Religion raises political stakes, risks dividing Nigerians
As President Muhammadu Buhari was delivering a lecture on peace and security in Liberia on Tuesday, unity schools in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, had been shut over fears of terrorists’ attacks, even as religion looks set to drive a wedge between Nigerians ahead of the 2023 elections.
Unveiling his running mate, Kashim Shettima, in Abuja last week, Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressive Congress (APC), said he only considered principles that determine victory in politics in choosing Shettima.
Keen to douse the mounting uneasiness in his party and among a large section of Nigerians over the choice of a fellow Muslim as his running mate, Tinubu said his decisions regarding the team around him and those he works with “are guided by principles of competence, innovation, compassion, integrity, fairness and adherence to excellence”.
In politics, he said, those principles are sacrosanct. “They are not negotiable. Without them, there can be no victory or joy. This is where politics must end and leadership must begin.”
True leadership, according to the APC candidate, is not grounded in religious pandering, populism or sentiment. “To forge ahead as a nation toward development and prosperity, we must, instead, break the shackles of old thinking,” Tinubu added.
Tinubu and his party’s efforts to situate his choice of running mate outside the context of religion is a sharp reminder of the severe Christian-Muslim divide in Africa’s most populous country.
Nigeria has never conducted a religious census, but the politically motivated, conventional wisdom, John Campbell, a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, said in a February 2021 Council on Foreign Relations blog post, “is that Christians and Muslims are each about half of the population, and that, therefore, neither of the world faiths is a minority”.
With no credible data on the population of the two major religions in the country or on the population of the country itself, it is believed that Nigeria’s population is some 200 million.
Religion has always been important in Nigeria and in Nigerian politics. The basic structure of the country since colonial times has been shaped by a division into a northern region, which is heavily influenced by Islam, and a southern region, where Christianity is more influential.
Since Independence, this division has become somewhat more important. Both Christianity and Islam have gained adherents in Nigeria during the last half-century.
Traditional religious beliefs and practice preceding the advent of Islam and Christianity are ubiquitous, though “often beneath a veneer provided by the two world faiths”, Campbell said. “In part because religion is so central, disputes over water and land or ethnic rivalries often assume a religious coloration. The power of religious leaders over their flocks is particularly salient during periods—such as now—when popular distrust of the Nigerian government is endemic and national identity is weak,” he added.
A 2006 Pew research data highlighted the importance of that divide in the fact that religion, not nationality, is the way in which most Nigerians choose to identify themselves.
In the survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 76 percent of Christians said that religion was more important to them than their identity as Africans, Nigerians or members of an ethnic group. Among Muslims, the number naming religion as the most important factor was even higher at 91 percent.
“Religion,” said Kwopnan Bulus, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Jos (UNIJOS), “has always played a role in politics and different religious groups have always used it for political ends.”
In all societies, religion has an influence on politics, Warisu Alli, a retired professor of Politics and International Relations, said. The problem, according to him, is that “in Nigeria, it has grown progressively to have a major impact on politics because most of the politicians are not particularly productive in delivering public goods and so they hold on to religion to control people”.
He said religion had become even more loud and unhealthy in Nigerian politics as a result of the manner President Buhari had run the affairs of the country.
Alli said: “Religion has become very more pronounced and made worse by his divisive politics; his lack of thoughtfulness to religious and ethnic sensitivities in appointments and projects.
Within the context of 2023, It becomes understandable why people have become so worked up over what they shouldn’t be worked up over.
“This is the result of the lack of sensitivity of President Buhari who has not been as committed to religious balancing in appointments to critical offices of the state and in projects. It is not just in religious balancing, he has shown no fidelity to ethnic harmonisation either. It has ruined the feelings of a lot of people and sadly, made this political season very pregnant with religious distrust.”
The Christian Association of Nigeria had in September 2018 criticised what it termed “the dangerous and religious discrimination and partiality that have characterised the President Buhari-led administration”.
“We believe the marginalisation of the Christians is deliberate to heighten the tension in the land for whatever reasons. CAN notes with disappointments, shocks and surprises that despite our appeal to President Buhari to break the domination of the country’ security council by people of the same religion and language in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic groups that make up Nigeria, he still derives pleasure in turning a deaf ear to the voice of wisdom and reason as manifested in the three appointments,” it said.
In 2021, Abubakar Umar, a retired army colonel and former military governor of Kaduna State, warned that Nigeria had already become “dangerously polarised” under Buhari, and risked sliding into crisis if the president continued to “give undue preference to some sections of the country over others” in national appointments.
While religion has been a source of conflict in different parts of the world, Bulus said there is a need to rethink the role of religion in Nigerian politics. “In the run up to the 2015 election, the then APC candidate, Mr Buhari, appealed to the religious sensibilities of the Muslims and we could see this in the anti-Jonathan rhetoric of the time coming out of Mosques and driven by Islamic clerics.
In the same way, many Christian leaders also labelled Buhari as a Muslim extremist and ethno-religious bigot.”
Noting the role of religion in political mobilisation in the country, Olorunsuwa Ola, a Political Science lecturer at UNIJOS, said: “There is usually a mutual distrust among the various compositions of Nigerian federalism and this is not a recent thing. It has been there since the beginning of the country. Religion has indeed been a potent tool for political mobilisation in this country.
“We should not forget how the then President of CAN, Pastor Oritsejafor openly supported Mr Jonathan and how the then President went around major churches to be openly prayed for. Imams and Muslim clerics also did same for Buhari.”
The contest for political, economic and social power in Nigeria is largely driven by religion in Northern Nigeria, while ethnicity fundamentally remains the basis for power contestation in the South.
Northern Nigeria, as noted by Bishop Matthew Kukah in his book, ‘Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria’, has been the focal point for Nigerian politics, whether defined in terms of North/South political intrigues, or on the basis of Islam and Christianity.
“The Christian response to Islam in Northern Nigeria has been shaped by both the geographical and religious realities of the region. The Middle Belt, with its clusters of Christians and traditional religious worshippers, remains central to the geopolitical calculations of the ruling classes in the North and the South, each laying claims on a different basis: The North on the basis of geographical contiguity, the South on the basis of religious brotherhood,” he said.
According to Bulus, in 1993, religion was not so pronounced in the country. “We were just coming out from a military regime and intent on ending military rule. In 1993, ethnicity was the major issue. So, picking a Muslim-Muslim ticket is an insult to the sensibilities and sensitivities of Nigeria. They haven’t taken into cognisance the realities of Nigeria’s politics.”
Ola said the agitation against the APC ticket by many Christians had nothing to do with the distrust of the Islamic faith. “The Christian bodies and leadership believe that if a Muslim-Muslim ticket is successful, the continued survival of Christianity in Nigeria would be a little bit difficult, especially when recent attacks on Churches and clergymen are constant in places like Kaduna. See what happened recently in Owo.”
Alli lamented that government officials had stolen billions and nothing happened.
“We do not go on strike over failures and corruption. Look at what has happened in Sri Lanka where citizens engaged in civil protest and ousted their government over the failure to provide public goods. We the people should be able to ask critical questions of our political leaders rather than: are they Muslims or Christians?” he said.