Praying for Peaceful Polls The Outsized Role of Religion and Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Elections

Does religion matter in Nigerian politics? Will it play a significant role in the 2023 presidential elections? 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.

The announcement of the timetable for the 2023 general elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on April 2021 heralded preparations, permutations, alignments and politicking by the political elite who strategically position for the 2023 contest. The ‘winner takes all’ nature of politics in Nigeria makes this pre-election ritual an existential, though quiet process. To be better positioned, the political elite often deploy three overlapping strategies—party politicking, calculated resource redistribution, and manipulation of identities—to enhance their political fortunes. But while party politicking and strategic use of resources may be arguably benign, the manipulation of social identity (i.e. the accentuation of shared ingredients of social identity such as religion, region, or ethnicity as a stratagem for garnering political support) is dangerous. Why is this so?  

Nigeria is a deeply divided society. The country bifurcates along ethnic, regional/geopolitical, and religious lines. Riding on these cleavages to political power, therefore, is sectarian with grave implications on the legitimacy of the candidate that emerges. It also sets a precedence that, in the long run, could redefine elections as a political process to sectarian and primordial gyrations. But does religion matter in Nigerian politics? Will it play a significant role in the 2023 presidential elections? What does existing data tell us about the myth of a ‘monolith north’ and the religiously bi-polar southwest? What implications will these developments have on post-election Nigeria’s stability?     


By prohibiting the adoption of any religion as a state religion, Nigeria is often profiled as a secular state—secularism, here, suggesting that religion is a private affair and has no leanings on public life. However, describing Nigeria as a secular state is simplistic, as religion conspicuously influences politics in Nigeria. Hence, diverse positions exist that characterize the country as either ‘partially secular’, ‘non-secular’, or ‘multi-religious.’ In a 2020 study, I attempted to demonstrate the connections between religion and politics in Nigeria. I traced this relationship to colonial policies which recognized Islam as a civilization. Islam was mainstreamed into the colonial administrative politics of the Northern Nigerian Protectorate (and later northern region) by preserving the shari’a jurisprudence while concomitantly westernizing southern Nigeria.  

In 1960, shari’a was relaxed as part of the concessions for independence. However, a fault line had emerged between the Christian-dominated South and Muslim-majority North. The Islamic revivalism agenda, championed by Ahmadu Bello, the grandson of Usman dan Fodio and the leader of the ruling Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), and the rhetoric of Islamic conquest of southern Nigeria birthed tensions, suspicions and trepidations and further sharpened the religious fault-lines. Nevertheless, Muslims, through umbrellas such as Jama’atu Nasril Islam (Society for the Victory of Islam), still pushed for the visibility of Islam in Nigeria’s politics as they argued that Nigeria’s supposed secularism is premised on Western civilization that is a product of Christian tradition.  

The debate for the inclusion of shari’a law in the 1979 Constitution, Nigeria’s membership in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1986, the declaration of shari’a states in northern Nigeria in 1999, the Boko Haram insurgency, and recently, herders’ southwards violent escapades, are conceived by some, such as Governor Samuel Ortom, Professor Wole Soyinka, Christian Association of Nigeria, among others, as attempts by Muslims to mainstream political Islamism. Such ‘threat’ heralded Christians’ responses documented by Ebenezer Obadare and Ruth Marshall and the gradual ‘religionization’ of Nigeria’s secularism. With religion influencing state laws and permeating institutions, it became imperative to strike a religious balance in employment, appointments, admission, pilgrim boards, public prayers, and candidates in elections, among others. The competing influence of Islam and Christianity on the polity, I have previously argued, implies that Nigeria is not a secular state but a theocratic diarchy—a polity equally and significantly influenced by two religions. Hence, religious sensitivity is high. And this makes religion a crucial element in understanding and contextualizing certain political behaviours.  

It is important to emphasize that religious tolerance has worsened over the years due to the politicization of religion and the religionization of politics. Beyond the declaration of some states in northern Nigeria as being shari’a states, a move that Katrin Gänsler has referred to as ‘a political drawcard’, religious intolerance has manifested in several ways including the escalation of violent religious conflicts, the emergence of fundamentalist groups, the proliferation of Hijab activism by Muslim students in southwest Nigeria, and the obstruction of age-long religious balancing in political posts within religiously bipolar states.  

Religious lobby groups are increasingly involved in politics and are trading their votes for favourable post-election policies. For instance, in 2015, the Joint Muslim Forum opted to support ‘any Lagos governorship candidate that supports the use of hijab in public schools.’ Similarly, during the tenure of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, religious groups such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) overtly supported President Goodluck Jonathan, a move that offered the former unfettered access to the presidency. Presently, it has become a ‘normal’ for Muslim and Christian religious leaders to adopt and openly or surreptitiously canvass for their preferred candidate which, often time, are people of their faith.    


To appreciate the relevance of religion in the build-up to the 2023 presidential elections, it is necessary to highlight three facts in the history of Nigeria’s democracy: 

FACT 1: No candidate of the same religion as the incumbent president is ever elected to succeed the incumbent; 

FACT 2: There is never a time when the president and his vice emerge from or belong to the same religion. Though the Third Republic (1992-1993)’s case involving the Social Democratic Party’s Muslim-Muslim ticket would have made an exception, the result of that election was annulled by the Ibrahim Babangida junta;   

FACT 3: No elected president from either the South or the North has ever succeeded another from the same region. 

The above facts may seem coincidental. Nevertheless, they reflect the religious and regional sensitivities that even the political elite acknowledge. However, the build-up to the 2023 presidential elections threatens the three facts presented above. Though any attempt to challenge this status quo would be considered progressive, Nigeria is controvertibly unready for such a radical change. Nonetheless, the candidates of the three favourite political parties projected to win the elections have emerged in a pattern that triggers debates and discourses on the identity question. The presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his vice, Kashim Shettima, are Muslims from the South and North, respectively. The candidate of the leading opposition, Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP),  Atiku Abubakar is a Muslim from the North while his deputy Ifeanyi Okowa is a Christian from the South. Labour Party (LP) is represented by  Peter Obi, a Christian from the South and Dr Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, a Muslim from the North, is his running mate.  

Because the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim from the North, the victory of Tinubu would culminate in a Muslim succeeding another Muslim as an elected president. This will repudiate FACT 1. Tinubu’s victory would also challenge FACT 2 since both the president and his vice would be Muslims. On the other hand, Atiku’s victory would announce the succession of an incumbent president by another from the same religion and region. Atiku’s victory would therefore challenge FACT 1 and FACT 3. On the contrary, Labour Party’s candidates’ choices seem to be the most sensitive to Nigeria’s identity cleavages as they fail to challenge any of the three FACTs. 

As in every divided society, APC’s choice of candidates has received a labyrinth of opprobrium for downplaying the religious sensitivities in Nigeria. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella body for Christians in Nigeria, stated that ‘the situation in the country now is not suitable for a Muslim-Muslim ticket’ and further charged Nigerians to either ‘accept or reject’ it. To Mathew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, APC’s choice ‘is totally reprehensible [and] not acceptable’. Last year, Northern Nigerian leaders of APC contended that ‘Nigeria is not…a theocracy’ and described the choice as ‘a display of crass insensitivity to the complexity of modern Nigeria and the entire Church’ while some northern Christians who protested in Abuja labelled it as an insult. Even the presidential candidate of PDP, Atiku, agrees that APC’s choice is not right for a country like Nigeria. Yet, APC argued that its decision places competence, performance, and pragmatism above identity politics—a position that a ThisDay analyst described as audacious and hypocritical in July 2022.  

But while APC deemphasizes religion in its candidate’s choice, it desperately seeks religious balance in its campaigns. For instance, in an event to unveil his deputy, Tinubu allegedly hired fake bishops—a move which further outraged the Christian communities. Nevertheless, one thing is incontrovertible: APC’s religious insensitivity has fomented a crisis within the party, especially in north-central Nigeria, where the incumbent administration is accused of complacency in the farmer-herders crisis.  

Unlike APC, PDP has thus far maintained a secular posture by balancing regional, ethnic and religious sensitivities in its choices and circumspection in religiously sensitive issues. However, Atiku’s deletion of his Twitter and Facebook posts that condemned the brutal killing of Deborah Samuel (a Christian accused of blasphemy) upon threats by Islamic fundamentalist to withdraw their support for him, demonstrated Atiku’s disposition toward the importance of religion in the contest and the need to harness it. Nevertheless, PDP’s choice of a Fulani Muslim as a prospective replacement for the incumbent who shares the same identity also kindles the religious sentiment of a Muslim succeeding another after eight years of a disastrous administration.  

While the LP has, as mentioned earlier, remained sensitively ‘blameless’, supporters of the PDP and APC have faulted Peter Obi’s publicized visits to Christian congregations and labelled him ‘crusade mobilizer’ and ‘Christian candidate’—a ploy to reduce his Muslim support-base. As an act of desecration, in July 2022, Obi’s face was also included in the design of a Muslim praying mat and distributed by a suspicious support group, causing an uproar that warranted an official response and apology from him. All of these allude to religious sensitivities and the primacy of respecting them.  


But what do these events, utterances and reactions tell us about identity and voting patterns in the 2023 presidential elections? Religion matters! Religion will play a definitive role in voting behaviour across Nigeria. The major parties may surreptitiously appeal to religion and will strive not to antagonize any of the major religions. Building from his relative competence, frugality, a record of transparency, appeal to teaming youths, and support from Christian populations, LP is likely to challenge PDP’s age-long dominance of the South East and South South regions and also perform well in the North-Central region. The fear that comes with the perceived agenda of the Islamization thesis, as popularized by stakeholders such as Mailafia Obadiah, T. Y. Danjuma, Samuel Ortom and others, makes this more likely.  

APC, on the other hand, partly settled for a Muslim-Muslim ticket to snap the Muslim voting blocs in northwest and northeast Nigeria. I project the PDP to perform well in the North East and battle LP for a substantial percentage of votes in the South South. To this end, would the Christian-dominated North Central zone and the religiously bipolar South West be the battleground for the major parties? 


The North Central is often subsumed in analyses as a being part of a monolithic North that aspires for a common political destiny. However, the voting behaviour of this geopolitical zone has historically been inconsistent. While the area overwhelmingly voted for Shehu Shagari, a northern Muslim, in 1979, it preferred M. K. O. Abiola, a southern Muslim, in 1993. In the 1999 and 2003 elections, the North Central massively voted PDP, like most northern states. There are no aggregated data for the 2007 elections. But 2011 data indicate that the region derailed from the North’s preferred candidate by voting for Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian.  

Even with the escalated popularity of the APC candidate, Buhari, in 2015, North Central votes were split almost equally between APC, represented by a northern Muslim, and the PDP represented by Jonathan, a southern Christian. This pattern re-occurred in 2019, despite the failure of the administration to address security challenges in the region. It may, therefore, be difficult to predict the outcome of the 2023 elections in the North Central. But the outrage against APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket suggests that the region may, yet again, follow an independent pathway by voting for LP or PDP. And this decision will be influenced by religious and value guarantees that LP and PDP relatively offer. 

The South West, unlike the North Central, has a bloc voting pattern that is largely ethnic but religious-based. In the 1979 presidential race, for instance, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba and southern Christian, won all the southwestern states. In 1993, a Yoruba, southern Muslim won all the southwestern states. In 1999, a Yoruba, Chief Olu Falae, won all the southwestern states. In 2003, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba and southern Christian, won all the southwestern states. In 2011, the majority in all but one south-western state voted for Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian. In 2015, however, the majority in all but one south-western state preferred Buhari, a northern Muslim deputized and supported by prominent Yoruba politicians, to Jonathan. This pattern did not significantly change as Buhari, again, clinched a cumulative victory in the southwest in the 2019 poll. Based on these antecedents, I infer that bipolarity in religion will have a minute role to play in southwest voting patterns. Tinubu, ceteris paribus, should win a cumulative majority of votes in the southwest.  


Religionizing or voting along religious lines in the 2023 presidential elections will have some repercussions on the post-election stability of Nigeria. This is because issues of religion target faith and values which are rigid in both political and pragmatic sense. In a sensitive and divided society like Nigeria, downplaying the need for religious inclusion is a national security threat. The interconnectedness of politics and religion entails that any ‘politically favoured’ religion is assumed to automatically gain a political and economic advantage over the other, thereby creating a perceived sense of relative deprivation or horizontal inequality that are proven precursors to acts of political violence. Post-election grievances that are religiously driven will not just make the new president unpopular but confront him with issues of legitimacy and trust deficit that could create further cracks and fragmentations. In such a situation, altruistic interventions will be politicized and complex challenges such as the Boko Haram insurgency, farmer herders’ conflict, armed banditry, secessionist agitations, resource nationalism and other problems will remain largely unsolved. 

I will now create three post-election scenarios, based on the possibility of victories of the three major candidates, and offer recommendations on how the challenge of legitimacy and trust deficit can be addressed: 

Scenario 1: APC wins at the poll with votes predominantly from northern Muslims and the South West. There is likely to be trepidation among Christian communities, especially in northern Nigeria. Furthermore, the ‘Islamization’ thesis will gain wider acceptance and political spiritualities and Pentecostal republicanism will heighten. If the government fails to address the Boko Haram and Fulani militant issues altruistically, that failure would be perceived as ‘evidence’ of the Islamization agenda, especially as APC’s vice presidential candidate, Shettima has been accused of having links with the Boko Haram by politicians such as Senator Ali Modu Sheriff.  

Kidnapping and clashes between herders and farmers in southern Nigeria will be perceived as jihadism with hysteric reactions that would target the identities of the perpetrators and not necessarily their crimes. To this end, secessionist impulses and resource nationalism may intensify, further placing the country on the brink. Here, Arend Lijphart’s power-sharing recommendations will be crucial to balancing religious representation in the government. Quelling Fulani bandit activities and ending the destabilization of Christian communities in the northern and southern regions would also be very important in restoring confidence.  

Scenario 2: PDP wins the poll with votes received predominantly from the South South, North Central and North East. Christians, especially from the North Central take solace in the spread of the votes and religious balance in Atiku’s candidacy. But they are suspicious and curious about the larger Christian presence in the administration and the government’s commitment to addressing the Fulani-engendered insecurity in Christian communities in north-central and southern Nigeria. The long-term acceptance of this administration would hinge on how well the government can address the two concerns raised above. But generally, the administration would be more stable, provided the sensitivities of the Christians remains acknowledged and contained. 

Scenario 3: LP wins the poll with preponderant votes from the South South, South East, and North Central. The administration exudes high hopes and expectations, but the demographic spread of the votes, though informed by other objective conditions, will raise sectarian questions. This sectarian question will not be potent since the LP is most sensitive to Nigeria’s identity cleavages but would be used to negotiate Muslims’ presence in government and position in policies and redistribution of resources.  

In conclusion, religion, as in times past, will shape the build-up to, and outcome of the 2023 presidential elections. The risk of states and geopolitical zones voting along sectarian lines is high. This may, however, lead to heightened religious sensitivities that may escalate existing tensions and fragilities. But these can be averted if the winning candidate offers guarantees and accommodates the religious fears of other faiths

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