala-organised conference in March on “deviant Islamic ideologies” in Ni­geria and have since been preach­ing in the country.

In May, Iran’s envoy to Nigeria called for the release of IMN leader Ibrahim Zakzaky and described his detention as “unfair”, straining diplomatic ties. He was later re­called to Tehran.

A senior Nigerian security officer said IMN’s religious beliefs were immaterial but its alleged disregard for law and order was an issue, as was its lack of recognition of the Nigerian state.

IMN started out as a student movement in 1978 and morphed into a Sunni revolutionary group inspired by the Islamic revolu­tion in Iran in 1979. The group switched to Shia Islam in 1996 due to Zakzaky’s close association with Iran, worsening mutual re­sentment with conservative Wah­habists, including Izala, which was founded in 1978 by a Saudi-trained cleric.

Islamic history expert Dahiru Hamza said Izala’s focus had up to then been against those in the mys­tical Sufi tradition, whose beliefs they considered heretical.

“They shifted their focus on Shi­as who were getting more organ­ised and challenging the Salafi in­fluence by winning more converts in the territory under the Salafi control,” he added.

Izala received funding from Sau­di Arabia and wealthy adherents, allowing it to establish mosques and schools. It also encouraged members to participate in politics, gaining government allies.

Izala’s preaching against IMN and Shia Islam has increased since last December. It openly supported the military crackdown in Zaria and called for harsher action.

Lau dismisses claims he is fuel­ling tensions as a smear campaign.

At least five northern states have followed Kaduna’s example in ban­ning the IMN from having public processions.

“The ordinary people took the ban on IMN as a ban on Shia (Islam) because IMN is the more prominent Shia group due to its public activi­ties like street procession,” said the editor of the Shia newspaper Ahl­ulbayt, Muhammad Ibrahim.

“This worried us because we saw how Izala followers were spreading the information that the govern­ment banned Shia and the people began to believe it.”

Agence France-Presse