By Simeon Kolawole
We really don’t know the depth of our political divisions and complications in Nigeria, do we? There are certain questions I have been asking along this line for decades and I would say nobody has answered me satisfactorily. We typically classify Nigeria as Muslim north and Christian south and I have often asked: does that mean we cannot elect a northern Christian as president? Can a southern Muslim with a northern Christian as running mate win the votes of the Muslim north? Can an Igbo Muslim be elected governor of any south-eastern state? If a Yoruba from Kwara state gets a federal appointment, will it be counted as Yoruba or northerner when Nigerians assess federal character?
The choice of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, a southern Muslim, as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is again challenging the established order where we think if a president must come from the north, it must be a Muslim and if from the south, it must be a Christian. That means northern Christians and southern Muslims can never be president or VP. Thus, there are heated debates on Tinubu’s running mate. Given our religious sensibilities, Tinubu was expected to nominate a northern Christian. Will the huge Muslim north vote for a ticket with a northern Christian as running mate? Tinubu obviously wants to win the election, not just to make a statement.
Tinubu’s strategists believe his best foot forward is picking a Muslim from the north. This dilemma highlights the problem with our assumptions that our political identities are fully settled. It is when something goes against the grain that we realise some questions are still hanging over the national equation. We used to think and talk about Nigeria as Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba. In fact, the colonial masters mapped Nigeria as north, east and west, with the regions dominated by the Big Three. We later realised these delineations were neither sufficient nor satisfactory. The minority agitations, in particular, proved that the configuration of Nigeria is more complex than understood.
Conversely, the candidacy of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) conforms to the mould, so there is no debate along ethnic or religious lines. Atiku is a northern Muslim and the running mate is a southern Christian. Period. That is the configuration we have come to know and that is what we are programmed to live with, at least for now. I said “for now” because human beings are dynamic and human societies are constantly evolving. Nigerian politics used to be marked by ethnic and regional identities. But we later added religious identity, or should I say ethno-religious identity. What next will enter the mix? Denominations? Sects? Height? Complexion? Weight?
Before the late 1980s, religion was not a defining factor in national politics. Alhaji Shehu Shagari, elected president in 1979, was a Fulani Muslim surrounded by Christians. His No 2, Dr Alex Ekwueme, was an Igbo Christian. The No 3 was Dr Joseph Wayas, a Christian from today’s Cross River state who was senate president. The No 4 was Chief Edwin Ume Ezeoke, a Christian from today’s Anambra state who was speaker. All the service chiefs were Christians: Lt Gen Alani Akinrinade (army chief, later defence chief); Lt Gen Sanda Jallo (army chief); Vice Admiral Akin Aduwo (naval chief); and AVM John Yisa-Doko (air chief). The inspector general of police was Mr Sunday Adewusi.
In fact, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in 1979, fielded a Christian-Christian, southerner-southerner ticket: Chief Philip Umeadi, from today’s Anambra state, was his running mate. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, candidate of the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP), also did a Christian-Christian ticket, pairing with Dr Ishaya Audu from Kaduna state. Although Shagari’s Muslim-Christian pairing won the election with 5.6 million votes, the Christian-Christian tickets of Awolowo and Azikiwe did not do badly, netting 4.9 million and 2.8 million respectively. Awo and Zik got a total of 7.7 million votes. That was the Nigeria I grew up in as a primary school kid.
Military governments were not sold to the religious thing either. When Gen Yakubu Gowon, a northern Christian, was head of state, Vice Admiral Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey, the chief of staff, supreme headquarters, was his second-in-command. The vice-chairman of the federal executive council was Awolowo, the minister of finance. Effectively, Gowon’s military and civilian deputies were both Christians. Religion was of no consequence. Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari and Brigadier (later Maj-Gen) Babatunde Idiagbon — both Fulanis, both Muslims, both northerners — were No 1 and No 2 in 1983-85 and I can’t remember any objections. That was what Nigeria used to be.
Something definitely went wrong thereafter as religious crises erupted under Gen Ibrahim Babangida. When Bashorun MKO Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim, wanted to pick his deputy for the June 12, 1993 presidential election, we had lost our innocence. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) warned him not to nominate a Muslim, otherwise Christians would not vote for him. They gave him a list of northern Christians to pick from: Dr Chris Abashiya, Dr Ishaya Audu, Mr Bala Takaya and Mr Paschal Bafyau. These were no political heavy hitters. Abiola achieved the north-south balance by picking Amb Babagana Kingibe, albeit a northern Muslim. They won nine of the 16 northern states.
Tinubu has found himself in that awkward position: having to go for religious balancing of the ticket and face possible snub from the Muslim north — or opt for a Muslim running mate and risk a backlash from the Christian community, north and south. Unlike Abiola, Tinubu has a richer list of northern Christians to choose from, such as Mr Simon Lalong, governor of Plateau state; Chief Audu Ogbeh, chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF); Rt Hon Yakubu Dogara, former speaker of the house of reps; and Mr Boss Mustapha, the secretary to the government of the federation. But he may consider it is a huge risk, given that he will be up against Atiku, a Fulani Muslim homeboy.
The cold calculations in Tinubu’s camp, I should guess, were in favour of a Muslim running mate. And I suppose that these might be their essential assumptions. One, a Muslim-Muslim ticket should not be a problem for the Muslim north where the bulk of the votes are. It should be a major counter-offer to an Atiku presidency since the president and vice-president would be Muslims. Two, it should also not be a problem for the south-west, apart from the cosmopolitan Lagos. Tinubu is the homeboy and religion is not yet a major political factor, although CAN and Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) are working overtime, along with fifth columnists, to poison Yorubaland with bitter bigotry.
Three, their calculation may be that those most likely to be vocally opposed to a Muslim-Muslim ticket are voters and commentators from the south-south, south-east and Christian north who do not vote for APC on a normal day. Even if Tinubu were a pastor, APC would still be a no-no for many voters in these constituencies. APC has been branded an Islamic party since it was founded in 2013 (Chief Olisah Metuh, then PDP spokesman, famously called it “Janjaweed Party” during 2015 electioneering). It still won the general election twice, so Tinubu’s strategists may consider the all-Muslim pairing a worthy risk, despite the heavy political and emotive capital it gives the opposition.
Meanwhile, I have heard people argue that there is no big deal with a Muslim-Muslim ticket as long as other top positions, such as senate president and speaker, are zoned in a way to compensate Christians. That way, No 1 and No 2 will be Muslims while No 3 and No 4 will be Christians. In practical terms, No 3 and No 4 are more powerful than No 2 in the presidential system — but there is a counter argument, often muted, that No 2 is just a heartbeat away from becoming No 1, and a Muslim-Muslim ticket means head or tail, Muslims will have it. References are made to how Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan benefited from President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s death in 2010.
My conclusion, though, is that there is no direction Tinubu faces that will not have electoral consequences. With a northern Christian, he may win somewhere and lose elsewhere. With a Muslim, he may win somewhere and lose elsewhere. Will he win more with a Christian candidate? Will he win more with a Muslim? As long as he has done his calculations and he is convinced with his workings, he can stick to his guns. But if he wins the election, he will need to assure Nigerians across all divides, not just in word but also in deed, that he will be president of all, no matter their religion and region. We really can do with some healing after an era of acrimony, mistrust and resentment.
I am an advocate of balancing, given our peculiar nationhood. I often argue that in a delicately poised multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like ours, we need to manage our diversity with sense. That is why I preach the principles of federal character. It is not the antidote to poverty and insecurity, but it has emotional benefits. You need peace before you can pursue meaningful progress. And that is why I think if either Tinubu or Atiku wins the election, or if Peter Obi does not win, there will be plenty work to do in reassuring all parts of Nigeria of fairness, especially the south-east where is a lingering feeling that there is a national conspiracy to keep them out of power.