The recent bloody clash between the Nigerian Army and Shiite Movement in Nigeria that took place in Zaria, Northern Nigeria, on Saturday 12th December, 2015, is capable of triggering Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in Nigeria if not carefully and diplomatically handled by the Nigerian Government. The Shia Muslims in Nigeria are led by Sheikh El-Zakzaky. They operate under the umbrella of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the head of Sunni Islam worldwide while the Islamic Republic of Iran is the leader of Shiite/Shia Islam globally. The Sunni constitute about 85% of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims while the Shiite constitute about 15%. Saudi Arabia and Iran are regional enemies in the Middle Middle East and arch rivals for control of politics of the Gulf Region, and by extension, the Islamic world. The history of hostility and rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islamic followers predates the modern era and can be traced to the succession disputes that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed, the founder of the Islamic religion, in the 7th Century AD.
As a conservative ''Wahhabi'' Sunni Islamic Kingdom Saudi Arabia has close ties with the United States of America, the United Kingdom and other western countries. On the other hand, Iran is a Twelver Shia Islamic Republic founded in an anti-western revolution in what is known as the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are perceived to have aspirations for leadership of Islam and have conflicting visions of stability and regional order. They also differ on the interpretation of Islam and who should head the Islamic world. Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a puppet state or agent of the United States in the Persian Gulf representing US interests rather than Islam. On her part, Saudi Arabia is concerned and worried about Iran's consistent desire to export its revolution across the board, thereby expanding its influence within the Persian Gulf -notably in post Saddam Iraq, the Levant and within further South, in addition to Iran's controversial, much debated nuclear nuclear program.
The enmity and rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in the relations between the two nations and has contributed and continue to contribute to the sectarian conflict plaguing the Middle East. For instance, the Shia-Sunni divide as epitomized by Iran and Saudi Arabia is one of the major factors fueling the wars raging in Syria and Yemen. Iran, a Shia state supports President Assad of Syria who is an Allawite Shia minority fighting majority other Sunni groups in the Syrian civil war and also supports the Houthis Shia fighting the Sunni government of Yemen. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is leading a military coalition made up of majority Sunni countries to fight the Houthis Shia fighters waging war against the government of Yemen.
Following the clash between the Nigerian Army, which in this case represents the Nigerian state, Iran was reported to have registered her anger and disappointment over the incident by summoning Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Minister, Godfrey Onyema and also called President Muhammadu Buhari, and warned that Nigeria should protect Shia Muslims in the country. On the part of Saudi Arabia, she was also reported to have called and praised the Nigerian government for cracking down on Shia Muslims, describing them as ''terrorists''.
On the surface, one may not take the calling of Nigerian government by Iran and Saudi Arabia to mean anything. However, looked at from a very critical diplomatic angle, it is a sign of formal involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the internal affairs of Nigeria and also an attempt to import their mutual hostility, suspicion and religious rivalry into Nigeria. While Saudi sees the killing of Shia Muslims in Nigeria as fight against terrorists, Iran sees it as an attack on Shia Islam and accused Nigerian government of ''committing genocide'' against minority Shia Muslims in Nigeria. Iran further warned Nigerian government to protect Shia Muslims in the country, treat the wounded and compensate families of those that died in the clash with the army. This marks the beginning of involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Islamic religious politics of Nigeria, with the former supporting the Shia and the latter supporting the Sunni. It is important to note that Nigeria has more Sunni Muslims than the Shia. Iran feels that Nigerian government is persecuting minority Shia Muslims, and has warned that she is ready and willing to protect them. It is trite to also note that Iran has been accused of sponsoring the Shia Movement, also known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
Furthermore, this open show of interests by Iran and Saudi Arabia in the internal affairs of Nigeria as a result of the Army-Shia clash, is coming at time when the government of Nigeria, headed byMuhammadu Buhari, himself a Sunni Muslim just joined a 34-state military alliance headed by Saudi Arabia and made up of Sunni Muslim states. The Saudis argue that the major aim of the alliance is to fight ''global Islamic terrorism''. Some might argue that Nigeria's joining of this alliance is a strategic move to defeat Boko Haram terrorism at home; but looked at from another angle or point of view, she has pitched tent with Sunni countries by joining the Saudi-led alliance and this tantamounts to a declaration of war against Shia Muslims and also capable of importing into Nigeria Sunni-Shia conflict rocking Syria, Yemen, Iraq and some other countries in the Islamic world.
Nigeria is a secular state with various religions. The country's constitution does not recognize any state religion, be it Christianity or Islam. Citizens of Nigeria are at liberty to practice any religion of their choice provided it is done in accordance with the law of the land and does not constitute security threat to the Nigerian state and and its citizens.
There is need for the Nigerian government to apply tact and shrewd diplomacy in handling the backlash of the Army-Shiite clash and the interferences from Iran and Saudi Arabia who are involved in sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam that has tore some countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region apart. Nigeria is a sovereign state and should not allow Saudi Arabia and Iran who are involved in a war for the 'SOUL' of Islam turn her into a battle ground for sectarian violence. We have been battling with the Boko Haram insurgency for close to seven years. This insurgency has led to the death of over 20,000 Nigerians and cost her over 6 trillion Naira and continues to gulp the country's resources even at a time she is groaning financially as a result of the dwindling fortune of oil, her economic mainstay, in the global oil market. Nigeria is therefore warned not to play into the hands of Saudi Arabia and Iran who are only interested in projecting their selfish religious and political interests beyond their shores and cause crisis in unsuspecting countries. Nigeria CANNOT afford a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims in her territory. Such states as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and others engulfed in Sunni-Shia sectarian conflicts have been reduced to rubble and the crises rocking them continue to rage with no end in sight. No nation or state survives a religious war.
The views expressed here are exclusively mine. I take responsibility for any errors: grammatical, typographical or otherwise that may be found in this article.