There is an ongoing debate, sometimes highly pitched, about the Iranian presence on the African continent, especially since some African countries have become arenas for Tehran and its arch-rival Riyadh to win the most influence in Africa for the Muslim world.
Iran wants to penetrate the Egyptian-Saudi monopoly of speaking on behalf of Islam, with Sunni Muslims, the majority in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, representing at least 80 per cent of Muslims worldwide, by spreading Shia Muslim doctrines in African countries.
Iran is a Shia-majority country, and it has positioned itself as speaking for Shia Muslims worldwide.
There is strong Shia presence in Nigeria, with sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaki turning to Shiism in the late 1990s and creating the Islamic Movement in Nigeria that has launched a call for Shiism. Zakzaki’s followers amount to 20 million of the 92 million Muslims in Nigeria, according to a Bloomberg report.
Their Sunni rivals claim that their numbers are no more than one quarter of this figure, though this is still a substantial number in view of the small number of Shias in Nigeria at independence from Britain in 1960.
Taking into account Saudi interests in Nigeria since the early 1990s, the conversion of these millions, even if there is a difference on exact figures, is an undeniable success.
Zakzaki, a descendant of Sufi scholars, has built Shia mosques and some 300 religious schools in the country, making him a formidable competitor to the country’s ancient Sufi orders.
Former US diplomat Matthew Page, an expert on Nigerian affairs, believes the Islamic Movement led by Zakzaki receives $10,000 from abroad each month. Clashes between Shias and the Nigerian army have resulted in the deaths of Zakzaki’s children and his arrest after around 300 of his followers were killed, revealing that his power is greater than many thought.
Many accuse the Islamic Movement of organising militias under the umbrella of the Martyrs Association that Zakzaki created a few years ago, as well as a newspaper, health clinics and a branch of an Islamist university, the Al-Mustafa University based in Qom, the seat of religious leadership in Iran.
Khedr Abdel-Baki, a professor at Kano University in Nigeria, believes the Shia presence could compound the conflict in Nigeria, especially since Abuja is not only battling the Boko Haram movement in the far northeast, but also a separatist movement in the Niger Delta in the south.
Last year, Boko Haram attacked a Shia Islamic centre, exacerbating sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias in a country that remains divided between its Muslim north and mostly Christian south.
In neighbouring Cameroon, where Muslims are a large minority, a Shia presence loyal to Iran is beginning to emerge among Sufis in the north. These benefit from Iran’s economic support, which has enabled them to build religious schools with the number of their followers growing every day.
Shia schools in Africa generally accept all Muslims, but Sunni children may later convert, according to Abdel-Baki. A report by the US newspaper the Washington Post has stated that Iran’s doctrinal presence is expanding quickly in Cameroon and other parts of Africa.
Some estimate the number of Shias in West Africa outside Nigeria at about two million. The Shias have a strong presence in Sudan, the capital of Sufism in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nonetheless, Iran has also lost several footholds, most notably in Sudan. In 2016, Khartoum severed ties with Tehran after an attack on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran earlier that year after Saudi Arabia had executed a prominent Shia cleric, Nemr Al-Nemr, who had been charged with terrorism crimes.
Although it was the first, Sudan is not the only African state to be ruled by an Islamist movement. Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoros Islands have also followed suit. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdullahian has mocked these countries for their fragility and poverty.
In 2014, Sudan expelled an Iranian diplomat and shuttered cultural centres affiliated with the Iranian embassy in Khartoum and other cities on the grounds that these were promoting the Shia doctrine in Sudan where most Muslims are followers of the Sunni doctrine.
The Sudanese moves against Tehran and the country’s strong alliance with Saudi Arabia has seen it send troops to participate in the war launched by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition against the Shia Houthis in Yemen, believed to be supported by Iran.
This shift left Iran’s political elite bitter after two decades of alliance with Khartoum that had enabled Sudan to survive on military and economic assistance from oil-rich Iran.
Sudan’s repositioning was caused by its dire need for Gulf funds after it lost oil revenues after the secession of South Sudan in 2011. But this was not the first time such decisions were taken. In June 2010, a few months after dozens of African countries attended the Iran-Africa Forum in Tehran, Gabon, Nigeria and Uganda, temporary members of the UN Security Council at the time, voted for international sanctions against Iran.
The vote was a blow to efforts by the then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to promote a South-South strategy in Africa and Latin America. Throughout Ahmadinejad’s terms in office (2005-2013), he tried to find a foothold for Iran to offset the Saudi influence in Africa and elsewhere.
Historically, Africa has not been high on Iran’s agenda, however. Under the Pahlavi regime in Iran (1925-1979), Tehran had no presence on the continent except for relations with the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Moroccan monarchy, and finally late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat.
These ties were part of the US alliance against the then Soviet Union and the large pro-US blocs built in Africa and the Third World in general.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran severed ties with the Apartheid regime in South Africa, which was appreciated by the African National Congress when it came to power in 1994 after the overthrow of this regime.
But this step did not serve Tehran’s interests since it did not provide a way out of Iran’s isolation that began at the start of the Islamic Revolution and lasted until a nuclear deal was signed with the US and other world powers during the tenure of incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Today, Africa does not seem to be a priority on Rouhani’s agenda, since he is focussed on investment and the transfer of industrial and technological know-how to his country, taking advantage of the Western interest in Iran after the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the Saudi and Gulf political and economic presence remains strong. These oil-rich countries were the first to accept the Egyptian initiative in the 1970s to support Arab-African cooperation. The Gulf countries have provided support for projects in several African countries, especially Muslim ones, and supported Political Islam groups in confronting communism on the one hand and increasing their influence on the other.
This has been clearly evident in Senegal, where the Saudi and Gulf presence is high. Gambia, Dakar’s neighbour, also severed ties with Iran when the Nigerian navy intercepted an Iranian vessel carrying weapons heading to Gambia in 2006.
Historically, there are no native Shias communities in Africa, though there is a Lebanese Shia presence on the continent’s west coast, an Iranian presence on the Zanzibar coast and an Indian Shia presence in South Africa.
Iran’s mission in Africa will not be helped by several African countries assisting in the international war on terrorism and the prevalent Gulf presence continuing in the Arab Maghreb, especially Tunisia and Morocco, as well as in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.
Meanwhile, Egypt is gradually rising in influence in Africa, and there has been a retreat in South Africa’s leadership since the end of the 1990s.
However, the major African countries do not want to be part of an Iranian-Saudi power struggle, and Algeria and Nigeria denied they had joined the Coalition in Yemen that Riyadh announced early last year.
However, Africans, who want Gulf investment in their countries, still constitute half of the members of the 34-country Coalition, giving Saudi Arabia more weight than Iran on the continent.