In the grainy video, it looks just like another Nigerian roadblock, as youths armed with clubs signal for the traffic to stop on this dusty street in the northern city of Zaria. But this is not just any car. It belongs to the Chief of Army Staff, the most powerful military figure in Nigeria.
It is a standoff that will leave hundreds dead and bring the sectarian conflict raging across the Middle East and Muslim world to Nigeria.
And the youths are members of Nigeria’s main Shia group, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) — the vanguard of Iranian influence in Nigeria.
“They don’t recognize the Nigerian state,” says Muhammed Isa, professor of political science at Zaria university. “They don’t even recognize the Nigerian flag or symbols.”
The video, from December 2015, gives few details as to who attacked first, but the face-off quickly turns violent. The Nigerian military call in reinforcements and open fire. They accuse the IMN of attempting to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, and in a lethal crackdown, according to Human Rights Watch, killed 347 members of the group, demolished their headquarters, and arrested their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a young Nigerian named Ibrahim Zakzaky, expelled from university for his involvement in student protests, began training as a Shia cleric in Iran. When he returned home he founded and became leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. Portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini hung from the walls of Zakzaky’s home and his rhetoric, with much anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, echoes that of Hezbollah.
Nigeria, with an estimated 90 million Muslims, has the fifth largest Muslim population in the world — more than the entire population of Iran. The majority are Sunni and, although there are several other Shia groups in Nigeria, the vast majority of Nigeria’s 3 to 5 million Shia are thought to belong to the IMN.
Before the crackdown, the IMN ran their own schools, health clinics, religious centers, and even a film camp from compounds spread across northern Nigeria, often guarded by the “Hurras.”
The “Hurras,” or guards, are the youth vanguard of the IMN, and like Hezbollah, they are modelled on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Hurras were also the youth that confronted the military Chief of Staff at the roadblock. And many of these young men have been trained in Iran.
“Very many scholarships are given to the young men of the organization by Iran, and they study abroad for 5-10 years,” explains Ibrahim Jibrin, a political scientist who helped prepare a government-commissioned report into the 2015 violence. “We could not get much information, but we were very interested in the Iran connection.”
The Iran Connection
In 2010, port authorities in Lagos seized a trove of illegally shipped weapons. In all, authorities seized 13 shipping containers with 240 tonnes of ammunition, including 170mm rockets, mortar bombs, and grenades.
The intended recipient of the arms remains unclear, but the shipment originated in Iran.
An investigation by Conflict Armament Research found that the freight company involved, Behineh Trading, is a front for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and was involved in earlier shipments of illegal Iranian weapons — “a clear breach of UN sanctions on Iranian arms exports,” according to the research group. Confidential statements by Iran’s ambassador to Nigeria suggest this shipment had been preceded by two earlier shipments. An alleged member of the Iranian Qods force, Azim Adhajani, was sentenced by a Nigerian court to five years for importing the illegal goods.
Then, in 2013, Nigeria’s security forces detained Abdullahi Mustapha Berende and two other Nigerians for being part of a “terrorist cell.” The same year they discovered an arms cache in the northern city of Kano, which included rusty but still serviceable weapons and landmines. Three Lebanese citizens were arrested and, under questioning, all admitted to having received training from Hezbollah.
According to the Nigerian State Security statement, investigations revealed Berende went to Iran through a scholarship to Imam Khomeni University, where he was then trained in the use of AK-47s, pistols, and production of Improvised Explosive Devices. When he returned to Nigeria, he was funded with $24,000 and given the codename “Uncle” for Israel and “Aunt” for the USA. The security service said that, at the request of his “Iranian sponsors,” Berende gathered intelligence on places “frequented by Americans and Israelis to facilitate attacks.”
There are no ties between the arrests, arms seizures, and the IMN. Conflict Armament Research said the arms were most likely for a government, such as that of neighboring Gambia. IMN insist all their funding is internally generated, and that it has only educational and spiritual ties to Iran. And when the military raided the headquarters of Zakzaky and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria they found only bows and arrows, catapults, sticks, and a few dane guns.
Iran says very little official on its relationship with or policy on Nigeria. After the military attack on Zakzaky’s home, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a short statement, referring to Zakzaky as “peaceful” and accusing the military of massacring his followers and martyring his children — a reference to two separate military attacks that resulted in the death of his six sons.
But the Nigerian government report came to a more worrying conclusion about IMN:
“While young Nigerians have the right to receive foreign scholarships from foreign religious institutions, the fact that some of the said institutions in Iran have been widely reported to be training the youth for ‘revolutionary action’ similar to what had happened in Iran should have raised serious security concerns and a coherent national policy response to ensure that the strategic interests of Nigeria are not compromised.”
Nigeria’s Official Reaction
“We have outlawed Zakzaky’s movement because they do not recognize the constitution of Nigeria,” Governor of Kaduna state Nasir El-Rufai said in a TV interview in April, 2017 [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcGOMAWF8rI ] . “Their allegiance is to another country and their objective is to turn Nigeria into an Islamic Republic.”
The government has banned the Islamic Movement in Nigeria group in at least six states. Zakzaky himself was seriously injured during his arrest, and despite a ruling by the court that he should be released from State Security detention into police custody, his lawyer has only seen him once. There are unofficial reports of a purge of Shia Muslims from many positions in the civil service.
After the military crackdown in Zaria, security forces and political analysts feared the IMN could morph into another Boko Haram — whose own leader was detained, and then killed, in an eerily similar violent episode in 2009. Based in northeast Nigeria, the group has pledged allegiance to ISIS, killed tens of thousands, and turned millions of people into refugees.
So far, another Boko Haram has failed to materialize, and the IMN mainly resort to street protests and campaigns to release their leader from prison.
Instead, something else equally concerning is happening.
The Saudi Connection
In 2016, President Buhari met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on an official trip to Riyadh — after which Buhari announced Nigeria would join the Saudi-led coalition of Muslim countries against terrorism, though many people regard it as more a coalition against Iran.
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, aged 74, suffers from an undisclosed illness that means he stays in the UK for long bouts of treatment. After Buhari’s latest return from treatment, an analyst at Nigerian private agency SBM Intelligence, during a trip to the capital Abuja, saw a private jet with the flag of the Saudi Royal family, at the airport. The visit received no official publicity.
“The official Nigerian Muslim hierarchy is aligned with Saudi Arabia geo-politically and there has been a push by Wahhabi influences for Nigerians to adopt a stricter Wahhabi doctrine,” says Ikemesit Effiong, an analyst at SBM Intelligence. “The emergence of Sharia law in Nigeria is an example of this.”
Nigeria's most prominent Sunni preachers, such as Abubakar Gumi and Jafar Mahmud Adam, have close ties to Saudi Arabia. And Saudi supports health and education projects across Nigeria.
While it is important not to overstate the influence of either Saudi Arabia or Iran in Nigeria, it appears such international conflict is now feeding into not just Buhari’s foreign policy decisions, but local divisions.
The Sunni-Shia Conflict
“The Shia in northern Nigeria have undergone severe repression,” explains Dr Shuaibu Musa, Secretary on the Free Zakzaky Committee. “If we carry out any activity, they pound on us, as if they don’t want people to think we exist.”
Dr Musa claims IMN property, religious schools, and places of worship are targeted by the police and state security, often destroyed, and taken over by Sunni worshipers. It’s a claim Human Rights Watch backed up in 2016, confirming that properties in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Plateau, and Sokoto States had been destroyed.
For Iran, this new government-supported crackdown means the steady destruction of IMN infrastructure built up over the past 30 years. But for Nigeria it signals the arrival of the Islamic civil war overwhelming the Middle East.
“It did not start as a Shia-Sunni conflict in Nigeria,” explains Muhammed Isa, professor of political science in Zaria university, northern Nigeria. “However, there are strands of Nigeria’s Sunni groups now cashing in on the global crisis against the Shia to feed their own agenda.”
And, while the Shia appear to be on the backfoot and the crisis largely under government control, analysts caution that widespread stability is not guaranteed simply because of Nigeria’s Sunni majority.
“You only need a passing knowledge of Nigerian history to understand how so many of Nigeria’s internal security threats have morphed and evolved down a similar dangerous path,” says Ikemesit Effiong at SBM intelligence.
Nigeria is already beset by Boko Haram in the northeast, an oil militancy in the southeast, and deadly clashes between herders and farmers in its middle belt. Even if the IMN don’t have the weapons, they have the numbers. A widespread uprising, by even a fraction of the country’s estimated three to five million Shia, would be enough to tip the balance of the country into chaos.
And, as Iran has found in the Middle East, with chaos comes opportunity.