Nigeria currently Africa’s largest economy is nowadays more in the news for its struggle against the Boko Haram group. While the campaign drags on against the militant threat who is increasingly become more violent and brutal. However the month of December 2015 brought to light a new crisis with the Zaria clash which saw several deaths. The clash often called a massacre by supporters of one side threatens to unleash a new fault line that between the Sunni led Nigerian government and the Shia followers of the cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky.
The December 2015 clash took between the Nigerian Army and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a group led by Zakzaky in the Northern town of Zaria. The death toll is hazy due to claims and counterclaims by different sides often misusing estimates for political gain and propaganda. Zakzaky in particular has been made a martyr (though he is still alive) and a victim of government oppression backed by “Israel”. Iran in particular has become quite vocal and international protests often linked to Shia groups who have links to Tehran have taken place around the world as well as a substantial social media campaign in support of Zakzaky.
The Nigerian government has announced an investigation into the incident which includes the demolition of shrines and a compound of the IMN. However, the government asserts that the clash was sparked by an attempt by Zakzaky’s followers to assassinate the Nigerian COAS Tukur Buratai who was coming in order to attend a passing out parade in Zaria. This was followed by a firefight between Nigerian soldiers and armed members of the IMN which culminated in the demolished compound where Zakzaky and hundreds of his followers were holed up.
Zakzaky was wounded and taken into custody by the Nigerian Army who is also providing him with medical care which included treatment overseas. The government has announced an inquiry into the incident which would be presided over by an independent commission of experts in order to maintain impartiality. It can be ascertained that the Nigerian government is trying to contain the situation as it is becoming similar to the way the death of Muhammad Yusuf propelled Boko Haram to its current path of militant violence.
Zaria has already witnessed bloodshed on 25 July 2014 when 35 people including three of Zakzaky’s sons were killed in a firefight between the Army and the IMN during a religious procession. Zakzaky himself is a controversial figure in Nigerian politics having been jailed for sedition in the 1980s and 90s and the IMN has been accused by critics for making a “state within a state”. Indeed, Sunni citizens of Zaria have alleged the IMN to be behind a number of attacks within Zaria and have supported the military action against the IMN. Similarly, Zakzaky’s elder brother Muhammad Sami Yaqoob has also supported the army action against the IMN.
Sunni-Shia relations have been highly cordial in Nigeria. The Shia minority which was introduced in the 1980s by Zakzaky is well integrated in Nigerian society and its members serve in the government and armed forces. Sectarian discord was limited to tribal feuds in the Sokoto state of Nigeria however there was a spike following the assassination of the Sunni cleric Imam Umaru Danmaishiyya well known for his anti-Shia rhetoric on 19th July 2007. The aftermath of the killing saw the Sokoto state government demolish the headquarters of the IMN who would later on relocate to Zaria.
The IMN crisis also seems to have shown the rise of Iran’s role within Nigeria, an important member of the Muslim world. Zakazaky was trained in theology in Iran and was inspired by the revolution that toppled the Shah in 1979. The IMN denies any support from Iran but many of its leaders and members have visited and studied in the Middle Eastern country.
Iran has used militant proxies as tools of foreign policy after the 1979 revolution with great effectiveness. It has used its influence in both the Lebanese militia Hizbullah and Palestinian resistance organisations such as Hamas to contain its steadfast foe Israel. It has utilized sectarian militias in both Iraq and Syria to support allied governments. It has also used proxy to throw foreign threats like the US and Saudi Arabia off balance (In fact its greatest success has been to end Saudi’s policy of nonvisible backseat diplomacy and forced it to take a more active role in both Syria and Yemen)
A point to note is that Iran’s support to proxies does not translate to control over them. Most of these are local groups whose interest often converge with Iran’s and there have been cases of divergence such as Hamas and Tehran’s differences over Syria. Yet that has not been able to stop Iran from making optimum use of its allies and deriving maximum benefit.
Adel Assadinia, a former Iranian diplomat who fled Iran after exposing corruption in the top tiers of the country, has stated that the IMN has been modeled on Hizbullah and receives continuous Iranian support in the form of military training that includes guerilla warfare, manufacturing explosives and arms use.
It is uncertain to which extent Iran has leverage over the IMN but it has emerged as the keenest supporters of the group and Nigerian Shias by extension following the December firefight. It has also shown its interest in Nigeria through the expansion of its diplomatic capacity in the African nation over the last two decades.
The situation in Nigeria itself draws parallels to the conditions in which several of Iran’s militant allies emerged. The oil rich Southern part of Nigeria is drawn in a conflict between migrating Muslims and resident Christians which can be related to the Lebanese civil war that laid the foundation of Hizbullah as well as the Boko Haram conflict that draws parallel to the Shia Sunni strife of post 2003 Iraq. All in all a perfect ground for militant groups to arise.
While the IMN is far too small to become a serious threat to the Nigerian state on the scale of Boko Haram it can threaten to unleash a new schism in Nigerian society that between Sunni and Shia. Already embroiled in a war against the Boko Haram as well as rebels in the Christian south such a development may cause widespread destabilization in not only Nigeria but also the rest of northern Africa.