What’s behind the Sunni-Shia tensions in Nigeria?

Muhammadu Buhari, a Sunni Muslim and a former military dictator, has surprisingly won the 2015 Presidential elections in Nigeria after three consecutive defeats. Buhari has campaigned on a platform of ‘change’, promising economic stability, to curb corruption and to utilise political strength in tackling the terrorist group, Boko Haram.

The Buhari government, however, has faced international criticism, due to the clash between the army and the minority Shia community in Zaria. Reports of events prior to the clash are unclear, the army asserts that the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, Genenral Tukur Buratai, was blockaded near Zaria and the convoy was attacked by a petrol bomb. The Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) deny any attack occurred and demand the release of their leader Ibraheem Zakzaky.

The government forces raided Zakzaky’s home and the whereabouts of his wife and sons are unknown. The IMN have stated that they have been killed in the raid, however, the Nigerian authorities have declared that his wife is in custody. Iran has condemned the attacks and called for the release of the Shiite leader. The movement has also been confronted by Boko Haram.

The problem remains complex: it would be too simplistic to apportion the blame to Shia and Sunni tensions as these continue to be manipulated by political ambitions. This is true for Zakzaky, who is deeply influenced by Iranian clerics, who believe themselves to be the saviours and provide leadership and guidance for Shia Muslims across the world.

Iran is the only Islamic regime to be run by a Shia-led administration. Thus, Iranian clerics continue to support any prominent actor that will aid in increasingly Shiite influence around the globe. Zakzaky’s IMN received financial contributions from Iran. The Islamic movement has had several clashes with government forces, leading to the capture and imprisonment of 120 Shiite followers. However, Zakzaky denies any financial backing from Iranian sources.

Zakzaky has asserted his support for an Islamic revolution much in the style of Iran, while his followers are believed to receive paramilitary training. Iran received a useful ally in Nigeria, albeit not as important as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian vision of entrancing Shia Islam into global mainstream politics remains important. Analysts agree that IMN adds further tensions along ethnic lines. Previous administrations have also attacked the IMN. For instance, in July 2014, stressing they were defending themselves after soldiers were abducted in a ‘peaceful processions’ supporting Palestine. The police suggest that four people were killed but the IMN claims 25 were killed – including two of Zakzaky’s sons.

The clashes are not limited to a Sunni President in power. This questions the source of the Sunni-Shia tensions. In Syria, Lebanon and Yemen are battlefields for the proxy wars of Iran and Saudi Arabia, each attempting to entrench their political dominance within the Middle East. Thus, the tensions in Nigeria to a smaller extent could be a Shia resurgence within Africa, in the political vision of Iran.

The political ramifications of Zakzaky’s power should not be overstated as the main security threat remains Boko Haram. When examining Nigerian affairs, however, in terms of Sunni-Shia violence, more detail must be given to foreign power politics than religious difference alone.

Samiha Sharif holds a Masters of Science in International Politics from SOAS. She Currently volunteering at Tell MAMA. And writes in a personal capacity.