Nigeria has not endured such high decibels of uproar and frenzy over the religious affiliations of a presidential/vice-presidential ticket pairing since 1979. Not only did Tinubu’s announcement on 10 July 2022, cause a nationwide discourse mill, it also fundamentally shaped the personnel positions, campaign strategies, and politicking steps of numerous parties.
The presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the All-Progressives Congress (APC) for the 2023 Nigeria presidential election are both practicing Muslims. Ideally, the previous sentence should not cause one to bat an eyelid, but this is Nigeria after all, and the growingly popular aphorism, ‘This is Nigeria, anything you see you just have to take it like that,’ captures this peculiar Nigerian feature accurately. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a Muslim from Lagos State, who won the presidential ticket of APC for the 2023 Nigeria presidential election on June 8, 2022, picked Kashim Shettima—a Muslim from Borno State—as his running mate on July 10, 2022. What ensued was a cause célèbre of immense proportions. Both as an issue and an idea, the Muslim/Muslim ticket by APC—as it is now colloquially and widely referred to in Nigeria—has undoubtedly shaped the electioneering process in the build-up to Nigeria’s presidential elections this month.
AN AGE-OLD TALE
Nigeria has a long history with the religious affiliations of political figures playing pivotal roles in the choice of flag-bearing/running mate pairings for political parties—as old as the post-independent evolution of the country. This practice usually means that elective office candidacy pairings for political party tickets and the eventual public office race must be either Muslim/Christian or Christian/Muslim or face eventual defeat at the polls—the botched 1993 elections were a remarkable exception. Such is the peculiarity of this Nigerian political feature, just like decamping or zoning. Even quantitative social science research provides empirical evidence, through regression analysis, on the importance of the religious affiliation of political actors seeking elective public office being a decisive factor behind voter choice, particularly in the country’s fourth republic (1999-present). But what utility does this age-old practice pose for electioneering in the Nigerian way?
I suppose Sonni-Gwanle Tyoden, Plateau State’s deputy governor, in his widely acclaimed magnum opus, The Middle-Belt in Nigerian Politics, demonstrates the utility of this practice or electioneering culture through this excerpt: ‘The fictionalization of the oppressed classes on the basis of ethnicity, religion or region in Nigeria is a creative manipulation by the ruling class in their contest for power.’ I share Tyoden’s leftist view on the archetypal Nigerian electioneering practice, his assertion that since the Nigeria’s earliest democratic elections religion and ethnicity have been deployed by members of Nigeria’s governing class as tools for mobilizing mass support to access public office and entrench political power.
Prominent among historical examples of this practice is the case of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) adopting a Muslim/Christian pairing of Shehu Shagari and Alex Ekwueme as against the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) Christian/Christian pairing of Obafemi Awolowo and Philip Umeadi (both from southern Nigeria) in the 1979 general elections. It must be noted that, unlike NPN, UPN surprisingly did not bring religion into consideration during the internal party politics’ proceedings that led to the choice. In that same election, a similar case was the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) Christian/Christian pairing of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ishaya Audu (from Kaduna State). Awolowo, Umeadi, and UPN narrowly lost that election, while, by some distance, Azikiwe and Ishaya Audu of UPN came third—a watershed moment for a democratic post-independent Nigeria.
Historians generally believe that UPN not considering religion in their presidential/vice presidential ticket pairing may have cost them and ensured that the election results narrowly went in NPN’s favour. Unsurprisingly though, in the 1983 general elections, Awolowo took a liking to the Nigerian practice for Nigerian pragmatic purposes and picked Mallam M. Kura, a northern Muslim, as his vice-presidential candidate—although they still lost marginally to Shagari and the NPN. Nevertheless, this set a precedence for forthcoming political arrangements across Nigeria regarding democratically seeking public office through elective means.
It is not unprecedented for a Muslim to be chosen as a running mate for a presidential candidate who is also a Muslim in Nigeria. In fact, Tinubu picking a fellow Muslim as his running-mate in the 2023 general elections is not a break from historical patterns, as this was the case in the infamously annulled 1993 general elections with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) pairing of M.K.O. Abiola and Babagana Kingibe (both Muslims). Outside of the four examples, the religious plurality of candidates is almost always considered when electing governing pairs. This is the case at the federal, state and local levels and regarding principal officers of the legislative houses in all the levels of government in Nigeria —at least for the major political parties.
‘Who is the Presidency?’ – Babachir Lawal
Do you remember the quote above? Do you remember the grass-cutting straight-talking erstwhile secretary to the government of the federation (SGF)? Sometimes it feels like we have lived three decades in Buhari’s nearly eight years in office. The disgraced Babachir Lawal, who was sacked from his former job as the country’s SGF after being charged for a 554 million Naira worth contract scam in 2017, was the first APC power broker to make new personnel decision-making positions due to the party’s Muslim/Muslim ticket pick. A northern Christian from Adamawa State, Lawal played no small role in exemplifying how APC’s Muslim/Muslim ticket has shaped the 2023 Nigeria presidential election. He galvanized the party’s northern Christian forum, the NACF, to implore the Christian members of APC presidential campaign council to resign. Shortly after, with the co-leadership of the erstwhile speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, he convened a national summit with the same NACF to allay their disgust over the party’s presidential ticket, citing religious persecution and marginalization. But it didn’t end there—Lawal and his aggrieved NACF cohort followed suit with an anti-party decision vaguely reminiscent of their equally aggrieved contemporaries in PDP, the G5 governors, by dumping their party’s presidential candidate pairing and endorsing the Labour Party’s presidential candidate pairing of Peter Obi and Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed.
It is important to note that Dogara has since detoured from the NACF’s pro-Obi position, decamped from APC to PDP, and declared his support for the latter’s Muslim/Christian presidential candidate pairing, Atiku Abubakar and Ifeanyi Okowa. Lawal on the other hand, remains an APC party member while still maintaining his pro-Obi position.
For the northern Christians in APC, their gripe against the Muslim/Muslim ticket is not just mere politicking and haranguing over personal interests, it is a decades-long anxiety and suspicion exuded by northern Christians and other non-Muslim populations for what they claim is a dated Islamization process rearing its ugly head again—commentary from the widely respected Senior Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Jibrin Ibrahim, concisely articulates this anxiety, where he states that ‘there is a climate of suspicion and fear over what many (northern) Christians see as an Islamization agenda’ in Nigeria today. He further notes that this is largely due to the emergence of Boko Haram and their Jihadi agenda, as well as the spread of farmer-herder conflicts and violence, which has developed into large scale banditry and mass kidnapping, which is also ‘largely seen as another part of the hidden agenda against the Christian community’.
Nigeria has not endured such high decibels of uproar and frenzy over the religious affiliations of a presidential/vice-presidential ticket pairing since 1979. Not only did Tinubu’s announcement on 10 July 2022 cause a nationwide discourse mill, it also fundamentally shaped the personnel positions, campaign strategies, and politicking steps of numerous parties. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Labour Party (LP), and the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), and APC were no exception.
With Tinubu (a southern Muslim) as APC’s presidential flagbearer, to properly compete against the very seasoned Atiku (as he’s more commonly known), APC needed a Muslim/Muslim ticket. This was thought necessary because a northern Christian running mate would not have been well received in the predominantly Muslim region of northwest Nigeria, which has not yet had much exposure to Tinubu or accorded him widespread acceptance. This is not to say that the Christian minority in northern Nigeria didn’t attempt to lobby for the spot—a part of NAPC’s gripe against APC was APC’s failure to zone the position to their politico-religious section of Nigeria. For its sheer electoral value, population size, and eligible voter population, the North West is not to be taken likely regarding electioneering strategy, especially due to its time-honoured prioritization of ethnoreligious identity when making voter choices—APC acted accordingly, much to the detriment of its vocal northern Christian membership.
Why was Kashim Shettima of Borno (northeast Nigeria) picked as Tinubu’s running mate instead of a prominent politician from the northwest then? Some say 1993 nostalgia, and I am inclined to agree. As a prominent member of M.K.O. Abiola’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) of which Atiku was also a prominent member, Tinubu played a supporting role in the Abiola presidential candidacy while concurrently running for senate—the M.K.O. candidacy included Babagana Kingibe, a Kanuri Muslim from Borno State, as the vice-presidential pick. The 12 June 1993 presidential election (of which the Abiola-Kingibe pairing were victors) was eventually annulled, spurring the formation of a pro-democracy resistance group in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) through the contributions of Tinubu himself.
This could have played a nostalgic role in repeating the same mono-religious pairing, exactly 20 years later. Tinubu would personally argue that he picked Shettima because he had the ‘best credentials for the elections’.
Notwithstanding PDP’s existential problems, internal crises, and its own departure from another age-old traditional party practice in its north-south zoning arrangements, PDP has proceeded swiftly with its electioneering process. More so, in a way that PDP believes will optimize its performance at the upcoming presidential polls with APC Muslim/Muslim ticket as its reverse Greek gift. Atiku, for instance, kicked against APC ticket on Arise TV, days after Tinubu made the announcement in July 2022. Tinubu pushed back immediately, kicking off a media mudslinging contest. The politically astute and shrewd Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), has primarily been the centre of PDP’s overtures to appeal to the non-Muslim section of northern Nigeria in particular, as part of its post-Muslim/Muslim ticket announcement electioneering strategy.
In Nigeria, due to the political mobilization utility that religion holds, politico-religious groups and arrangements like CAN, the Jama’atu Nasril Islam organization, and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) are influential power brokers and efficient narrative-building machines. To adeptly court the attention of these groups along with the myriad socio-political groups throughout the country is crucial for any ambitious political party eying the presidential office. The crisis-ridden PDP appear unrelenting in that regard.
While there is a dearth of quantitative data to estimate the political gains that the fast-rising LP has earned from APC’s Muslim/Muslim ticket, it isn’t far-fetched to say that LP and Obi are the biggest gainers due to their bolstering bottom-to-top ranks and notably, the surge in fervent support from the Christian sections of north-central, north-east and even north-west Nigeria such as the Zuru area of Kebbi, and southern Kaduna. The aforementioned NAPC anecdote demonstrates this recent development across non-Muslim northern Nigeria, to an extent. Currently, using political wisdom that is steeped in the Nigerian experience, it appears that LP is the political organization with the best fit to benefit from the nationwide ‘Christian frustration’ with the Muslim/Muslim ticket.
Furthermore, the North is not the only region in Nigeria where the non-Muslim population is turning to LP and Obi to demonstrate their political anxiety and frustration with APC ticket—Christian majority southern Nigeria, particularly in the southeast and the south-south appears to be shedding off its two-decades-long loyalty for PDP and moving in hordes to LP. I have reservations with the recent polling data from Bloomberg and ANAP/NOI showing an overwhelming Peter Obi/LP lead. Regardless, the available polling data highlight the growing acceptance of Peter Obi/LP, especially in areas dominated by non-Muslim populations.
Strategy-wise, LP has undoubtedly doubled down on its efforts to court important politico-religious groups like CAN, PFN and the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. The most tangible, demonstrative pattern of this strategy from LP is Obi’s frequent church visits across Nigeria all through the electioneering season. One could argue that with Atiku, Tinubu, and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso—the three other frontline presidential candidates—being Muslims, and in particular, APC presenting a Muslim/Muslim pairing, there will be a split of the Muslim votes. Being a southern Catholic Christian, however, Obi is the only frontline Christian candidate on the ballot and has a good chance of securing the Nigerian Christian voting bloc.
For NNPP led in the presidential polls by Kwankwaso, it won’t be out of place to infer that his choice of a running mate in Pastor Isaac Idahosa, a southern Christian clergyman, was largely buoyed by Tinubu’s Muslim/Muslim ticket announcement as his running mate three days earlier. In this insightful essay, Kwankwaso is highlighted as a personality cult figure with uncanny similarities akin to the Kano-born revolutionary, Aminu Kano. I have slightly unfavourable views of Kwankwaso in that regard, but available anecdotal evidence from regular travels across northern Nigeria and mass media are sufficient enough to delineate NNPP’s dominance in Kano, Jigawa, and fringe parts of the North East as buoyed by his personality cult, the Kwankwasiyya. Additionally, there were unconfirmed whispers, that the negotiations in June 2022 between the Labour Party and the New Nigeria Peoples Party for a merger after the political party primaries had been concluded, were partly influenced by the rumours of a Muslim/Muslim ticket by APC.
THE CYCLICAL THEORY OF HISTORY
‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same)’
– Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, circa 1849.
Comparing the run-up to the elections in 1959, 1979, and 2023 reveals the recurrent pattern of Nigerian politics, illuminating how the same historical cycles keep occurring over again. Nigeria’s political culture is that of a people group whose governing class depends on a mix of ethnoreligious and sectionalist prejudice and parochialism to manipulate its easily susceptible citizenry for access to political office. This simplistic summary may or may not fully capture the true essence of the Nigerian political condition, but it at least spells out the reasons why a mono-religious pairing for an elective public office in Nigeria will almost cause a stir.
The Tinubu and Shettima-led Muslim/Muslim ticket has undoubtedly generated a great deal of debate and controversy regarding the intersection of religion and politics in Nigeria. Historical context and an almost play-by-play narration of the reaction to the ticket announcement by respective political actors across the country has been provided. However, it would be premature to proffer a solution—at least not until we adequately understand the processes that underpin Nigeria’s history and find a way to collectively rewrite it. ⎈
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