Creating Frankenstein’s Monster: Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative footprint in Africa
There is much debate about what spurs political violence. The explanations are multi-fold. There is one aspect that I’d like to discuss as it relates to Africa, and that is the role of Saudi Arabia. Let me be clear: With the exception of a handful of countries, none of which are in Africa, Saudi Arabia, that is to say the government, the religious establishment and members of the ruling family and business community, does not fund violence.
Promoting intolerance and supremacism
It has, however, over the last half century launched the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, pumping up to $100 billion into ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.1 That campaign has succeeded in making ultra-conservatism a force in Muslim religious communities across the globe. It involves the promotion of an intolerant, supremacist, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam that even where it rejects involvement in politics creates an environment which, in given circumstances, serves as a breeding ground, but more often fosters a mindset in which militancy and violence against the other is not beyond the pale.
What that campaign has done, certainly in Muslim majority countries in Africa, is to ensure that representatives of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism have influence in society as well as the highest circles of government. This is important because, contrary to widespread beliefs, the Saudi campaign is not primarily about religion, it’s about geopolitics, it’s about a struggle with Iran for hegemony in the Muslim world. As a result, it’s about anti-Shi’ism and an ultra-conservative narrative that counters that of Shi’ism and what remains of Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary zeal.
The campaign also meant that at times resolving the question of whether the kingdom maintains links to violent groups takes one into murky territory. Again, I want to be clear, certainly with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group and its affiliates in Africa and elsewhere, and even before with the emergence of Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia has made countering jihadism a cornerstone of its policy. That is, however, easier said than done.
What is evident in Africa is that the kingdom, or at least prominent members of its clergy, appear to have maintained wittingly or unwittingly some degree of contact with jihadist groups, including IS affiliates. What I want to do is anecdotally illustrate the impact of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism on three African states – Nigeria, Niger and Mali – and how this at times relates to political violence in the region.
Let’s start with Nigeria. One of the earliest instances in which Saudi Arabia flexed its expanding soft power in West Africa was in 1999 when Zamfara, a region where IS affiliate Boko Haram has been active, became the first Nigerian state to adopt Sharia. A Saudi official stood next to Governor Ahmed Sani when he made the announcement. Freedom of religion scholar Paul Marshall recalls seeing some years later hundreds of Saudi-funded motorbikes in the courtyard of the governor’s residence. They had been purchased to enforce gender segregation in public transport. Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the religious and cultural attaché at the Saudi embassy in Abuja, declared in 2004 that the kingdom had been monitoring the application of Islamic law in Nigeria “with delight.”2
Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, local politicians in Zamfara were forging an opportunistic alliance with Saudi Arabia. If geopolitics was the Saudi driver, domestic politics was what motivated at least some of their local partners. Nonetheless, the lines between militant but peaceful politics and violence were often blurry. Political violence analyst Jacob Zenn asserts that Boko Haram even has some kind of representation in the kingdom. 3 A Boko Haram founder who was killed in 2009, Muhammad Yusuf, was granted refuge by the kingdom in 2004 to evade a Nigerian military crackdown. In Mecca, he forged links with like-minded Salafi clerics 4 that proved to be more decisive than his debates with Nigerian clerics who were critical of his interpretation of Islam.5
Once back in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, Yusuf built with their assistance a state within a state centred around the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque and a compound in the city centre on land bought with the help of his father-in-law. Yusuf’s group had its own institutions, including a Shura or advisory council, a religious police force that enforced Islamic law, and a rudimentary welfare, microfinance and job creation system. 6
It operated under a deal struck in talks in Mecca brokered by a prominent Salafi cleric between a dissident Boko Haram factional leader identified as Aby Muhammed and a close aide to former Nigerian President Jonathan Goodwill.7 Under the agreement Yusuf pledged not to preach violence and to distance himself from separatist groups, an understanding he later violated. Boko Haram has further suggested that before joining IS, it had met with Al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia. 8 Moreover, a Boko Haram operative responsible for attacking a church in Nigeria reportedly spent months in Saudi Arabia prior to the attack. 9
Yusuf’s religious teacher, Sheikh Ja’afar Adam, a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina, presided over a popular mosque in the Nigerian city of Kano that helped him build a mass audience. Adam’s popularity allowed him to promote colleagues, many of whom were also graduates of the same university in Medina, who became influential preachers and government officials. Adam was liberally funded by Al-Muntada al-Islami Trust, a London-based charity with ties to Saudi Arabia 10 which has repeatedly been accused by Nigerian intelligence and a British peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, of having links to Boko Haram and serving as a platform for militant Islamic scholars. 11 Al-Muntada, which operates a mosque and a primary school in London, has denied the allegations while a UK Charity Commission investigation failed to substantiate the allegations. Kenyan and Somali intelligence nonetheless suspected Al-Muntada of also funding Al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, Al-Shabab.12
Among scholars hosted by Al-Muntada are Mohammad Al Arifi, a Saudi preacher who argues that “the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defence of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honour for the believer”. He also reasons that the Muslim world would not have suffered humiliation had it followed “the Quranic verses that deal with fighting the infidels and conquering their countries, say that they should convert to Islam, pay the jizya poll tax, or be killed”.13
Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, a Saudi academic, is another Al-Muntada favourite. Al-Fawzan advises the faithful that “if (a) person is an infidel, even if this person is my mother or father, God forbid, or my son or daughter, I must hate him, his heresy and his defiance of Allah and His prophet. I must hate his abominable deeds.”14 Organisationally, the charity also maintained close ties to major Saudi funding organisations, including the Muslim World League (MWL), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation,15 a Saudi governmental non-non-governmental organisation that was shut down in the wake of 9/11 because of its jihadist ties.
Adam publicly condemned Yusuf after he took over Boko Haram. In response, Yusuf in 2007 ordered the assassination of Adam, a protégé of the Saudi-funded Izala Society (formally known as the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah), which sprang up in northern Nigeria in the late 1970s to campaign against Sufi practices and has since gained ground in several West African states. Much like Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism’s relationship to jihadism, Izala after spawning Boko Haram became one of its main targets. The group has since the killing of Adam gunned down several other prominent Saudi-backed clerics.
Nigerian journalists and activists see a direct link between the influx of Saudi funds into Yusuf’s stomping ground in northern Nigeria and the greater intolerance that rolled back the influence of Sufis that had dominated the region for centuries and sought to marginalize Shi’is. According to Shi’i activist Hairun Elbinawi. 16
They built their own mosques with Saudi funds so that they will not follow kafirs in prayers and they erected their own madrasa schools where they indoctrinated people on the deviant teachings of Wahhabism. With Saudi petro-dollars, these Wahhabis quickly spread across the towns and villages of Northern Nigeria… This resulted in countless, senseless inter-religious conflicts that resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Nigerians on both sides.
Adam started his career as a young preacher in Izala, a Salafist movement founded in the late 1970s by prominent judge and charismatic orator Abubakr Gumi who was the prime facilitator of Saudi influence and the rise of Salafism in Northern Nigeria. A close associate, Gumi represented northern Nigeria at gatherings of the MWL starting in the 1960s, was a member of the consultative council of the Islamic University of Medina in the 1970s and was awarded for his efforts with the King Faisal Prize in 1987. All along, Gumi and Izala benefited from generous Saudi financial support for its anti-Sufi and anti-Shi’i campaigns. 17
Adam and Gumi’s close ties to the kingdom did not mean that they uncritically adopted Saudi views. Their ultra-conservative views did not prevent them from at times adopting positions that took local circumstances in Northern Nigeria into account at the expense of ultra-conservative rigidity. Adam’s questioning of the legitimacy of democracy, for example, did not stop him becoming for a period of time a government official in the state of Kano. In another example, Gumi at one point urged Muslim women to vote because “politics is more important than prayer”, a position that at the time would have been anathema to Saudi-backed ultra-conservative scholars. Similarly, Adam suggested that Salafists and Kano’s two major Sufi orders, viewed by Saudi puritans as heretics, should have equal shares of an annual, public Ramadan service. 18
Peregrino Brimah, a trained medical doctor who teaches biology, anatomy and physiology at colleges in New York never gave much thought while growing up in Nigeria to the fact that clerics increasingly were developing links to Saudi Arabia. He said: “You could see the money, the big ones were leading the good life, they ran scholarship programmes. In fact, I was offered a scholarship to study at King Fahd University in Riyadh. I never thought about it until December 2015 when up to a 1,000 Shiites were killed by the military in northern Nigeria,” Brimah said.19 “Since I started looking at it, I’ve realised how successful, how extraordinarily successful the Wahhabis have been.”
Brimah decided to stand up for Shi’i rights after an incident in which the army arrested prominent Shi’i cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky following a clash in Kaduna state. 20 The Nigerian army confirmed that it had attacked sites in the ancient university town Zaria after hundreds of Shi’i demonstrators had blocked a convoy of Nigeria’s army chief, General Tukur Buratai, in an alleged effort to kill him. Military police said Shi’is had crawled through tall grass towards Buratai’s vehicle “with the intent to attack the vehicle with [a] petrol bomb” while others “suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque”. Scores were killed in the incident.21 A phone call to Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari in which King Salman expressed his support for the government’s fight against terrorist groups was widely seen as Saudi endorsement of the army’s crackdown on the country’s Shi’i minority. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted Salman as saying that Islam condemned such “criminal acts” and that the kingdom, in a reference to Iran, opposed foreign interference in Nigeria.22
Brimah’s defence of the Shi’is has cost him dearly and further illustrated the degree to which Saudi-funded Wahhabism and Salafism had altered the nature of Nigerian society.
I lost everything I had built on social media the minute I stood up for the Shi’is. I had thousands of fans. Suddenly, I was losing 200-300 followers a day. My brother hasn’t spoken to me since. The last thing he said to me is: “how can you adopt Shi’i ideology?” I raised the issue in a Sunni chat forum. It became quickly clear that these attitudes were not accidental. They are the product of Saudi-sponsored teachings of serious hatred. People don’t understand what they are being taught. They rejoice when thousand Shi’is are killed. Even worse is the fact that they hate people like me who stand up for the Shi’is even more than they hate the Shi’is themselves.
In response to Brimah’s writing about the clash, Buratai, the Nigerian army chief, invited him for a chat. Brimah politely declined. After again accusing the army of having massacred Shi’is, Buratai’s spokesman, Colonel S.K. Usman, adopting the Saudi line of Shi’is being Iranian stooges, and accused Brimah of being on the Islamic republic’s payroll. In an email, Usman wrote:
Several of us hold you in high esteem based on perceived honesty, intellectual prowess and ability to speak your mind. That was before, but the recent incident of attempted assassination of the chief of army staff by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and subsequent events and actions by some groups and individuals such as you made one to have a rethink. I was quite aware of your concerted effort to smear the good name and reputation of the chief of army staff to the extent of calling for his resignation. He went out of his way to write to you and even invited you for constructive engagement. But because you have dubious intents, you cleverly refused… God indeed is very merciful for exposing you. Let me make it abundantly clear to you that your acts are not directed to the person of the chief of army staff, they have far reaching implication on our national security. Please think about it and mend your ways and refund whatever funds you coveted for the campaign of calumny.23
Brimah’s inbox has since then been inundated with anti-Shi’i, anti-Iranian writings in what he believes is a military-inspired campaign.
Brimah was not the only one to voice opposition to Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism. Murtada Muhammad Gusau, chief imam of Nagazi-Uvete Jumu’at Mosque and Alhaji Abdurrahman Okene’ s Mosque in Nigeria’s Okene Kogi State, took exception to the kingdom’s global effort to criminalise blasphemy, legitimise in the process curbs on free speech and reinforce growing Muslim intolerance towards any unfettered discussion of the faith. In a lengthy article in a Nigerian newspaper, Gusau debunked the Saudi-inspired crackdown on alleged blasphemists, citing multiple verses from the Qur’an that advocate patience and tolerance and reject the killing of those that curse or berate the Prophet Muhammad.24
Brimah and Gusau were among the relatively few willing to invoke the wrath of spreading ultra-conservative, sectarian forms of Islam across a swath of Africa at an often dizzying pace. In the process, African politicians and ultra-conservatives, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, have let a genie of intolerance, discrimination, supremacy and bigotry out of the bottle.
In the Sahel state of Niger, Issoufou Yahaya recalls his student days in the 1980s when there wasn’t a single mosque on his campus. “Today, we have more mosques here than we have lecture rooms. So much has changed in such a short time,” he said.25
One cannot avoid noticing Saudi Arabia’s role in this development. The flags of Niger and Saudi Arabia feature on a monument close to the office tower from which Yahaya administers the History department of the Université Abdou Moumouni in the Niger capital of Niamey.
Sheikh Boureima Abdou Daouda, an internet-savvy graduate of the Islamic University of Medina and the Niamey university’s medical faculty as well as an author and translator of numerous books, attracts tens of thousands of worshippers to the Grand Mosque where he insists that “We must adopt Islam, we cannot adapt it.”26 Daouda serves as an advisor to Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and chairs the League of Islamic Scholars and Preachers of the Countries of the Sahel. “Before, people here turned to religion when they reached middle age, and particularly after they retired. But now, it is above all the young ones. What we see is a flourishing of Islam.” Daouda said.27
What Daouda did not mention was that Africa, the battleground where Iran put up its toughest cultural and religious resistance to Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism, was witnessing the world’s highest rates of conversion to Shi’a Islam since many Sunni tribes in southern Iraq adopted Shi’ism in the 19th century. Shi’is were until recently virtually non-existent in Africa, with the exception of migrants from Lebanon and the Indian subcontinent. A Pew Research survey suggests that that has changed dramatically. The number of Shi’is has jumped from 0 in 1980 to 12 per cent of Nigeria’s 90-million strong Muslim community in 2012. Shiites account today for 21 per cent of Chad’s Muslims, 20 per cent in Tanzania and eight per cent in Gaza, according to the survey.28
Ironically, Mali a nation where Shi’ism has not made inroads and where only two per cent of the populations identifies itself as Ahmadis, an Islamic sect widely viewed by conservative Muslims as heretics, is the only country outside of Pakistan that Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a militant anti-Ahmadi, Pakistan-based group with a history of Saudi backing, identifies by name as a place where it operates overseas.29 The fact that AMTKN, which says that it operates in 12 countries, identified Mali is indicative of the sway of often Saud-educated imams and religious leaders that reaches from the presidential palace in the capital Bamako into the country’s poorest villages.
The government at times relies on Salafis rather than its own officials to mediate with jihadists in the north or enlist badly needed European support in the struggle against them. Moreover, cash-rich Salafi leaders and organisations provide social services in parts of Mali where the government is absent. In 2009, the Saudi-backed High Islamic Council of Mali (HICM) proved powerful enough to prevent the president from signing into law a parliamentary bill that would have enhanced women’s rights. Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita reportedly phones HICM chief Mahmoud Dicko twice a week. Malians no longer simply identify each other as Muslims and instead employ terms such as Wahhabi, Sufi and Shi’i that carry with them either derogatory meanings or assertions of foreign associations.30
Dicko condemned the November 2015 jihadist attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako in which 20 people were killed but argued that world powers cannot enjoy peace by fighting God through promotion of homosexuality. Dicko said the perpetrators were not Muslims but mostly rappers with drug-related charge sheets.
They rebel and take arms against their society. This is a message from God that the masters of the world, the major powers, which are trying to promote homosexuality, must understand. These powers are trying to force the world to move towards homosexuality. These world powers have attacked the Prophet (peace be upon him) into his grave… These masters of this world, who think that the world belongs to them, must understand that we will not attack God and escape safely. They cannot provoke God and get his clemency, his mercy. They cannot have peace and peace with such provocations towards the Creator of the world down here. They will not have peace. God will not leave them alone.”31
Like elsewhere, ultra-conservatism as a cornerstone of Saudi soft power has proven in Mali to be a double-edged sword for the kingdom and its beneficiaries. Iyad Ag Ghaly nicknamed “The Strategist”, a Malian Tuareg militant who led tribal protests in the 1990s and emerged in 2012 at the head of Ansar Eddine, one of the jihadist groups that overran the north of Mali, found ultra-conservative religion while serving as a Malian diplomat in Jeddah. A Sufi and a singer who occasionally worked with Tinariwen, the Grammy Award winning band formed by veterans of Tuareg armed resistance in the 1980s and 1990s, co-organised an internationally acclaimed annual music festival outside of Timbuktu that attracted the likes of Robert Plant, Bono and Jimmy Buffett, and hedonistically enjoyed parties, booze and tobacco, Ag Ghaly grew a beard while in Saudi Arabia. His meetings with Saudi-based jihadists persuaded the Malian government to cut short his stint in the kingdom and call him home.32 Pakistani missionaries of Tablighi Ja’amat, an ultra-conservative global movement that has at times enjoyed Saudi backing despite theological differences with Wahhabism and Salafism, helped convince Ag Ghaly to abandon his music and hedonistic lifestyle. He opted for an austere interpretation of Islam and ultimately jihadism.33
This pattern is not uniquely African even if Africa is the continent where Iranian responses to Saudi promotion of Sunni ultra-conservatism have primarily been cultural and religious in nature rather than through the use of militant and armed proxies as in the Middle East. It is nonetheless a battle that fundamentally alters the fabric of those African societies in which it is fought; a battle that potentially threatens the carefully constructed post-colonial cohesion of those societies. The potential threat is significantly enhanced by poor governance and the rise of jihadist groups like Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Al-Shabab in Somalia, whose ideological roots can be traced back to ultra-conservatism but whose political philosophy views Saudi Arabia as an equally legitimate target because its rulers have deviated from the true path. At the bottom line, both Africans and Saudis are struggling to come to grips with a phenomenon they opportunistically harnessed to further their political interests; one that they no longer control and that has become as much a liability as it was an asset.