Barely a year into the second tenure of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, politics of the 2023 general election has commenced among the political class.
One major issue dominating discourse in the polity is religion.
There is no doubt that religion plays a dormant role in determining a lot of things in this country, including who leads it.
Hence, political watchers monitoring issues and events towards 2023 have observed that politicians are in a fix on how the populace would react to a political party presenting her with a presidential candidate and vice-presidential candidate of the same religious background.
It is a fact that since the return of democracy in 1999, Nigeria has always traded the Muslim-Christian or Christian-Muslim presidential tickets. Pundits are however in a dilemma of the feasibility or workability of a Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian presidential ticket for the forthcoming 2023 presidential election.
With an estimated population of over 200 hundred million people and more than 250 ethnic groups, the most widely practised religions in Nigeria are Islam, Christianity, and traditional religions. Statistical data shows that about 90% of the total population is made up of Christians and Muslims.
Religion has threatened the very existence of Nigeria and its democratic processes.
The introduction of religion into the political lives of Nigerians has done more harm than good to the peaceful coexistence and national harmony that the citizens of Nigeria once enjoyed.
It is important to note that religion is not the primary trigger but politicians have begun using it for their own gain. Religion creates voting blocks. There is no guarantee that everyone who identifies with a certain religion will vote the same way but in reality, that’s what is happening.
Going back in history, the violent happenings, as well as discrimination, influenced mainly by religious extremists and fanatics has disintegrated the national unity that Nigeria enjoyed in the past. A spate of violence that has happened and is still happening in Nigeria is as a result of a conflict of interest among members of various religious and ethnic organizations and their political leaders.
In Northern Nigeria, the Sharia law has played a huge role in the politics of the Northern region. The governors in sharia states often play the religious card mainly for their personal and political gains.
Today, there are conflicting interests among the political class concerning who should run the government of the country, owning to division among them on whether a presidential candidate and his vice-presidential candidate can be of the same religion.
Whereas the constitution is silent on the religious background of who should contest for the leadership of this country or who should contest for any elective office whatsoever, the electorates are usually inclined to vote along religious lines.
What has been the issue for some time is the ethnic background of such individuals, but this appears to have been sorted out by politicians who among themselves have devised what is today termed zoning formula. This also, although is not in the 1999 Constitution, has been incorporated into the constitution of some political parties.
Different political parties have put in place different candidates and different interests in terms of party manifestos and regions where presidency should be zoned to; thus, there have been a lot of accusations and counter-accusations as to which zone in the country should lay claim to the presidential seat and other elective offices.
In addressing the main issue of if a Muslim-Muslim or a Christian-Christian presidential ticket will be possible in the 2023 presidential election, we must make reference to the religions of past civilian presidents and vice presidents.
It is important to note that between October 1, 1979, and 31 December 1983, Alhaji Shehu Shagari served as a president while Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekweme served as his vice. While Alhaji Shagari was a man from Northern Nigeria, Sokoto State precisely, Dr. Alex Ekweme was a Southerner from Anambra State. Both candidates were elected on the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, a Southerner and Christian from Ogun, along with his running mate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a Northerner from Adamawa State, contested and won the Presidential election under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
The same pattern ensued in 2007 when the Late Yar’Adua from Katsina State and his running mate from Bayelsa, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan contested and won on the platform of the PDP. In 2010, when President Yar’Adua passed on, the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan assumed power. Jonathan chose a Muslim vice president in the person of Arc. Namadi Sambo from Kaduna State – a Northern part of the country.
In 2015 and 2019 respectively, President Muhammadu Buhari, a Northern Muslim from Katsina State, contested both presidential elections with Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, a Southern Christian from Ogun State. They ran and won both elections on the platform of the All Progressive Congress (APC).
A close observation of the scenarios above shows that the presidential pairings were either Muslim-Christian pairing or Christian – Muslim pairing.
In all of this, one thing remains historic and this is the 1993 presidential election. This was an election that was considered to be the freest and fairest election ever conducted in the history of Nigeria.
Even though the Northerners had really dominated the Nigerian political space, a man who was considered as the “man of the people”, Moshood Abiola, made a difference. Abiola who was a Muslim from the South chose a running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, a Muslim from the Northern State of Borno. The pair ran the election on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Both candidates were able to secure a National mandate despite fueling the Muslim-Muslim ticket. The candidates were accepted by the whole of Nigeria and they emerged victoriously. Even though the election was annulled, Abiola’s memory stilled remained fresh in the hearts of those who knew him. Abiola’s election was one without any form of religious border.
Can this be the case in present-day Nigeria?
Going down to the grass root, there would definitely be difficulty in convincing Nigerians to buy such an idea, the good intentions and visions of the candidates, notwithstanding.
If the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) comes up with such a strategy for the 2023 presidential elections, an opposition party with either Muslim/Christian or Christian/Muslim candidates will definitely have an edge.
This is because Nigeria is currently facing a huge state of insecurity at the moment. With the ravaging Boko Haram attacks, the Fulani herdsmen attack, the armed bandits, etc. The rumours of the hidden agenda of Nigeria being Islamized will be further fueled by prominent parties sponsoring Muslim/Muslim candidates.
The trust of the masses cannot be gained by sponsoring such a pair of candidates. An important factor that must be considered by any participating political party is the sensitivity of the security situation in the county. The insecurity remains a critical decision, and striking a balance between the religious groups involved is necessary.
This takes me back to when President Muhammadu Buhari’s was to contest the 2015 presidential election on the platform of the APC – a party formed by the merger of the ACN, ANPP, CPC, and nPDP. Controversies trailed the selection of a running mate. A choice was to be made. There were several rumours that Babatunde Raji Fashola was meant to be an ideal running mate. However, controversies set in motion, solely because he was a Muslim.
This led to former President, Olusegun Obasanjo granting an interview, where he discouraged both the APC and the PDP from contesting the 2015 elections by running with the Muslim/Muslim or Christian/Christian tickets.
The former president said, “It will be insensitive to the point of absurdity for any leader or any political party to be toying with the Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian ticket at this juncture. Sensitivity is a necessary ingredient for enhancement of peace, security, and stability at this point in the political discourse and arrangement for Nigeria and for encouraging confidence and trust.”
“Nigeria cannot at this stage raise the spectre and fear of Islamization or Christianization. The idea of proselytization in any form is a grave danger that must not be contemplated by any serious-minded politician at this delicate situation in Nigeria; as this time is different from any other time. Therefore, disregarding the fact that there are fears that need to be allayed at this point will amount not only to the insensitivity of the highest order but will also amount to very bad politics indeed.”
However, Muhammadu Buhari said he was not opposed to a Muslim-Muslim ticket, stating that he had demonstrated to Nigerians time and time again that he was not a fundamentalist.
Buhari said, “In 2003, I chose Chuba Okadigbo as my running mate. He was a Roman Catholic. He was an Igbo man. In 2007, I picked Edwin Ume-Ezeoke. He was an Igbo. And in 2011, I even chose a pastor, Tunde Bakare.
“I have not absolutely closed my mind to pick a Christian or Muslim as running if I get the ticket. Because I firmly believe that Nigerians, having gone through what they have gone through, realize that it is not a matter of religion, but a matter of Nigeria.
“And the major religions, Christianity and Islam, they know and they believe in the almighty God. The question of stealing and short-changing people in the name of religion should stop.”
It will also be recalled that former Aviation minister, Femi-Fani Kayode, when he was a member of the APC at the time strongly objected to the selection of a Muslim running mate for Muhammadu Buhari to contest the 2015 presidential elections.
Fani-Kayode said, “An illicit and subterranean agenda seems to be unfolding and, instead of assuring us that such a thing can never happen or even be contemplated in today’s Nigeria, they are telling us to live with it, and that all of a sudden, religion does not matter anymore.
“If it does not matter anymore, then why not present a Christian-Christian ticket?
“Meanwhile, it matters enough to those who want a Muslim-Muslim ticket to be secretly advocating it and to be openly suggesting it.”
However, the preponderance of opinion fall in the view expressed in 2014 by Mallam Nasir El-Rufai while speaking on a president and vice president having the same religious background.
“Politics and governance are not to be dictated by or mixed with religion. How these persons worship the Almighty God is private to them and should not matter to discerning Nigerians, particularly young people that suffer the most from bad governance, unemployment and the culture of impunity.“
Over time, Nigerians have failed to exist in unity and in love, rather we have just lived by tolerating one another, pretending to be united and at the same time, trying to live above our personal and regional wants. Rather than choosing our leaders based on accountability and how credible they are, our senses have been clouded with sentiments, based on regional and religious criteria.
Recently, there have been arguments that Christians have suffered the most in Nigeria, in terms of violent attacks. However, the presidency countered their claims, saying that over 70-80% of insecurity victims are Muslims. For instance, in a community with Christians at the receiving end of major violent attacks, presenting a Muslim-Muslim candidate will only lead to political disputes and sentiments in the minds of many.
With loud calls for restructuring from major fractions in the country, it becomes so obvious that the British colonial masters did not properly prepare us for the challenges that we were bound to experience in the future in terms of leadership.
We have had groups, especially the Igbos who have been marginalized cry out for a referendum. They clamor for their own country – Biafra. It remains so confusing that while a fraction calls for a referendum, others are either calling for restructuring or a revolution. A few months ago, Nigeria woke up the arrest of the convener of the “Revolution Now Movement”, Omoleye Sowore. As a country, we must find out what has gone wrong and fix our mess.
However, we must not forget how Kaduna State performed in the last governorship election.
Kaduna is a state that is inhabited by both Christians and Muslims, with the Muslims occupying the Northern region of Kaduna and the Christians occupying the Southern part. This explains why Kaduna has always been governed by both religions, that is, either a Christian governor and a Muslim deputy or a Muslim governor and a Christian deputy.
This was a very tough and dicey decision for Governor Nasir El-Rufai. He picked a fellow Muslim, Hadiza Balarabe to serve as his running mate. They both contested in the governorship elections and came out victorious.
This brought about a revolution in the state. El-Rufai said he chose a Muslim running mate, not on the basis of religion but based on competence and what she stood for. He said his major aim of taking politics and religion off the leadership table in Kaduna was achieved by this singular act.
In his words:
“A lot has been said about some of the decisions I have taken over the years, what people call daring decisions, let me make a confession today, all the examples of the decisions that I have made that are supposed to be daring and courageous,” he said.
“The most daring one is that last year, I took a decision to pick a woman, a Muslim as my running mate to contest election in Kaduna state. It was the most daring decision I have taken because, in this state, everything is religionized.
“If you invite someone to lunch, he would try to add religion connotation to it. We are trying to cure our state of that religionization and ethnicisation and I thought the best way to do it is to take religion off the table of Kaduna state politics. That was why we finally settled for Dr. Hadiza Balarabe. She confessed to me months after we had won the election that, when I called to inform her I was nominating her to be my running mate, she thought, oh, this man is going to lose the election because of me.
“But, we won. And I say we probably won because of her, not the other way round. So, I want to thank our team. We have a very hard-working team in Kaduna. I have been blessed to have hard-working, intelligent people around who do all the work, while I end up taking the credit that I don’t deserve.”
The only way a Muslim-Muslim or a Christian-Christian ticket pairing for a presidential election can work in Nigeria is if a sponsoring political party can produce candidates who are selfless and armed with motivation and determination to work for the good of the masses without religious or ethnic sentiments.
We must come to terms with the realization that if such a pairing in a country like Nigeria that is engulfed with corruption, social injustice, economic and political instability, Boko Haram insecurity, farmer-header conflict, poverty, unemployment, and other social vices, will bring about the desired change we clamour for, then we must keep our fingers crossed, and change our mindset. However, all hands must be on deck to achieve such a feat.
The only obstacle that may stand in the way is the religion obstacle. Therefore religious bodies like the MURIC, CAN, ISM must come together and enlighten all members on the friction that religion births in the political affairs of Nigeria.
It is believed that religious leaders in Nigeria have a very strong grip on their members. This means that the awesome change we desire must start from the churches, the mosques, and the shrines.