The clash between Shiites and Sunnis in sub-Saharan Africa is very rarely considered by international security analysis. Their attention is mainly directed to other destabilizing factors, particularly to the migratory flows, even those within that continent over the same routes of the trafficking of human beings, weapons and drugs. These activities are often the unique alternatives for many Africans to their precarious living conditions, at the limit of subsistence.
The focus of analysis is exclusively on the African smuggling economy which now has dimensions, financial consistency and the power to alert the central governments of the (few) stable nations in that continent. It is in fact dominating, in order to create wide instability from West to East Africa, with the sub-Saharan region as its beating heart.
In this fragile context, the contrast between Sunnis and Shiites imposed on the entire Muslim community by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, from the Sunni side, and Iran from the Shiite one, for some years now has been evident. This contrast is exclusively an instrument of power, domination and control of countries with strategic resources, not only oil and precious metals, but also uranium, rare-earth metals and even water and land, less and less available due to global economic competition.
It is an unquestioned fact that this game in Africa is played among the regional and world powers. In fact, Africa can be an ‘impoverished’ continent but by no means is a ‘poor’ one. Africa has been suffering for years because of many internal conflicts as well as by bad and corrupt politics of its ruling classes, or by the penalizing economic and financial measures imposed by supranational economic institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank. Therefore, the inclusion of the intra-Muslim conflict in Africa, as it is already happening in the Middle East and in different Asian areas, is instrumental only to hegemony’s achievement by extra-continental powers.
It is not a coincidence that people talk about a "Middle Eastern process" of Muslim Africa. It consists of the transfer of the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis now present in the Middle East, in a region where all Muslims have always lived together, almost peacefully. The probable risk is the insertion of radical jihadism by IS or al Qaeda’s affiliated groups, as well as by radical Shiite ones. In the past, in fact, in sub-Saharan or ‘black Africa’, the jihadist appeal was not fervently received, except by the Somali al-Shabaab militia, and by the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a close friend of Osama bin Laden, both of which occurred during the '90s.
Al Qaeda’s cause was then considered, in fact, by the black African Muslim community as purely an "Arab" cause, much more relevant for the Near Eastern power games and players. There were many historical and cultural reasons for this rejection, as well as the refusal of martyrdom or the killing for the jihad, specific to the sub-Saharan Islam with a Sufi imprint. The opposition to the Salafist-Wahhabi interpretation of the Quran by African Muslims was moreover justified, and rightly so, because it was considered an instrument of "Saudi Imperialism".
However, the situation degenerated after the failure of the 2011 Arab uprisings and the war in Libya, with an expansion of the instability from North Africa towards the southern, desert and porous borders of many countries, from Tunisia to Egypt. The emergence of many large and unsafe areas - considered by the jihadist militia as sanctuaries for all sorts of illicit trafficking in order to finance their cause and survive - has allowed the creation and the strengthening of jihadist-style structures, many of which have been joining the IS Caliphate since 2014. It is the case of the Boko Haram organization and its ‘splinter’ group, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), at the moment among the most active and violent gangs in Northern Nigeria. It is precisely from this state, among the most populous (200 million) in the region, that the main flow of illegal immigrants comes to Italy.
Divided into over 300 ethnic groups, Nigeria is destined to grow and become the third most populous state in the world by 2050, after India and China. Nevertheless, at the moment, plagued by corruption and organized crime, this country doesn’t have a ruling class capable of managing an economic development suitable for such a population’s growth. In this fragile context, there are now subjects that could have a strong role in creating the conditions for future conflicts in the sub-Saharan region.
A sort of parallel State, in fact, has come into being in Nigeria. It is financially powerful and with ramifications on the European continent because of the intense and profitable activities of its domestic crime organizations together with transnational ones. It contributes to wide instability not only domesticly but also in neighboring countries, favouring the activities of jihadist groups and forcing people to immigrate in order to escape from violence, even if few of them can afford it.
This parallel State is managed by local organized crime, while the subversive elements are dominating the insecure spaces that have followed of a result of the bad management and the failed institution building in North Africa after the revolts and particularly the war in Libya, in 2011. Failures that are above all a Western responsibility.
It is not surprising that African jihadism draws on indigenous organized crime. It is a matter of fruitful exchange of expertise for both, with which the criminal organizations - in the beginning local and now transnational (including the Italian 'ndrangheta) - profit from the trafficking of human beings, drugs, light weapons, kidnappings, counterfeit documents, just to mention the most profitable. On the other hand, jihadism survives by guaranteeing the armed protection of the illegal trafficking routes, by enlisting the local criminals. In fact, they are already considered able and trained in the use of weapons, and such as able to network among gangs, to move in mountainous and desert areas, and create safe sanctuaries. They are considered more ruthless because they are accustomed to violence.
The external powers’ ambitions feed insecurity and high economic interest and income in this climate of instability, in order to obtain growth of their regional influence. It is no more the confrontation of ‘Washington versus Beijing consensus’, because many other global players are now in competition for the control of African strategic resources, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran, to mention the most powerful, devious and active. They all are searching to enlarge their political influence, in a struggle that is defined simply as ‘soft power’ process but this is merely academic and dramatically treacherous.
However, among all of them, Iranian action is the least known, though its support for the Shiite tribe of Houthis, in the war in Yemen, has been motivated by Tehran’s ambition to control the Bab-al Mandeb Strait, and the traffic to the Red Sea and also along the Suez Canal, in order to create a bridge from the Middle East to Africa which is useful for Iran’s strategic interests.
For some observers, in fact, all this is the result of the Iran’s desire to create the Shia Crescent in the African continent, such as the one that starts from Lebanon and goes to Yemen, passing through Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is the so called Tropical Shi'ism Zone, going from Eastern to Atlantic Africa (Gambia). It is a wide area in which Tehran hopes to spread the Khomeini revolution through the institution of educational and cultural centers in order to create the conditions for a government-regime similar to that, now present in Iran, with the sharing of the same values, objectives and diplomacy.
Tehran uses strong financial and human resources in the African Shiite Crescent’s name in order to counter the Salafist and Wahhabi advance. Its aim is to be a power reference for many African Muslim countries, and to have a role as a world super-power. According to some observers, in fact, the real Iranian aim in Africa is the control of its rich uranium mines - of which Niger, for example, has wide availability - in order to supply and continue its nuclear programme.
It is precisely in the north of Nigeria along the border with Niger, in a sort of circumvention of the uranium mines, that the risk of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis seems to materialize. Ten million Shiites in northern Nigeria look at Iranian theocracy and the strict observance of the sharia as a suitable form of government. Those people look to Sheik Ibrahim al-Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) as an instrument of the Shiite rebirth in Africa. Al-Zakzaky is in fact considered responsible for the introduction of radical Shi'ism in Nigeria during the ‘80s, while in the same time Saudi Arabia introduced the Jama'at Izalat al Bid'a Wa Iqamat as Sunna or the Sunni wahhabite Izala Society, in opposition to the peaceful and tolerant Sufi culture considered too intellectual and far from the precepts of true Islam.
The Iranian support for al-Zakzaky's IMN, with the military training by al-Quds Forces (the special troops of the Iranian Revolution Guard Corps, IRGC) shaped this organization like the Lebanese Hezbollah. These latter and al-Qud Forces have been already protagonists in the military and guerrilla formation of many subversive groups in the Middle East, including Hamas and theIslamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, as well as the Shiite Hashid Militia, that fought IS in Iraq during 2014-19.
Al-Zakzaky was arrested in the spring of 2018, after the repression of IMN protests by the Nigerian central government and the escalation of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, already started a few years earlier. Today, members of IMN are supporting many riots or local, tribal and intra-religious conflicts that have spread all over sub-Saharan Africa.
This dangerous instability doesn’t to be perceived by a large portion of the international community.
Furthermore it is more convenient to make the distinction between economic migrants and refugees, in order to limit their entrance into Europe with economic instead of ideological justifications that are in contrast with the respect of human rights and ethical responsibility. This distinction implies not having to recognize the precarious and dangerous conditions in which many Africans live today.
Recently, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said: "Whoever controls Africa controls Europe," well aware of the risk of an extension to the instability from his country to Nigeria. This instability is due to the intra-Muslim clashes in North Niger and the criminal elements’ infiltration, from which the inevitable increase of illegal immigration towards the European continent has continued. The contributing factors, therefore, are innumerable but never adequately contrasted because they are blissfully ignored. It is the case of the presence of the IMN, Boko Haram, the Isswap, all groups widely supported by Middle Eastern States, on whom it would be necessary to press, at least diplomatically, to prevent such meddling. A much more coordination among national and supranational security agencies would also be appropriate to counter the powerful Nigerian organized crime, which extends from the Delta of the Niger to the North, and it ends up taking root in Italy and in the European countries with the diasporas of those people. Something is still occurring, thanks to the activities of many security agencies, but it is not sufficient because of the extension of the criminal phenomenon.
Jihadism, the intra-Muslim confrontation and organized crime walk hand in hand. Feeding the former means fattening the latter with illicit trafficking, in a relationship that is no longer as separate as it once was. The overlap among armed militia of any Muslim creed, subversive groups and Nigerian organized crime is now a fact. It is no longer clear who only is interested in the profit and who instead in the territory, or who in both. A profitable cohabitation has been existing at least until now. However, it is not desirable to wait for its implosion due to the fight between jihadists and criminals for territorial supremacy. Before it happens, other lives will be sacrificed in the struggle between the two different Muslim souls for the hegemonic control of the African Umma, its rich lands and strategic resources.
From Northern to sub-Saharan Africa, jihadism and criminality are therefore all in one. So the ambitions to unite the Muslim community under their own banners and to dominate vast and rich African territory by opposing regional powers in a confrontation that has all the characteristics of modern conflicts: long-lasting, bloody and without exit strategies. Its reflections shatter along the African coasts while people’s hopes of escape are shipwrecked in the Mediterranean waters.