The ‘Muslim-Muslim ticket’ and the fears of Nigerian Christians and minorities
by Franklyne Ogbunwezeh, 21 July 2022
As Nigerians prepare to elect a new president in 2023, the country is embroiled in another round of ethnoreligious crisis. The controversy this time centres on the ruling All Progressives Congress party’s (APC) decision to nominate two Muslims as their flagbearers for the offices of the president and vice president: Bola Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos state, and Kashim Shettime, former governor of Borno state. This is in contravention of an unwritten political arrangement in force since Nigeria reverted to civilian democracy in 1999, by which the presidency and vice presidency alternate between the two major religions.
The ethnoreligious fronts are already hardening. The online rhetoric of supporters of the major candidates is increasingly heading into dangerous territory. Online name-calling, as well as the weaponization of tribal prejudices and ethnoreligious stereotypes among party foot-soldiers can be observed in Nigerian cyberspace. And it is not limited to cyberspace. There are disturbing reports of APC thugs using violence to try to stop supporters of the Labour Party candidate from getting their voter registration cards in places like Lagos - a city long considered an APC stronghold.
The APC’s decision has further increased the fears of Nigerian Christians and minorities of a full-blown Islamization agenda driven by ‘principalities and powers’ of Islamofascist provenance within the deepest recesses of the Nigerian politico-security establishment.
The Congress of Northern Nigerian Christians (CNNC) articulated their concern in unambiguous terms. They came out in strong condemnation of the APC move, contending that “equal representation of the two major religions in the presidency” is “sacrosanct”. The CNNC stated that the move championed by some Islamic clerics and politicians from the north portends great danger for the country and should be jettisoned in the interest of peaceful co-existence and religious tolerance.
Even though Christians are roughly equal in number to Muslims in Nigeria, the CNNC pointed out, “we have not been advocating for a Christian/Christian ticket”. They contend that the “Muslim-Christian presidency has been a leadership tradition in Nigeria since the era of the military to date, due to the ethnic and religious heterogeneous nature of our country.” And upsetting that balance would lead to an unforeseeable crisis.
Fears of a government-supervised genocide
These fears, which are as old as Nigeria itself, are today supported not only by the documented upsurge in Christian persecution in northern Nigeria since 2009, but by the general climate of insecurity which has enveloped Nigeria since 2015 when the retired army general and coup plotter Muhammadu Buhari came to power.
The indiscriminate killing of Christians during worship as witnessed on Pentecost Sunday 2022 in Owo, southwestern Nigeria; the lynching of a Christian university student, Deborah Yakubu, by a Muslim mob in Sokoto on 12 May 2022; and the inability or unwillingness of the security forces to intervene stoke fears in Christians and minorities across the country.
In Kaduna State alone, the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union reported that in the last six years 148 communities have been destroyed by Fulani militias and Islamic terrorists, and over 200,000 persons displaced, in an unprecedented campaign of ethnoreligious cleansing. In Plateau and Benue states the numbers are even higher, and the devastation worse.
Worst of all is the situation in northeastern Nigeria, where the terrorist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa have carved out territories and possessions for themselves through a reign of terror. Nearly three million Nigerians are refugees in their own country, due to the ravages of Islamic terrorism.
Many Nigerians believe that President Buhari, who is a northern Muslim of Fulani tribal extraction, is not only going along with, but also supervising the campaign of genocide by Fulani-Islamic militants against Christians and minorities in central and Middle Belt Nigeria. This they see as a part of an agenda to Islamize and “Fulanize” Nigeria, which former President Olusegun Obasanjo raised his voice against.
Why is the Muslim-Muslim ticket generating so much controversy?
To understand the fear and controversy, one needs to understand the complexity that is Nigeria, as well as the fear of domination by one region or religion, which that unwieldy complexity brings with it.
In a situation where the two major religions, with nearly equal demographics, are in a struggle for supremacy, there needed to be an arrangement that would prevent that struggle from degenerating into bloodshed. That was what the unwritten arrangement reached by major Nigerian political parties in 1999 was designed to achieve. The arrangement requires that if a Muslim is running for president, his vice president should be a Christian, and vice versa. It has held until now.
In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, chose Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a northern Muslim, as his running mate and vice president. In 2007, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, chose Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, as his running mate and vice president. When Jonathan assumed the presidency on the death of Yar’Adua in 2010, he chose Mohammed Namadi Sambo, a northern Muslim, as his vice president. In 2015, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, selected Yemi Osinbajo, a southern Christian, as his running mate and vice president. This arrangement has held the peace among the religions all this while, even though the rank incompetence of Nigerian politicians and the dysfunctionality of Nigerian politics has not curbed Islamic terrorism or solved the security crises in the country.
This Muslim-Muslim ticket move, according to its opponents, is a flagrant violation of that unwritten political arrangement that has worked for two decades. This unwritten code, they insist, was designed to balance and honour the plurality and religious diversity of the country and allay the fears of domination of one religion over the other, and guarantee, if not national cohesion, then stability.
Proponents, on the other hand, notably Governor El Rufai of Kaduna State, argue that the competence of a candidate is more important than the unwritten arrangement. Opponents counter this by saying that competent Christians can be found to fill the positions.
Designed to reduce religious tension in a dysfunctional federalism
Nigeria practices a federal system of government. But over and above constitutional provisions, which delimit the powers enjoyed by each tier of government, power is so centralized and concentrated in the central government that the presidency has become a institution so powerful that it mocks the concept of federalism. It holds the purse strings. Many Nigerian states are not viable entities but depend on monthly subsidies from the federal government for their survival.
The army and the police are all exclusively under the control of the federal government. All these factors make the central government a very potent weapon. And in a country as badly governed as Nigeria, fractured along ethnoreligious fault lines, and where prebendal politics and a rentier economy nourishes endemic corruption, the central government can quickly degenerate into an agency to collect rent and distribute favours, cultivate nepotism, supress opponents and enemies, or defend friends and ethnoreligious interests, as Nigeria’s history has amply demonstrated.
This is one major reason why this unwritten arrangement of never allowing the president and his vice to have the same religion came into being. It is to reduce religious tensions arising out of the mutual suspicion that the two major religions have nursed against each other since northern Muslim delegates walked out of the 1978 Constituent Assembly over the issue of writing Sharia law into the constitution.
A presidency headed by two Muslims as both president and vice president not only violates the unwritten political arrangement that has held Nigeria together but is seen by many Christians as the last hurdle in effectively Islamizing Nigeria.
Onyemaechi F.E. Ogbunwezeh, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at Christian Solidarity International (CSI)