The suicide bomb attack in the Borno State of Northern Nigeria on June 17, 2018 further exacerbates the tension between the government and the minority Shiite group in the country. Furthermore, the attack that took the life of 32 people, while 84 others wounded (the majority of them are Shiite) will have its own influence on Nigeria’s relation with that of Iran.
As some unofficial reports indicate, around 3 million Shiites are living in Nigeria, most importantly in the northern part of the country. Some foreign policy commentators also argue that outside of the Middle East, Nigeria, particularly Northern Nigeria, is one of the places where Iran’s Shiite ideology made huge penetration. A good manifestation of this assertion is the existence of almost 5% of pro-Iranian Shia community out of the current 85 million Nigerian Muslims.
A Nigerian Muslim cleric called Sheikh Ibrahim Zakhzakhi is noted as a prominent figure who played a major role in the spread of Shia Islam in Northern Nigeria. El-Zakhzakhi, highly influenced by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, campaigned against the secular government and called for the observance of Islamic government in Northern Nigeria. The Sheikh regarded Nigerian secular government unfit to rule the people in line with Islamic values and traditions. In 1979 El- Zakhzakhi and his followers burned Nigerian constitution to show their solidarity to Iranian revolution against the secular government in Nigeria.
El-Zakhzakhi’s inclination to Khameinisim was further exacerbated following his visit of Iran in 1980. This led to the adoption of the rhetoric and symbolism of Ayatollah Khameini, Iran’s Shia leader. This was soon followed by the establishment of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) by Ibrahim El- Zakhzakhi. Since then the IMN actively worked to recruit members. Although the IMN started as a student movement, it later transformed into a mass movement incorporating followers from various segments of the society including intellectuals, businessmen, company workers etc.
As it is indicated by some analysts, currently IMN is regarded as Africa’s largest Shia movement, though its leaders tried to hide its Shiite element and present as neutral. A prime manifestation of the above-noted argument is Shia religious events when the IMN mobilized more than 1 million people. Together with this, IMN mobilized about 50,000 people for those political rallies called by Khameini and his successors and Hizb Allah’s leader Hasen Nasrallah in various times.
At times the above-noted stance of the IMN and other Shiite group against the secular government in Nigeria caused tensions. Among the various incidences occurred in the past, the December 2015 incidence is regarded as a prime manifestation for the escalating conflict between the government and the Shiite group in Nigeria. Although El- Zakhzakhi and his followers rejected, the government accused them with an attempt to assassinate the Nigerian chief of army staff, Tukur Burata. Following this incidence, the army attacked IMN members and put El- Zakhzakhi and his wife under arrest till today. This measure of the government brought El- Zakhzakhi’s supporters into the street and demanded the release of the Sheikh, his wife and other members of the IMN unconditionally.
On the other hand, however, many local supporters of El-Zakhzakhi and foreign governments (particularly Iran) accused that, the December 2015 episode is orchestrated by the Nigerian government to weaken the expansion of Shia Islam in the region. Hence, the various clashes between the minority Shia groups and police, escalated after 2015, are interpreted as government’s intervention against individual’s religious freedom. The last week suicide bomb attack, that targeted Shiite group of the Borno State, is also analyzed from this perspective. According to Ahlul Beyt News Agency (located in Iran), the Buhari administration is conspiring with Boko Haram to clean the Shiite group from Nigeria, referring Boko Haram responsible for the suicide bomb attack. The News Agency quoted a statement issued by Boko Haram to strengthen the accusation: “And by the permission of Allah these attacks of ours against Shi’a polytheists will continue until we cleanse the earth of their filth”. In this respect, it is also necessary to note that any retaliation measure taken by El-Zakhzakhi’s supporters against Boko Haram can open the door of endless bloodshed and instability in Nigeria. This will be another headache for the government of President Muhammed Buhari that is already affected by terror-induced instabilities of Boko Haram.
In any case, the attack further escalates the tension between the minority Shiite group in Nigeria and President Muhammad Buhari’s government. Furthermore, other analysts have been stating their concern that the continuing attacks since 2015 have the capacity to radicalize the IMN. In this regard, the trial proceeding of El- Zakhzakhi and the subsequent court decision (including death penalty if he is emerged as guilty) will have a huge impact against the peace and stability of Nigeria and its neighbors.
Furthermore, the last week suicide bomb attack may affect Nigeria’s relation with Iran. As part of its global operations, Iran is working to promote its socio-economic and political interest using the minority Shiite groups in Nigeria. As reports indicate, large numbers of IMN members have attended their study in Iran and returned back home. These graduates have been serving as an agency to consolidate Tehran’s presence and its ideology in the region. Iran has been closely following El-Zakhzakhi’s case and often condemns Nigerian government’s treatment of him and other prisoners of IMN members. Hence, Tehran’s sharp criticism against the attacks targeted the Shiite group in Nigeria further complicates the bilateral relations.
Apart from the Nigeria-Iran bilateral relations, the attack may escalate the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran. As reports indicate northern Nigeria has been serving as a battleground in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Sympathizers of the Sunni and Shiite Islam in Nigeria made violent clashes in the past which sometimes causes loss of human life. The intensification of Saudi-Iran rivalry, in turn, affects the peace and stability of Nigeria and its neighbors.
Hence to minimize, if not fully avoid, the above-noted threats the government of Nigeria should take immediate and long-lasting measures. Abuja should observe the rule of law in treating the minority Shiite groups. On their part, the IMN and other Shiite groups in Nigeria should also abide by the rules and regulations of the country in exercising their socio-political and religious rights. In doing so, Nigeria can address the instabilities induced by foreign intervention in its domestic affairs and provide an independent solution for local problems.