The build-up to Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election is increasingly becoming contentious. The latest point of contention is the nomination of Senator Kashim Shettima, a Muslim from Borno State in Nigeria’s North-East, as the vice-presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and running mate of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, another Muslim from Lagos State in South-West Nigeria. The resurgence of religious and ethnic calculations [LR1] pervading both the candidate selection processes and people’s reactions to them threaten to deepen the divide between Muslims and Christians and, by extension, to undermine national cohesion. Many factors explain this sad state of affairs.
For starters, the series of coordinated religious attacks against Nigerian Christians have become more prevalent in recent times, intensifying the clamour for the rejection of the APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket by many groups, especially the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Arewa Christians and Indigenous Pastors Association, and the Christian Global Network. This outcry against the APC’s same-faith presidential ticket derives from both real and imaginary fear of Islamic domination that has heightened within the past seven years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government. The growing carnage against Christians and their worship centres in different parts of Nigeria amid the perceived monopoly of Nigeria’s security architecture by Muslims has increased the political consciousness of Nigerian Christians regarding the nexus between religion and politics. Hence, Christian leaders have urged their members to defend themselves against unprovoked violent attacks by jihadists and to prioritise their voter card registration, while others had set up directorates dedicated to politics and voter mobilisation.
While the APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket might be motivated by the fundamentals of realpolitik and the desire to replicate the much-touted Abiola/Kingibe 1993 presidential ticket (which was an all-Muslim ticket) of the Social Democratic Party, the APC seems not to recognise that the political dynamics in Nigeria have substantially changed between 1993 and now. For one thing, the preponderant interest of the political actors in 1992/93 was their collective desire to retire the army officers to the barracks after several years of failed attempts to transition to civilian rule. Hence, religious balancing was among the least of the issues bordering the key power brokers of the time.
For another, people’s consciousness about the desirability of inclusive participation of different groups in governance has been heightened by the federal character principle as embedded in Nigeria’s constitution. Essentially, this principle seeks to prevent the predominance of persons from one group in the political governance of the country.
Moreover, there were no rampant cases of targeted attacks on Christians and religious worship centres in 1993 when the Muslim-Muslim ticket was purportedly supported by Nigerian voters. The fear of Islamisation in Nigeria has increased today due to the heinous activities of Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province, Ansaru, and Fulani militants who have launched several coordinated attacks on churches, Christians, priests, missionary schools and non-Muslim communities with little or no response from the relevant security agencies.
On its face value, Bola Tinubu’s nomination of Senator Shettima of the same Islamic faith might suggest that religion does not (or should not) count in leadership selection within multicultural environments. However, the actions of the APC presidential candidate, vice-presidential candidate and their supporters following the backlash against Shettima’s nomination tend to suggest that the party is in dire need of validation from the Christian community. For instance, the APC had claimed that Borno State CAN endorsed Senator Shettima based on an interview the chairman granted in 2018 when Senator Shettima was the governor of the state. Also, the unveiling ceremony of Senator Shettima on 20 July 2022 witnessed the presence of unknown ‘bishops’ who were mobilised to suggest that some Christian leaders are in support of the APC’s Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket despite opposition by the CAN. The foregoing instances belie the APC’s attempts to convey the impression that religion should not count in leadership selection.
For all these reasons, the APC is already in the throes of implosion as some of its key members have either resigned from the party or from Tinubu’s Campaign Organisation or openly condemned the Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket. The foregoing are early signs that the APC presidential ticket is not only unpopular within the party but also capable of plunging Nigeria into a religious conflagration if the party wins in 2023.
Besides these expressions of religious sentiments, the remains of ethnocentric party politics have been exhumed in Nigeria despite the existence of constitutional safeguards against the predominance of identity politics in the country. The outcomes of the presidential conventions of both the ruling APC and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) show that the relic of ethnic political calculations in leadership selection processes has been resurrected. In the PDP, for instance, the emergence of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as the party’s presidential candidate was made possible by the intervention of northern elders and other key stakeholders from the region. According to a special report, the masterstroke behind the victory of Abubakar at the convention was the intervention of key power brokers from the Hausa-Fulani-dominated north, including former heads of state, former military generals, former governors, PDP chieftains and a former intelligence chief. This intervention from Abubakar’s Fulani ethnic and northern bloc made Mohammed Hayatu-Deen and Governor Aminu Tambuwal withdraw from the PDP primaries in deference to their shared ethno-regional identity.
Similar to the PDP, the election of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the ruling APC’s presidential candidate was made possible by the same logic of ethnocentrism and tribal affinity. Akin to the racially prejudicial “America first” slogan of Donald Trump during the United States’ 2016 presidential campaign, the now infamous emi lo kan―it is my turn—mantra of Bola Tinubu was used to underscore his personal and ethnic Yoruba entitlement to the APC presidential ticket. Hence, it is not surprising that the presidential aspirants who withdrew and threw their weight behind Bola Tinubu during the presidential convention were predominantly of Yoruba ethnic nationality. The emi lo kan mantra has also resonated with Yoruba Nollywood actors and politicians of the same ethnic origin who continue to mobilise support for Tinubu’s presidency along ethnic lines. For instance, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State called on the Yoruba race (not Nigerians) to unite behind the candidature of Bola Tinubu because he is a proud son of the race, emphasising that it is “Yoruba lo kan! Asiwaju lo kan” (Yoruba’s turn! Asiwaju’s turn)!
One of the consequences of these religious and ethnocentric colourations and calculations in leadership selection is that electioneering campaigns usually detract from the real issues of governance. As a result, robust discussions around the key challenges bedevilling Nigeria, such as insecurity, the Niger Delta question, Biafra separatism, economic recession, rising debt profile, energy crisis and strike by university lecturers (as a result of which Nigerian universities have been closed since February) have been relegated to the background. Instead of addressing these issues that constitute the raison d’être of every government, the struggle for state power in Nigeria thrives on the activation of primordial religious and ethnic sentiments. Such sentiments often serve as enablers for hate speech and election violence.
In 1992-1993, the collective desire of political actors to secure civilian rule united Nigerians in their struggle for democratic rule. It is perhaps time for today’s actors to reflect on shared interests that would advance the cause of democracy while uniting Nigerians behind a common ambition of developing their country.