by Reuben Abati
The ruckus that has been generated by the announcement of former Borno State Governor, Senator Kashim Shettima as running mate of the Presidential standard bearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), for the 2023 Presidential election is a perfect illustration and yet another sharp reminder of how religion has driven a wedge among Nigerians. Religion, etymologically, is derived from the Latin word, “religare” which means “to bind together”, but rather than bind the people of Nigeria together, religion has divided them along sectarian lines. It is the oxygen of devious power politics, sectarian politics, mass murder, terror, instability, and the plague of amorality. This is ironic, for Nigeria is clearly one of the most religious countries in the world, with every street, every corner boasting of either a church, a mosque, a shrine or a temple. The business of religion is also perhaps the most lucrative in Nigeria, with many religious groups noted more for commerce, hustling and mass hypnotism rather than piety, with a yawning gap between private and public morality, as the people commit atrocities in the name of God.
The evidence abounds in the weaponization of religion, even if the Nigerian Constitution states expressly that “the government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion”, the resort to violence on the basis of religion as has been witnessed over the years in the Middle Belt, Southern Kaduna and other parts of the country, the politics of Sharia, and the cruel exploitation of religion by political leaders. The easiest way to ignite violence in Nigeria is to play the ethnic or religious card as in Kafanchan, Kano, Jos, Zango-Kataf, Maitatsine riots, Kano, the slaughter of priests, incessant attacks on churches. Many have died for no just cause: Gideon Akaluka, Mrs. Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, Deaconess Eunice Olawale, Mrs. Eunice Elisha, Pastor Bolanle Ibrahim, Deborah Yakubu Samuel, all made worse since the return to civilian rule in 1999, by “the religion-inspired war” unleashed on Nigeria by Boko Haram and a band of terrorists and their international partners. Nor does it matter whether the perpetrators of violence are educated or not. Indeed, once upon a time, the University of Ibadan nearly witnessed an open warfare between Christians and Muslims within the community over the location of a Chapel Cross, which the Muslims asked to be removed because it was visible from the direction of the University Mosque, hence allegedly hindering the faith of worshippers! Between 1985 and 1986, this became known as the Cross and Crescent crisis in Ibadan. Religion is so sensitive that both Nigerian Muslims and Christians have learnt to live in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. Such measures and groups as the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC), Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC) and Inter-Faith Dialogues have not necessarily promoted tolerance enough. The fear of likely domination by the other worsens the situation. Every election season, religion plays a major role in the selection of candidates giving rise to the need for zonal, ethnic, and religious balancing.
This is the general context of the emotions attached to the kind of ticket which politicians present to the electorate most especially at the Presidential and Gubernatorial levels. The convention is to have a balanced Muslim – Christian ticket or vice versa, to do otherwise is to exhume and oxygenate religious passion and prejudices. This is exactly what the Presidential candidate of the ruling APC, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has done by choosing a fellow Muslim as his running mate. Virtually every Christian group in the country, including the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Arewa Christians and Indigenous Pastors Association, and the Christian Global Network has kicked against this. No other general election in this country in recent memory has attracted as much religious sentiment. Faced with unprecedented assault in the last few years, the Christian community has been vocal in seeking to defend itself physically, and by mobilizing the congregation to vote, and defend Christian choices.
Christians have been advised by some of their leaders to take up arms to defend themselves. Many churches have turned the possession of Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) into an access card to church. Those without PVCs have been told to stay away. Some major Christian denominations have also set up Departments devoted exclusively to politics and voter mobilization. Out of distrust and fear of the havoc that has been wreaked over time in the name of religion, Nigerian Christians want their own men and women in positions of authority. The other political parties that have announced their Presidential running mates so far have exercised great caution in this regard, more so as the churches warned before now that in 2023, a same-faith, Muslim-Muslim ticket would not be acceptable. The Bible enjoins Christians “to turn the other cheek.” Christians in Nigeria have since abandoned that injunction. They are on their way back to the Old Testament.
Is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, APC Presidential candidate not aware of this? Of course, he is. He has been in politics long enough to know that politics in Nigeria is driven by sentiments. But in choosing a Muslim like himself as running mate, he provides a robust even if rhetorical, defence that has been questioned by members of his own party and outsiders alike. He has been accused, for example, of promoting the politics of exclusion and discrimination against Christians. An APC member, Daniel Bwala has resigned from the party in protest. Another APC member, Senator Elisha Abbo (Adamawa North) has resigned his membership of the Bola Ahmed Tinubu Campaign organization. Tinubu however says: “To re-envision and reshape the nation, I must compose the best team possible, a team put together with but one overriding purpose: to forever establish, just, capable and compassionate governance for the people of Nigeria without regard to religion, region or ethnic origin.”
The problem here is that it is impossible to do anything in Nigeria without “religion, region, or ethnic origin.” Is this part of the candidate’s statement written by a foreigner? Nigerians, Christians and Southerners, have said they don’t want another eight years of Northern leadership or any arrangement that excludes Christians completely. A few paragraphs later, Tinubu says: “A dominant theme of my political history and my personal life is my staunch belief in our diversity…My selection of a running mate comports entirely with this longstanding inclination.” So, how exactly does a Muslim-Muslim ticket promote diversity? He goes further to state that he is aware of the “energetic discourse concerning the possible religion of my running mate…today, I announce my selection with pride because I have made it not based on religion or to please one community or the other.” The counter-argument by Christians is that a Muslim-Muslim ticket will definitely please the Muslim community, and make Christians feel alienated. Asiwaju Tinubu’s attempt to discount the factor of religion is a hard sell. The Nigerian Christian community is not impressed.
Tinubu sells Shettima to the electorate: “as a man with the talent, maturity, strength of character, and patriotism” and adds that “he has my implicit confidence and faith.” He obviously feels comfortable with Senator Shettima, and that is fine – compatibility, apart from electoral value is an important consideration in choosing a running mate. Shettima was a major player in Tinubu’s emergence as APC Presidential candidate. He was director of his campaign. Both men also have a good relationship: Shettima is after all, a major exponent of the “Emi Lo Kan” – “It is my turn” – agenda. He is being rewarded for his loyalty. Tinubu further talks about “the need to place competence above religious sentiment”. There is no doubt that Senator Shettima is a competent man. He is educated, brilliant, experienced, articulate and fit. He holds a B. Sc. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Maiduguri, and an M. Sc. in the same discipline from the University of Ibadan. He has worked as a University Teacher and as a Banker. He has also served as a commissioner five times in his home-state of Borno in different Ministries, Governor for eight years and Senator of the Federal Republic for 4 years. He can read a book and understand what it says, he can even quote Shakespeare effortlessly. Except that the biggest obstacle is the question of his faith. He is a Muslim, running a ticket with a Muslim. Tinubu says that should not be a problem. He argues that “the spirit of 1993 is upon us again in 2023.” I have heard some persons in response to that saying Tinubu should speak for himself. The spirit of 1993 may be upon him as a person, but some people draw attention to the fact that we are in 2022, not 1993 and the times are different.
Tinubu is referring to the Muslim-Muslim ticket of Chief MKO Abiola and Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 1993 Presidential election. Tinubu has practically replicated the Abiola-Kingibe model. Kingibe like Shettima, to drive home the appropriation, is a Kanuri, from the same state of Borno in the North East geo-political zone. But that is only as far as the comparison should go. In 1993, the Muslim-Muslim ticket may not have mattered because Nigerians wanted democracy badly. They were tired of military rule. Besides, religious conflict had not yet assumed its current hydra-headed, octopoid shape. As Simon Kolawole pointed out earlier in a piece titled “The Awkward Muslim-Muslim ticket” (ThisDay, June 18, 2022) – “before the late 1980s, religion was not a defining factor in national politics.” Under the Shehu Shagari administration, Shagari was a Muslim, and Fulani, but the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and all his Service Chiefs were Christians. This was not an issue. In 1979, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria ran a Christian-Christian, all Southern, Ogun-Anambra ticket with Philip Umeadi. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Presidential candidate of the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) picked his running mate from Southern Kaduna, Dr. Ishaya Audu, a Christian. That was once upon a time in Nigeria, but not anymore. Some observers have talked about Governor Nasir el-Rufai running a Muslim-Muslim ticket in Kaduna State and getting away with it, but Kaduna is not Nigeria. A state with a population of a little over 9 million cannot be compared to a complex country like Nigeria. In today’s Nigeria, it will be difficult for anyone to run an entirely Southern or an entirely Northern Presidential ticket with the candidates being of the same faith. Such a proposal would be dead on arrival – that is the extent to which religion has divided us. The APC proposal as it is therefore, seeks to test the established order and sentiments. It is a bold move. But what are Tinubu’s strategic thoughts? How strong are his propositions?
No 1: Electoral value. Politicians make choices in order to win not to lose. Senator Shettima is Kanuri from the North East. Would it have been better to pick a running mate from the North West which has more voters compared to the entire North East? A running mate to Tinubu from the North West would have meant picking from the same zone as the outgoing President and from a zone that had previously produced late President Shehu Shagari, late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, former Vice President Namadi Sambo and a couple of former military Heads of State (Murtala Muhammad and Sani Abacha). The North East has to date produced only Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa from Bauchi State. The Kanuris are not as populous as the Hausa-Fulani but would the Northern voter worry about that or be more concerned that the Presidential running mate of the APC is a Muslim? Besides, Senator Shettima is from the same geo-political zone as the PDP Presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar. His presence on the APC ticket could swing significant votes in favour of the party and divide Atiku’s votes. I had in fact argued in a piece titled “June 12, 1993, Running Mates and 2023” (ThisDay, Tuesday, June 14, 2022) as follows: “If Tinubu must pick a Muslim running mate as has been argued, his best choice is Kashim Shettima, former Governor of Borno State.”
No. 2: Religion. We have established that this would remain an issue. The ready argument by those who do not consider it an issue is that Christians constitute a minority in the entire North where the population is predominantly Muslim. But is that why Northern Christians should be excluded? Are there no Northern Christians that have the clout and the credentials to win big-ticket elections? Or that is “competent, reliable, capable and able?” By choosing a Muslim as his strategists advised, and as he has done, Tinubu is obviously leaving himself open to the accusation that he has no regard for the Christian community. He is nonetheless considered by many a liberal Muslim. His wife is even a Pastor in a Pentecostal Church. He also knows that whereas it would be easier for him to defeat his major opponents in the South West and parts of the South, the main battle ground for his candidacy would be in the North. A Muslim-Muslim team is an attempt to woo and win the votes of the Muslim majority in the North. Examined closely, this is a cold-blooded, Machiavellian move. But did Tinubu at any time make any effort to consult the Northern Christian leadership and try to carry them along, before making his announcement? If he has not done so, let him do so now.
No 3: Finally, does religion necessarily make our leaders good men and women? Absolutely not. Religion is that affective thing in our consciousness which may have no bearing whatsoever with our daily conduct or character. Some of the most religious people are also some of the worst human beings ever. Nigerians are looking for good leaders, leaders who can address the major issues that affect their lives, and who can make Nigeria a better and safer place for all.
The strongest value of democracy is that it offers the people an opportunity to make their own choice. In 2023, it is up to the Nigerian people to vote according to their conscience. There are options on the table. The electoral umpires must provide the enabling environment for the people to vote freely, without any form of hindrance, and every opportunity to ensure that their votes count. In the end, that is all that matters.