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Saudi-Iranian rivalry stokes sectarian tensions in Nigeria

IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky has been imprisoned since December [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 November, 2016

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Growing tensions between the Sunni Izala Movement and the Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria, particularly in the north of the country, have been fuelled by Riyadh and Tehran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing proxy war has spread to northern Nigeria as evidenced by violent clashes between rival groups who follow the two main branches of Islam.

Militants from the Izala Movement, who are backed by majority Sunni Saudi Arabia, attacked the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), which has ties to mainly Shia Iran.

At least four commemorations of the Shia day of mourning, Ashura, were targeted in recent attacks, the worst of which took place in Kaduna, an Izala stronghold.

At least two IMN supporters were killed because of the attacks, according to AFP.

Witnesses and local media said that, during Ashura commemorations, Izala Movement supporters looted and set fire to homes and businesses while shouting “No more Shia”.

Tensions in northern Nigeria were already high after the state of Kaduna announced a ban on the IMN group in October, stating that the group was guilty of holding “unlawful processions" and "obstructing public highways" over the course of 2016. 

The decision has angered supporters of the IMN's leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky who was imprisoned in December 2015 following clashes in Zaria city in which Nigerian army forces are believed to have killed more than 300 IMN members.

Earlier this year, in May, Iran’s envoy to Nigeria called for Zakzaky to be released from prison describing his detention as unfair.

It is a fact that Saudi Arabia has been financing anti-Shia campaigns in many areas of the world
- Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed


He was consequently recalled to Tehran, a sign of strained diplomatic ties between the two states. 

"If the attacks against the Shias escalate, of course Iran will support them and Saudi Arabia will support the attacks on Shias,” political scientist Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed, from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, told AFP.

"It is a fact that Saudi Arabia has been financing anti-Shia campaigns in many areas of the world," Mohammed added.

Partisan support, partisan divides

Abdullahi Bala Lau, leader of the Izala Movement, has been accused of seeking to escalate hostilities by claiming that Nigeria’s constitution only recognises Sunni Islam. 

The movement’s Manara television network regularly broadcasts anti-Shia rhetoric.

In the aftermath of events in Zaria in December, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is said to have contacted Nigerian President Muhhamadu Buhari, describing the crackdown as a “fight against terrorism”.

By contrast, speaking at that time, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called for restraint and accused Saudi Arabia of “sowing the seeds of discord among Muslims in Islamic countries”.

While Riyadh has largely refrained from openly expressing support for Nigeria’s ongoing fight against Boko Haram — which has killed at least 20,000 people in northeast Nigeria since beginning an insurgency against the Nigerian state in 2009 —Mohammed noted that it had been quick to do so “in the case of IMN”.

Additionally, in March a number of Saudi clerics attended an Izala-organised conference focused on “deviant Islamic ideologies” in Nigeria and have remained to proselytise in the country. 

Power and influence

IMN started out as a student movement in 1978 before morphing into a Sunni revolutionary group inspired by Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Izala had focused their wrath before 1996 on adherents of mystical Sufi Islamic traditions and practices who the group perceived as heretics

Later, in 1996, the group switched to Shia Islam after developing ties between Zakzaky and Tehran due largely to mutual resentment towards Wahhabi Islamic groups such as the Izala Movement, which was founded in 1978 by a Saudi-trained cleric.

Speaking to AFP Islamic History expert Dahiru Hamza said Izala had focused their wrath before 1996 on adherents of mystical Sufi Islamic traditions and practices who the group perceived as heretics.

"They shifted their focus on (to) Shia who were getting more organised and challenging the Salafi influence by winning more converts in the territory under the Salafi control," said Hamza.

Izala has received considerable funding from Riyadh that has facilitated the establishment of mosques and schools.

The movement has also encouraged members to participate in politics, in order to gain powerful political allies within the Nigerian government.

Banning order

Since last December Izala’s vitriolic preaching against IMN and Shia Islam has increased. The movement notably expressed open support for the military crackdown in Zaria, and even called for harsher action. 

However Abdullahi Bala Lau denies that he is fuelling tensions, and conducting a smear campaign against IMN. The Shia group has been banned in five additional states since Kaduna’s decision to outlaw it.

 "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 Muhammad Ibrahim, editor of the newspaper Ahlulbayt.

"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."

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