A religious dilemma: Nigerian Christians must decide whether to cut or push
It is not uncommon for religion to receive all the attention in the run-up to next year’s presidential election in Nigeria. For better or worse, Nigerians take religion very seriously, and the often unpredictable interplay of religion and ethnicity is a key element of political contestation in the country. Yet if the role of religion was entirely predictable, that Nigerian Christians feel they have been forced into a situation where they must seriously consider voting for a presidential candidate purely for reasons of faith, that seems something new.
The backdrop is the decision by Bola Tinubu, the presidential flag bearer of the All Progressives Congress (APC), to choose a northern Muslim, former Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima, as his running mate. For Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim, ethnoregional balancing imperatives in Nigeria should have dictated the choice of a Christian (or at least non-Muslim) northerner. Yet the weight that the electorate in the predominantly Muslim north places on religious identity is such that it is thought the selection of a Christian would have constituted political suicide on the part of the APC.
Whether the perception is correct or not, there is no doubt that Tinubu’s selection of Shettima, particularly after many Christian leaders openly questioned the political wisdom of such a decision, had the effect of making so that Christians feel belittled and ignored. The result is arguably the most sustained period of Christian religious mobilization the country has seen since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999.
While the ensuing outcry was led by former Secretary of the Federation Government (SGF) Babachir Lawal and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara (who, admittedly, may have their own personal and political reasons to jump on the religious bandwagon), the passion for what is widely known as the Muslim-Muslim ticket, especially in the predominantly Christian South, is quite palpable. At different times, various constituencies within the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) have denounced the Muslim-Muslim ticket, describing the arrangement as “insensitive” to the plight of Christians who have borne the brunt of the Islamist insurgency as it gradually spread to other parts of the country from its initial stronghold in the northeast.
Peter Obi, the Labor Party presidential candidate, seems to be the main beneficiary of this surge of Christian disaffection. A Catholic from Anambra state in the southeast, Obi has sought to confuse Christian disappointment with the religious identity of APC flag bearers with political disenchantment among young people. The thunderous applause that greeted his presentation during a recent visit to the Dunamis International Gospel Center in Abuja shows the potential of such a strategy. Last weekend, Obi continued his Christian vote courtship with a high-profile visit to David Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith Church Worldwide (aka Winners Chapel), at the church’s headquarters in Ota, State. of Ogun.
But can Obi really consolidate the “Obi-dient” and religious discontent into one electoral bloc?
There is a greater likelihood of this happening in southeastern Igbo where Obi can rightfully expect to blur the line between ethnicity and religion. The Igbo are predominantly Catholic, making up over 70% of Nigeria’s Catholic population. In recent weeks, more and more Igbo seem to have warmed to Obi’s candidacy, just as his popularity among young Nigerians has soared. Whether that will be enough to persuade the Igbo power brokers who are currently entrenched in the APC and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to switch sides remains to be seen.
Obi also runs the risk of turning a multi-ethnic coalition into a mono-ethnic one, especially if his support among the Igbo continues to grow. Although it would be foolish not to accept such support, especially from those who had to give up the possibility of an Igbo presidency after Atiku Abubakar ousted Obi (and soon after the governor of Rivers State Nyesom Wike) of the PDP, being considered an ethnic candidate (something he has, to be honest, done nothing to deserve) will create political complications which may not bode well for his country.
All of this still leaves us with the question of how Christians will vote. Although many church leaders have expressed disappointment with the Muslim-Muslim ticket and have urged their congregations to register to vote in order to express Christian anger, significantly these leaders, perhaps covering their paris, abstained from asking their members to vote for Obi because he is a Christian. This is not to underestimate the attraction that Obi holds for many Christians, nor to dismiss the power of resentment that many Christians rightly have about a Muslim-Muslim ticket adding to the hurt of perceived persecution; one wonders whether, in the final analysis, the resentment will last long enough for them to set aside other competing considerations and vote for a candidate solely on the basis of his religious identity. Even if done in retaliation, it will make the southern electorate the unlikely facsimile of its northern counterpart, especially since the latter is supposed to be primarily responsive to religious stimuli.
It seems counterintuitive, but perhaps Obi’s path to an unlikely victory may be to point out his apparent credentials as the moral antithesis of Tinubu and Abubakar (the part of his platform that galvanized the ‘ Obi-dient’), rather than his Christian identity. . For Obi, part of the danger of being seen as caring too much about the Christian vote (potentially a plus in the Middle Belt) is the possibility of uniting Muslims against a candidacy that, even at the best of times, has always seemed regionally circumscribed. .
Finally, there is the question of how Yoruba Christians will vote. Will they be guided by religious solidarity? Or will they cover their noses and vote for a candidate who they all agree is imperfect (Tinubu) but, as things stand, the only one with a real chance of ensuring that power returns to south ? Although Tinubu is a Muslim, he is a Yoruba Muslim married to a Christian Senator, ‘Remi Tinubu, who also happens to be a pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria’s leading Pentecostal denomination.
Can Tinubu work his way into the Pentecostal vote – if there is such a thing – through his wife? Has he perhaps secured his choice of running mate knowing that he still has a back door to the Christian community via his wife? Does she really have the power to move mountains within the RCCG, let alone the larger Pentecostal community? Can Tinubu convince Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, another RCCG pastor he defeated in the party’s primary, to fight for him among his fellow Christians? In the end, will the Christian Yoruba voter see Tinubu as a Muslim, a “structural Christian”, or the best guarantee of a change in the regional location of political power after eight consecutive years of northern dominance and so a great opportunity? Give Way ?
The plight of Nigerian Christians is only a fragment of the dilemma facing the Nigerian electorate at large.
*Teacher Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for African Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This article was originally published by the CFR as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel project on the future of democracy: https://www.cfr.org/blog/religious-dilemma