By Gabriel Onoja
The economic recession is keeping Nigerians busy as focus shifts to daily survival to the extent that we carry on, unaware of threat greater than hunger and deprivation. The Islamic Republic of Iran! There it is. The threat greater than the prospect of starvation. Yet, those Nigerians who do not identify this country as a threat to the future of our fatherland can be forgiven.
The last consciousness we have of Iran was when President Muhammadu Buhari went on an official trip to Tehran, the Iranian capital to attend the third edition of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). That visit was widely construed by members of the public that we enjoy excellent diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. The layman can be pardoned for holding such view but it would be suicidal for Nigeria if those in government, particularly those in our diplomatic and security circle live with such delusion.
There are instances that would justify being so deluded but we must never fall for that trap for once. Of course there was that picture of Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif and the Ambsaddor to Nigeria, Morteza Rahimi Zarchi in a photo op with President Buhari in Abuja and that was as recently as July this year. One can only hope that our diplomats see to it that such events do not go beyond the phot ops that they are. Iran may be cosying up to the Nigerian government with all the touchy-feely diplomacy that would only deliver a poisoned kiss in the final episode.
The Islamic Republic may be posing as Nigeria’s ally but the reality is that it is using our country as the launch-pad for its ambitious goal of spreading Shiism across the world having failed in the Middle East where several of its attempts ended in fiasco. So far, it has found a non-resistant host for the virus of state sponsored terrorism it is peddling in Nigeria.
In 2013, the military intelligence discovered a large cache of arms and ammunitions in a warehouse in the Bompai area of Kano, the Kano State capital. Memory of that discovery should continue to send the jitters down the spine of any patriotic Nigerian. The weapons uncovered included “anti-tank weapons, RPGs and RPG launchers, submachine guns, handguns, and a large quantity of ammunition and explosives,” according to reports. The cache was later tied to Hezbollah and the sponsor of that terror group is well known as Iran, which pulls the strings and dictates the group’s actions, practically.
We must not forget that prior to the discovery of the cache of arms in Kano, the Department of State Services (DSS) had uncovered an Iranian terror network in Lagos on February 20, 2013. Members of the network answered to a Shiite cleric who had trained in Iran. Their briefs included spying on nationals and interest of other nations that are Nigeria’s allies.
Further down memory lane, a vessel, the M/V Everest arrived in Nigeria on October 26, 2010 with cargo that was inimical to us as a nation – 13 container load of weapons, make that several tons of weapons that originated from Iran. While the destination of the weapons was said to be the Gambia, nothing puts it beyond those behind the shipment to have quietly offloaded and slipped some into circulation in Nigeria. The two operatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards behind the shipment had posed as businessmen in the business of building material so claiming the destination was the Gambia could have as well been a front.
It appears Iran got fed up with having to use fronts and alibis to get the dirty job done and simply decided to outsource to a proxy. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria thus became the willing franchisee in Nigeria to do the Islamic Republic’s dirty work. What better way to infiltrate another country other than through its citizens that have been brainwashed to the point of radicalism?
Whatever Iran got into IMN members must have been some sort of hallucinogen-on-steroid.
Leaders of the group, hand-picked and trained in Iran have spent years, quietly building cells and networks while the Nigerian state continues to think there is now no much to worry about since they were interacting with a supposedly friendly nation. Recent events have however exposed the flaw in that perception. IMN is nothing like a religious or sectarian movement it packages itself to be. It is an Iranian terror group that is apparently intended to metamorphose into the Nigerian equivalent of Hezbollah at some point.
Iran’s inability to ship weapons or embed spies in Nigeria without detection possibly forced it to activate the side of IMN prematurely. This perhaps explains the rapid rate at which the group became belligerent. It had maintained a reign of terror over Zaria, Kaduna state, which it used like a test case, without brazenly confronting security operatives or attempting to assassinate military leaders. The decision of its leaders and members to engage the army in an open war in December 2015 must have been driven by directions and assurances from outside Nigeria and only one country is known to have such capacity, interest and incentive.
Two things stood out in the wake of the fall out from the folly of IMN in fighting the army.
One, the cache of weapons surfaced from the IMN stronghold in Zaria echoes the several attempts by Iran to ship weapons to or through Nigeria. In both cases authorities need to investigate to find out the extent to which Iran succeeded in handing arms to IMN members in instances that were not discovered by security agencies. That probe should also extend to finding out what trainings IMN members received from Iran in the light of the videos showing members of the group performing military drills.
Secondly, we must establish how much logistics and funding support IMN got from Iran, especially under its former ambassador, Saeed Koozechi, who was openly anti-Nigeria while championing the right of IMN militants to kill Nigerian troops and get away with it. That investigation too should shed light on what has changed under the incumbent Ambassador Zarchi who replaced Koozechi. The IMN extremists had slowed down their invectives against the Nigerian state upon Koozechi’s recall but have again started returning to aggressive behaviours.
Their aggression in recent weeks included threats to shut down Abuja with protests if IMN head, Sheikh Ibraheem Al-Zakyzaky is not released from detention even when the offence for which he is being held, borders on terrorism. It remains unclear at this point if the members genuinely want to see their leader freed or that Iran has become fed up with him and only wants him released to newly anointed replacements who will likely kill him to have something against the Nigerian government while paving way for a leadership that will be more aggressive than el-Zakyzaky.
Whatever the case may be, if the previous government did not do it, it must be because they repeatedly ignored the facts, but the federal government must review our relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its current Ambassador should be sent back home while relations with the country should be put on ice until it can give a strong commitment that it would cut off support to IMN, stop shipping arms to or through Nigeria and stop stop its attempt of creating a Hezbollah equivalent in Nigeria.
Onoja writes from the Centre Against Terrorism and Extremism, Jos, Plateau State.