Rabat -On May 12, 2016, Iran gathered students from three African countries at a conference discussing the state of Ahl al-Bayt followers in Africa. Such a step emphasizes the new strategy of Tehran in Africa, which depends on building civil and political influence before developing it into a military power that serves the Iranian higher interests.
As per the conference, it seems that the Iranian authorities considered it the biggest national project to spread Shiism and the message of Imam Mahdi in 30 Africa countries.
Experts in African affairs admit that the religious-sectarian issue has played a significant role in the long-term Iranian strategy in Africa, which was launched in the eighties.
Amid international conflicts on the choices of the black continent, Tehran has worked on building an independent influence away from the clashing powers in the West African countries. According to many researchers, Iran has made remarkable achievements in this field and has expanded its interests by building an African Shi’ite institutional system that follows the Wali al-Faqih.
This system has been the culmination of Iranian efforts to create an organized network of Shi’ite preachers and leaders who back Iran and parties working on implementing the abovementioned agenda. This is how Iran has succeeded in networking the fields of its diversified activity, which includes an economic and political influence to build an organized religious social, military, militia-like power such as the “Nigerian Hezbollah” led by Zakzaky.
*Exploiting the state’s fragility
Since the start of its infiltration in Africa, Iran has been aware that it is working in a fragile, conflicting environment of ethnic and religious diversity with more than 250 million people. This environment includes republics of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ghana, Nigerian, Benin, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde.
Religiously, the majority of this region’s population follows the Maliki-Sunni law and has been tightly linked to the Moroccan moderate Islam; over the course of history, no Shi’ite groups linked to the Jaafari School appeared in Africa. Yet, over the two past decades, Iran has succeeded in breaching the religious and social structure in West Arica trough Shi’ite charity civil and government associations, educational and cultural centers, and economic investment projects. This activity created some Shi’ite embracing environments in the west of the continent especially in Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
The religious aspect of the expansion process has been led by the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly while the military aspect has been led by the Revolutionary Guard, which has been responsible for training African students and overseeing some economic and social institutions. While the role played by the Iranian army has been mainly secret, some of its activities come to light from time to time; in 2010, Nigeria stopped an Iranian ship transporting weapons, which led Gambia to suspend its relations with Iran, in addition to a number of projects and cooperation programs. In spite of the negative impact of such incidents, preaching and cultural efforts led by Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly have continued in the continent.
*Shi’ite institutional networking
Among the new Iranian initiatives in Africa is the establishment of “Ahl al-Bayt Association in Africa” on 10 August 2016; Secretary General Abu Jaafar said that the association has become the reference of African Shi’ites and that it will work to emphasize the values of social peace in all the continent’s communities. While establishing this association, Iran was keen to choose figures that enjoy remarkable social influence and support in their areas.
The association’s foundation statement clearly refers to the growth of Shi’ite followers in the continent and how to secure their safety and wealth.
*Propaganda of Shi’ite institutions
Although some statistics show that the Shi’ite population in Africa has reached seven million people, it’s hard to gather evidence on the data, which were promoted by Iranian Shi’ite institutions. Imam Abdul al-Nazer Damba, leader of Shi’ites in Ivory Coast said that Shiism in his country has been developing according to organized plans and a timetable under the supervision of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
However, the Shiism phenomenon, which has been clearly spreading in some African regions, has faced many popular challenges, which obstructed it from stepping out of some isolated regions.
*Role of Lebanese migrants
Shi’ites in Ivory Coast have their own Arabic and Francophone institutions and centers including the Zahraa Cultural Center and the Imam Sadeq Francophone Foundation in Abidjan, which has sought to spread Shiism. Lebanese migrants have played a significant role in this foundation mainly the youth and commercial elites.
Eventually, data of Shiism proliferation in the West of Africa can be considered exaggerated rumors spread by Iran and its institutions. However, the Iranian breach of the African structure has become an undeniable threat, particularly with Iran’s efforts in linking African Shiism with its national goals.