Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria take part in a protest in Abuja, capital of Nigeria. File picture: Olatunji Obasa/AP
Africa became the battleground of the world’s great religions ever since the onset of colonialism. But the competition for followers and influence in Africa has become more overtly a political proxy battle between the countries competing for hegemonic influence in the Middle East.

Over the past few decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for followers in Africa, particularly north Africa. In Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have vied for strategic influence.

But in many areas it has become unmistakably a Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict, where both countries invest in and support rival groups to gain an ideological and strategic foothold in north and west Africa’s Muslim communities.

This proxy battle has become particularly fierce in Nigeria, where Sunni Islam has predominated in the Muslim north. Traditionally, Nigerians practised moderate Sufi Islam with an inclusive worldview and avoided rigid doctrines.

Saudi Arabia became particularly active in funding scholars and religious schools, and promoting its own influence. Iran also began offering educational scholarships in science and technology to African students.

In Nigeria’s Muslim Student Society some looked to Riyadh, and later others to Tehran, for inspiration.

The influence of Shi'a Islam had begun spreading, particularly with the proselytising of Shi'a Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky who is the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.

The IMN emerged as a student movement in the late 1970s in Nigeria, and was inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and maintained close ties with Iran. Zakzaky had been among the students who had gone to universities at the time, calling for the implementation of Islamic law.

Zakzaky used to be a Sunni Muslim and had wanted to establish Islamic law in Nigeria. He had, however, gone to Iran to complete his studies, and openly declared his Shi'a conviction in 1994.

The IMN has often been treated with hostility in Nigeria, especially in the predominantly Sunni Muslim north where religious elites are allied with Saudi Arabia.

But, in recent years, the movement says it attracted 3 million members, some say through the force of Zakzaky’s preaching and welfare packages which helped to convert people in the rural areas.

The Nigerian government has come to perceive Zakzaky and his followers as a national security threat, and he was detained in December 2015 after violence broke out during a religious procession.

About 350 allegedly unarmed Shi'a marchers were killed by the Nigerian army when they tried to block a convoy of the army chief.

Amnesty International said 347 Shi'a were buried in a mass grave following the clashes.

Since then, the government has been criticised for alleged extrajudicial killings and persecution of Zakzaky’s followers.

It is alleged by the former government minister of aviation as well as Zakzaky’s followers that the Nigerian forces killed six of his seven sons, and some of the senior leaders of his movement. Despite the federal high court ordering his release in 2016, he and his wife remain in custody. Following the court order, the government filed fresh criminal charges against him.

In recent months, there have been almost daily marches by the IMN in the capital over his failing health. His lawyers argue that if he is not urgently released on medical grounds and allowed to be treated abroad, he could die. Nigerian prosecutors have argued that he does not need to go for medical treatment abroad as Nigerian health facilities are capable of providing treatment. The case has been adjourned until Monday.

But in Nigeria and capitals across the world over the past week, rolling protests calling for Zakzaky’s release have heightened the Nigerian Government’s concerns.

A week ago, the Federal Government obtained an order from the Federal High Court to label the Islamic Movement a terrorist group, and it has subsequently been banned.

The invisible hand of outside powers can be detected in the current tension. Saudi Arabia has said it succeeded in undermining the influence of Iran and its allies in Africa.

Iran, on the other hand, has publicly called on the Nigerian government to release Zakzaky.

Dr Amani al-Taweel from Egypt’s Al-Ahram Research Centre has expressed concern about the religious tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia playing out in Africa, where each strives to achieve their goals.

As has sadly been the case in Africa’s history, it is the local people that suffer as outside powers use the continent as the battleground for their proxy wars.

* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor at Independent Media.