Number 54 ● 14 January 2013



Irit Back*


Against the backdrop of Iran’s problematic diplomatic position in the international arena and amid the economic sanctions imposed on it, Tehran has been investing major efforts in expanding its relationships in Africa. In 2009 alone, Iranian ministers made no fewer than 20 official visits to various countries on the African continent (UPI, 30 December 2010). In local media outlets, Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized the Islamic Republic’s aim to increase and strengthen its ties, especially with friendly African countries (Press TV, 27 June 2012). Despite the significant increase in the level of economic cooperation, Iran’s relations with Nigeria, the major western-oriented power in Africa, is multi-dimensional, and colored by competition between the two countries, especially over oil exports, historical sentiment and current tensions with a religious background. This review will examine certain religion and economic aspects of the bi-national relationship from the 1980s to the present, in order to evaluate if the current relationship hinges on friendship or rivalry.


There is a fundamental religious difference between Iran and Nigeria. While Iran’s population is relatively homogeneous in terms of religion, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country (and sixth most populous in the world) with more than 170 million people, is a country divided almost equally between Muslims and Christians. This division is well-known, and the clashes between Muslims and Christians have received extensive media coverage in recent decades. The religious split within the Muslim population has received somewhat less publicity. Most Nigerian Muslims are Sunnis, whose number is estimated at over sixty million. The Shi‘i minority reportedly ranges between three and five million. The ruling establishment in Nigeria and sectors associated with the Sunni majority tend to consider the Shi‘i population a threat to the existing political order of the country. Iran is also often accused of encouraging radical and anti-government dissent groups within the Nigerian Muslim population. These accusations have entrenched historical roots.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the quintessential Shi‘i character of the Iranian revolution prevented most of the largely Sunni Muslim community in Nigeria from developing overt and organized solidarity with the ideology of the Islamic Republic. However, Iran simultaneously strengthened the power of the Sufi orders (tariqas) in Nigeria by providing them with economic, organizational and propaganda support, as a counterweight against Saudi Arabia’s support of anti-Sufi Wahhabi groups. Supporting publications in both Hausa (the spoken language of Nigeria and other west African countries) and English, such as the local newspaper Sakon Islam (“The Message of Islam”) has given Iran a channel for disseminating the fundamentals of the Islamic revolution, and promoting the image of Nigerian Wahhabi mass organizations, like Yan Izala, as proxies of Saudi Arabia. Since Iranian support helped preserve the traditional status of the Nigerian Sufi tariqas, their leadership did not hesitate to accept Iranian involvement, despite being Sunnis.


Conversely, Nigerian government officials and state media have often used this support to accuse Iran of inciting riots, as well as assisting leaders and members of radical Islamic separatist groups. Although Nigeria’s politics was dominated by Muslim leaders for most of the country’s existence, the national leadership aspired to maintain an image of a moderate and pro-western Islam, mainly because of its economic dependence on oil exports to the west. However, large sections of the Nigerian population were excluded from the oil profits and suffered the consequences of under-development and varying degrees of oppression. These circumstances led to frustrations that culminated in occasional waves of riots and violent confrontations, some on religious grounds (between Christians and Muslims or between the various Muslim factions), or between Muslim groups and the Nigerian security forces.


During the 1990s, state officials and local media outlets renewed their accusations against Iran (this time, including Libya and Saudi Arabia) for religious and political radicalization of the country’s youth organizations and the distribution of anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments in Nigeria. During that decade, various Iranian inspired leaders in Nigeria raised the flag of the Islamic Revolution against their own government. In 1991, the cleric Yakubu Yahaya claimed he was inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini as he led riots in the city of Castina, in northern Nigeria. Despite this claim, Yakubu Yahya objected when his cohorts were classified as Shi‘is, and rejected this allegation by the local media as part of a Western conspiracy designed to split Islam. His contemporary Ibraheem al-Zakzaki, head of the Nigerian Ikhwan Muslims, who does identify himself as a Shi’i, openly praised Iran for being the only place where even the devil cannot hide. In the late 1970s, al-Zakzaki headed the Muslim Students Association, which advocated the slogan “Only Islam,” and waged war against Nigeria’s secularism. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was accused of spreading Shi‘i-Iranian notions in Nigeria, and was imprisoned several times. Presently, he is the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, which overtly advocates amity towards the Shi'a and Iran on one hand and denigrates the Wahabbis and their supporters, along with obvious and constant condemnation of the West and its allies (see the official website of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria).


In 1999, Nigeria made the transition from an autocratic (and often dictatorial) state to a democracy, and the level of suspicion a majority of Nigeria’s Muslim population felt toward Iran and its local advocates changed somewhat. That year was also marked by the consolidation of Christian political dominance in Nigeria, which continues to the present day. As an expression of Islamic solidarity, the twelve states of northern Nigeria (there are 36 states in the federation), which are home to half of the country’s population, declared the application of Shari’a law in their territory, an act contravening the constitution of the Nigerian Federation. Desiring to expand Muslim solidarity and strengthen the faith in face of Christian hegemony, Nigeria’s Muslims approached the Muslim world, including Iran. At the same time, economic ties also facilitated the rapprochement between the two countries.


The economic relations between Iran and Nigeria are based on cooperation on the one hand and competition, especially in the oil sector, on the other hand. Presently, Nigeria provides an increasing share of the global oil output. Nigerian oil is mostly exported to western countries, especially to the United States. Moreover, international interest in Nigerian oil has increased significantly in recent years following the international sanctions imposed on the purchase of Iranian oil (Vanguard, Lagos, 8 August 2012). Recently, other African countries are also showing greater interest in purchasing oil from Nigeria. For example, South Africa has dramatically reduced its oil imports from Iran, while almost doubling its imports from Nigeria by the end of 2012 (Sunday Times, South Africa, 2 September 2012). The Islamic Republic is well aware of Nigeria’s growing position as an oil exporter. Iranian media was quick to announce that Nigeria was unable to provide enough oil to close the gap created by the counter-sanctions imposed by Iran on 15 February 2012, blocking oil exports to six European countries (the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece and Italy) (Press TV, 10 April 2012).


The increasing competition over oil supplies is juxtaposed with tightening economic cooperation between Iran and Nigeria. During the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Tehran in August 2012, the two countries signed several bilateral agreements covering various fields, including electricity, agriculture, science and education (This Day, Lagos, 3 September 2012). Iran and Nigeria are also members of the Developing Eight (D-8), a group of eight Islamic countries working towards advancing economic cooperation. At the last meeting of the group, held in Pakistan in November 2012, progress was made on additional economic cooperation agreements between Iran and Nigeria. Obviously, Nigeria is not the only country in Africa which is expanding its economic cooperation with Iran. The President of Malawi and Chair of the African Union, Bingu Wa Mutharika, has recently called on Iran to expand its investments in Africa. Iran, for its part, wants to woo the support of as many countries as possible in Africa in order to strengthen its position in international arena, especially in the United Nations. Beyond the economic dimension, these efforts also include the expansion of Iranian diplomatic representations in Africa (as well as the African representation in Iran), and frequent state visits of African leaders to Tehran and Iranian officials’ to Africa.


Despite the growing cooperation between Iran and Nigeria in certain areas, the relations between them are static, and largely depend on internal developments in both countries. In the case of Nigeria, these developments are related to the activities of the extremist Muslim group, identified in local and international media as “Boko Haram.” Especially in the last three years, this group has been compromising the public order by initiating riots against Christian minorities, and paralyzing the commerce in the north, as well as inflicting damage to public and government institutions (such as police stations and airport security). Beyond the domestic threat posed by the dissents’ activities, the Nigerian government fears that repeated reports of internal instability might damage its international image in general and that of its economy in particular. Although Iran is not directly associated with Boko Haram, the image of the Islamic Republic as a country that encourages Islamic radicalism around the world, continues to arouse suspicion in Nigeria. In October and November 2010, two suspicious shipments associated with Iran were captured in Lagos, the first of arms and second of heroin (UPI, 30 December 2010; This Day, Lagos, 24 November 2012). These incidents did not cause a serious diplomatic breach between the two countries, but it seems that the level of suspicion and fear at this stage is not encouraging Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan to openly declare his country’s intention to improve relations with the regime in Tehran. At the same time, however, Iran considers Africa a major focus of its foreign policy, and hence invests resources in fostering relations with Nigeria. Therefore, it is likely that both the diplomatic and economic components will continue to serve the cooperation between the two countries despite international pressure

*Irit Back, PhD ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) specializes in Islam in Africa. She is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and teaches at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, both in Tel Aviv University.

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Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel

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Iran Pulse No. 54 ● 14 January 2013

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