As a largely defeated Boko Haram gradually losses relevance, there is another potential sectarian conflict in brewing in what could make northern Nigerian ground zero of a proxy war between two of Islam’s most prominent sects – Shia and Sunni Islam. Allies of Iran and Saudi Arabia battling it out in Nigeria, with the Nigerian government accused of repressing Shia Muslims, in a mice reminiscent of the conflict that radicalised the Jihadi group Boko Haram.
In 2016 clashes between Nigerian soldiers and the followers of the Shia sect leader Ibrahim El-Zakazaky left hundreds dead. The leader of the sect Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife were arrested and are still in detention, despite an order by a federal judge in Abuja at the end of 2016 to release them within 45 days.
Overzealous members of the sects thought it a good idea to ambush the convoy carrying the Nigerian Army Chief of Staff Tukur Buratai, hurling objects at the soldiers and uttering profanities. The restraints of the army chief of staff and call for calm only emoldened the hoodlums who began chanting Islamic war cries, a number of his soldiers were wounded by stones and other objects hurled at them.
You can only provoke the army so much. Unwilling to allow the motorcade proceed to their destination the COS ordered his men back. Hours later hundred of Nigerian soldiers stormed the compound of the sect, in running battles in which more than 380 of their followers wee killed by Nigerian soldiers.
This prompted outrage in Iran, with the Ayatollah condemning what it called the “massacre” of peaceful Muslims and called for the immediate release of El-Zakzaky, and the Saudi’s publicly supporting Nigeria and even going as far as inviting Nigeria to be a member of the IMTC ( Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition).
A Nigerian government spokesman said Zakzaky has been recruiting to his Shia organization in such a way as to pose an unacceptable challenge to the Nigerian State.
“They do not recognise or obey Nigerian laws and their medium term agenda is to start an Iranian type Islamic revolution to create a theocratic state.” he said,
In Nigeria, %80 of muslims are sunni’s, less than 5% are reckoned to be Shia. But the Iranians ‘re actively funding the Shia’s, with Tehran’s funding of social projects, including more than 300 schools.
Across northern Nigeria there is competition between the clinics and care centres that display Irans green red and white flag and those that fly Saudi Arabia’s green flag with the Islamic inscription and symbol of a sword. There are Green white Greens, but you will have to find them.
Sometimes you gotta question where the loyalty of northern Nigerian Muslims lie, and wonder if these people are part of the Nigerian State or a separate sovereign entity within the federation.
Zakzaky’s sect has been outlawed in recent times due to its militant character, They have a paramilitary and they’re suspected of having a cache of weapons.
In the last 10 years there were at least two cases of Iranians importing weapons into Nigeria through Lagos. There was a Lebanese businessman caught with lots of weapons in Kano and linked to that. It would seem the Iranians have taken advantage of Nigeria’s preoccupation with Boko Haram and have been tying to turn northern Nigeria into an arm’s bazaar.
Not suprising the Iranain government has accused Nigeria of using excessive force against the Sect and called for the prosecution of those responsible for the wrong doing. It appears Iran is ignorant of the fact that Nigeria is a sovereign state and will not be dictated to on how to run its government by Iran.
Security experts warn that tensions between Zakzaky’s group and the security forces could boil over once again. Some draw parallels with how the police and military repression of Boko Haram – particularly the killing of its leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 – prompted the group to launch an insurgency.But could a Boko Haram 0.2 be in the making? If so we are in deep trouble unless the government takes proactive measures immediately to curb the rise of radical Shia in Nigeria.
Unlike Boko Haram, which was made up of largely illiterate members and with limited spread in 2009, these Shia guys are widespread, well educated and are entrenched in all levels of societ. When this is coupled with the links to a state like Iran, which has never shied away from sponsoring militant groups, a violent Shia militancy will be more devastating than Boko Haram.
Such a crisis will put the spotlight on how geopolitical rivalries between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran could play out in Nigeria. From the Shiite viewpoint, successive Nigerian governments have moved far too close to Saudi Arabia and its backer, the United States. And the pragmatic US government under Donald Trump has already marked out territory by willing to sell Nigeria $600m worth of warplanes, in a deal that was suspended under the hypocrite Barack Obama’s presidency because of human rights concerns.
Another signal is Trump’s appointment of Rudolph Atallah, a former US Air Force pilot, as his Africa security director. Lebanese-born Atallah, who speaks fluent Arabic and French, has an on-the-ground knowledge of Iranian networks in Lebanon, Syria and beyond. He is likely to add Nigeria to his itinerary in the near future.