When people think about Saudi-Iranian competition, Middle Eastern theaters like Yemen or Syria tend to come to mind. But the rivalry has spread beyond its home region. For Saudi Arabia and Iran, Nigeria is truly on the periphery of their respective spheres of interest – yet here, too, we see signs of interference from these two Middle Eastern states.
The latest manifestation came in late October, when the Nigerian army fired on members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, a Shiite group with ties to Iran, killing nearly 50 people during a protest in the capital, Abuja. The army, which has received military support from Saudi Arabia, says it was responding to the IMN’s attack on security forces with sticks and stones in an attempt to overrun a barricade. The IMN insists that the protest was peaceful. The incident was not the first time the Nigerian military has used force against the group. In December 2015, the army attacked the home of IMN founder Ibrahim Zakzaky in Zaria, arresting him and killing nearly 350 of his Shiite followers. The government claims Zakzaky, who is still in custody, was planning to assassinate a Nigerian army official.
Sunni and Shiite
Nigeria’s Muslim population – about half of the country’s population – is overwhelmingly Sunni. Shiites are much fewer in number. Estimates vary, but out of a total population of 190 million, Nigerian Shiites number somewhere between 3 million and 10 million people, concentrated in Nigeria’s northern states. The vast majority are members of the IMN. Zakzaky founded the organization to spread Shiite Islam within his own country after traveling to Iran to become a Shiite cleric, inspired by the 1979 revolution. At the time, Nigeria had almost no Shiites; the IMN is responsible for converting nearly all of the country’s current Shiites from Sunni Islam over the decades that followed.
The IMN, like Iran’s revolutionary leaders, rejects secular rule and seeks to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. For that reason, the Nigerian government considers the group a threat, more akin to Boko Haram than to a peaceful opposition group. Although the IMN claims to be a peaceful movement and is not actively rebelling against the government, its leaders have threatened violence if attacks on its protests continue. It’s not hard to imagine the group waging an insurgency should Zakzaky, still the IMN’s leader, be tried and sentenced to death.
Despite Iran’s clear influence in the IMN’s founding ideology, it’s less clear what level of support it is currently providing. It would make sense for the support to be minimal: Iran has enough on its plate at home with rising inflation and a weak rial, Kurdish and Sunni insurgents in its western and eastern regions, Israeli attacks on its supply routes in Syria, and oil sanctions straining its already stretched budget.
Whatever Iran’s level of involvement with the group, Saudi Arabia has taken an active interest in encouraging the Nigerian government to curb IMN activity. The countries, after all, notoriously compete for influence wherever they can. Saudi Arabia, the patron of Sunni Muslims worldwide, has its own friendly organization in Nigeria: the Izala Society, founded in 1978 with Saudi support to spread the kingdom’s brand of Salafism in opposition to Sunni Sufism. The society remains an active promoter of Riyadh’s particular school of Islam and is influential in multiple levels of government. But while Saudi Arabia deals in checkbook diplomacy wherever possible, its support to Nigeria is low compared with what it spends elsewhere. Earlier this year, it sent the Nigerian government $10 million in military equipment and aid for internally displaced persons – a small fraction of the more than $11 billion in investments Saudi Arabia has offered Sudan in recent years (including $1 billion paid in 2015 in exchange for Sudan’s switch in allegiance from Iran) or the billions that it is spending annually to fight Iranian influence in Yemen.
Interests in Nigeria
What do Iran and Saudi Arabia stand to gain from their relatively meager involvement in Nigeria? While the two often compete in theaters that offer a strategic military advantage, Nigeria and the surrounding region are far removed from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The geographical distance between them limits the threat both Middle Eastern countries might face from Nigeria, and therefore limits the interests that each has there.
Competition elsewhere makes more sense – for instance, in the Horn of Africa. Saudi Arabia has a long coastline on the Red Sea and needs to ensure free passage through the Bab el-Mandeb strait at the sea’s southern end. Iran, for its part, looks to limit Saudi influence in the Horn of Africa so it can keep pressure on the kingdom from both east and west; it produced arms in Sudan before Israel destroyed its factory there in 2012 airstrikes. Iran could attempt to use Nigeria to threaten Saudi allies in the Horn, leapfrogging Saudi Arabia’s strengthening position along the western Red Sea and putting pressure on Sudan’s western flank. Realistically, though, Nigeria is too far away to pose a threat in that scenario. Between Nigeria and Sudan is Chad, which presents a roadblock in the form of the strong French military presence in N’Djamena. Israel, moreover, is in the process of re-establishing ties with Chad and attempting a detente with Sudan, no doubt in part to contain Iranian influence in all the spheres it can.
Iran’s involvement in Nigeria is more a matter of historical convenience stemming from the IMN’s founding than an all-out effort to establish dominance outside the Middle East. If the IMN wins greater autonomy for northern Nigeria, the area could serve as a foothold for Iran as Sudan once did, anchoring arms supply routes to North Africa and on to Hezbollah and Hamas. (Notably, Sudan is predominantly Sunni, proving that Iran is willing to work with non-Shiite allies to strengthen its militias.) Nigeria, however, is a less geographically useful spot than Sudan was. From there, arms would still have to pass through Niger to reach North Africa and then the Mediterranean Sea. Niger may be the gateway to the Sahara and North Africa, but that gateway is tightening: Because of the risk that trans-Saharan transportation routes pose to Europe, it is facing a growing French and U.S. military presence. (The U.S. plans to decrease its troop presence but will increase funding for operations in the Sahel region and is opening new drone air bases in Niger.) Further, unlike in Sudan, in Nigeria Iran would depend not on governmental support to access transport routes, but on that of a nonstate group that the government is actively targeting. A lot would have to go right for Iran to be able to use a strong relationship with the IMN to support its proxies on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
The most convincing interest Iran has in Nigeria is simply gaining slightly more influence in the Islamic world by spreading its own version of Islam – at Saudi Arabia’s expense. The perceived ties between Iran and the IMN lend some legitimacy to the group at minimal expense to the Islamic republic, but without much tangible benefit for Tehran. This is especially true given that Saudi Arabia sees itself as defender of the Sunni faith, and large numbers of Sunni conversions to Shiite Islam could perhaps be construed as Saudi weakness. But again, Nigeria is simply too far away from the Middle East and the Red Sea, where Saudi Arabia finds its most pressing security concerns, for Riyadh to feel compelled to devote substantial resources to influence the outcome.
More actively supporting local Shiite adherents, meanwhile, could drag Iran further into Nigeria’s instability. If the IMN were to try to carve out greater autonomy around Zaria, it would tie up the government’s attention and resources, opening the door for Boko Haram to reinforce and expand its own territory. And if the IMN turned to violence, it would have to fight a two-front war against the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, which is hostile to Shiite Islam. At that point, Tehran would need either to step up its support for the IMN, something it could not afford to do in its current economic predicament, or to risk the pro-Iran Shiite movement’s defeat. In short, an expanding, insurgent IMN in Nigeria would force Iran to act, despite its limited capacity, or else risk losing credibility as its African Shiite brethren faced down two much more powerful adversaries.
Saudi Arabia, in turn, wants both to curry favor where possible – to better establish itself as the global leader of Sunni Muslims – and to thwart Iranian expansion wherever it can. Still, the small sums it has contributed to the Nigerian government, ostensibly to combat Boko Haram but invariably also to curb the IMN, demonstrate that it sees only limited threats in Nigeria. The IMN-Iranian relationship should therefore be seen more as a minor irritant to Saudi Arabia than as a substantial risk. Although this kind of rivalry can breed competition far from home, Nigeria is on the periphery of Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s security interests, and so long as it is, their investment there will be minimal. The competition here is notable more for its location than for its size.