A brazen decision by the ruling party, APC, to present a same-faith ticket for the 2023 presidential election seems to grate a befuddled nation, putting the fate of its candidates, some think, in a bit of a jeopardy.
By Chudi Okoye
“Oh God,” wrote St. Augustine in his famous book, Confessions, “make me chaste and celibate – but not yet!”
The Algerian Berber, who became Bishop of Hippo and one of the foundational Christian theologians known as the ‘Church Fathers’, was recalling the wayward ways of his youth and the supplication he had made to God as he struggled with Christian conversion and asceticism. Young Augustine asked God to cleanse and make him holy, but he didn’t want the Almighty to be too much in a hurry doing so!
It is a prayer that speaks to the frailty of human nature; a prayer pleading for a gradual, managed passage into a higher state of being.
We may well be doing same here upon this ‘blasted heath’ called Nigeria. We may be supplicating the gods to aid our passage from the purgatory of identity politics, marked by ethnic and religious preoccupations, into a paradise of post-primordial politics where none of that matters: we may be asking the gods to do all that for us but, a la Augustine, not just yet. Nigeria is a vast and varied country with immense problems and intense ethno-religious sensibilities which must not be assumed or wished away. We have much elemental impurities yet to purge from our body politic, too many atavistic injustices to redress in our nation-building effort, before we can hope to leap into the lofty realms of post-primordial politics.
But it seems some among us now wish to wave away or ignore these fundamental impulses of Nigerian politics. We can see this attitude in the unfolding drama of the 2023 presidential election.
A weird thing is happening on the road to 2023. Here we are, in the grip of great geopolitical tensions in our country arising, in part, from the perceivable surge of Fulani adventurism under President Muhammadu Buhari. There are religious and ethnic flashpoints everywhere, pushing the country to a precipice: an absolute reign of terror especially in parts of the North ravaged by Boko Haram/ISWAP Islamic insurgency, bandit lawlessness and armed herdsmen terrorism; separatist agitations convulsing the South East and also, to a lesser extent, the South West; and a cauldron of restiveness in the South South related to demands for resource control. Nigeria is boiling. Yet the president, who should be our commander-in-grief, has remained unbelievably insouciant.
Bizarrely too, amid all the turmoil, the three political parties leading the 2023 presidential field have made tactical campaign choices which seem to disregard the current upheavals and indeed the fundamental reality of the Nigerian polity. One party thought it wise to offer Nigeria a Muslim-Muslim ticket; another cynically dispensed with its own geopolitical zoning formula; and a third sanctimoniously disavows any support based on primordial sentiment. It is as if this triad of leading parties is deigning to disregard the ineluctable fundamentals of Nigerian politics.
I will be probing these parties’ behaviors in a three-part essay, starting with this first installment on the ruling party.
Perhaps the most bizarre of these triad departures is seen in the choice of running mate for Mr. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC). After a protracted search for a ticket mate, Tinubu finally announced his choice on Sunday, June 10. He had settled on Mr. Kashim Shettima, a former two-term governor of Borno State and first-term senator.
The selection of Shettima does make sense on some level. On a personal front, he is well-educated and has had a fast-paced career that traverses academia, banking and politics. He also seems in some ways to be a politically astute choice. In choosing him, Tinubu might be seeking to replicate one of the more successful geopolitical parings so far in Nigeria’s democratic history: the South West/North East axis. Such paring had produced electoral victory for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993, with the Moshood Abiola/Baba Gana Kingibe ticket, though the election was later annulled by the military. The South West/North East paring also produced victory for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999 and 2003, with the ticket of Olusegun Obasanjo/Atiku Abubakar in both elections.
Tinubu may be looking to leverage this tested formula against the innovative North East/South South axis being fielded by PDP, with its Atiku Abubakar/Ifeanyi Okowa ticket. The APC flag-bearer probably considers that Shettima, as a stalwart of North East politics, might offer a bulwark against the outward surge of PDP’s flag-bearer who also hails from the same zone.
Although Tinubu is borrowing from a tested historical playbook, he is bucking history in some ways by presenting Nigerians with an audacious Muslim-Muslim ticket. The constitution of the Nigerian government, for the most part, has been such as to reflect the country’s ethnic and religious diversity, with the goal of making all sections of the country feel included in the task of nation-building.
The integrationist philosophy of the Nigerian government had its first flowering in the First Republic alliance of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) which produced northern Moslem Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister and southern Christian Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as President.
The integrationist ethos was maintained even in military dispensations wherein, when necessary, ranks and institutional hierarchy were overridden to ensure ethno-religious balance at the apex of power. Thus, as Head of the Military Government, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, a northern Christian, had southern Christians Chief Obafemi Awolowo as Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council during the Civil War, and later Rear-Admiral Joseph Wey as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. Gen. Murtala Mohammed, a northern Moslem, had Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, southern Christian, as Chief of Staff. Obasanjo in turn had northern Moslem Maj. Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua as Chief of Staff. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, a northern Moslem, had, at various times in his Armed Forces Ruling Council, southern Christians Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe as Chief of General Staff and Rear-Admiral Augustus Aikhomu as Vice-President. Gen. Sani Abacha, a northern Moslem, had Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, a southern Christian, as Chief of General Staff. And finally, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, a northern Moslem, had southern Christian Vice Admiral Michael Akhigbe as his Vice-President. The ethno-religious balance was thus scrupulously maintained by the military. The only aberration, incidentally, was the regime of Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Moslem, which had Maj. Gen Tunde Idiagbon, also a northern Moslem, as Chief of Staff.
The same integrationist ethos would carry over into the era of civilian presidential politics, reflected by most political parties in the nomination of the flag-bearers and running mates. This was the norm in the nine presidential elections held between 1979 and 2019.
There certainly were some exceptions to this norm: In 1979, the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) fielded a Christian/Christian ticket paring Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Prof Ishaya Audu. Allowing an anachronism, the two were from what we now know as the South East and North West respectively, so there was geopolitical balancing. A more audacious ticket was presented in that same election by the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) which had Chief Obafemi Awolowo from the South West and Chief Philip Umeadi from the South East, both Christians! (It’s been revealed that UPN was forced to adopt a southern ticket after Awo’s search for a northern running-mate proved abortive.) But here’s the rub: none of those deviant tickets won the election, despite the surpassing political stature of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo. Zik’s NPP carried only three of the then 19 states, scoring 16.8% of the votes. Awo’s UPN did much better but still fell short, winning five states and a 29.2% share of the votes. Both parties were beaten by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) which fielded the relatively unknown Shehu Shagari and Alex Ekwueme as flag-bearer and running mate respectively, on a Muslim-Christian, North West/South East ticket. NPN beat out all the five parties that contested in the 1979 election, winning nine of the 19 states, with 33.8% share of the votes.
Since that 1979 election, all successful presidential tickets have reflected the same principle of geopolitical and religious diversity, making it almost a tactical imperative for any national party, especially at this stage of our democratic development. Of course there was the historical aberration of 1993 when SDP fielded Chief Moshood Abiola and Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe, both of whom were Moslems. SDP won the 1993 presidential election resoundingly with that Muslim-Muslim ticket, carrying 19 of the 30 states plus Abuja, and a vote haul of 58.4%. More remarkable is the fact that SDP, with its innovative ticket, defeated the National Republican Convention (NRC) which had Bashir Tofa and Sylvester Ugoh as flag-bearer and running mate, one a Moslem from the North West and the other a Christian from the South East – the very same formula that had brought victory to NPN in the elections of 1979 and 1983.
Bola Tinubu probably sees himself in the mould of Awo as a stalwart of South West politics. But he’s also modeling his campaign on the SDP’s winning South West/North East, Muslim-Muslim template. He said as much whilst announcing Shettima as his running mate. “In 1993,” Tinubu argued, “Nigerians embrace[d] Chief M. K. O. Abiola and a fellow Muslim running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe in one of our fairest elections ever held.” Continuing, Tinubu declared that “[t]he spirit of 1993 is upon us again in 2023.”
It is doubtless an inspiring, if opportunistic, statement. Except that Bola Tinubu is not ‘MKO’ Abiola. Nor is Shettima Kingibe. Moreover, the circumstances are totally different.
Long before he ran for presidency in the abortive Third Republic, Chief Abiola had spent much time building relationships and goodwill across Nigeria. He extended his philanthropy to all corners of the country, as a result of which he received prodigious recognition, including a vast number of chieftaincy titles awarded to him from all corners of the country. He even took wives in several nooks of the nation. ‘MKO’ Abiola was gregarious; he was generous; and he had a surpassing national profile.
Bola Tinubu lacks almost all of the above attributes. He has an unprepossessing image totally contrasted to Abiola’s personal appeal and instant likeability. Granted, Tinubu is a canny political tactician probably in the same league as the redoubtable Awo, and he likely has sharper political instincts than MKO. Still, he lacks Abiola’s charm and magnetic personality which might have helped to erode resistance to the latter’s Muslim-Muslim ticket.
The issue isn’t only how Tinubu compares to Abiola. The contrasting profiles of their ticket mates may also be significant. Abiola’s running mate, Kingibe, was an urbane diplomat and a federal bureaucrat who had a cosmopolitan outlook and a public record shorn of any parochial blemish. Tinubu’s Shettima certainly has his appeal. As a governor, for instance, he notched up several awards from a fawning Lagos-Ibadan press axis, including ‘governor of the year’ awards given to him by the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Vanguard, Tell, NewsWatch, and a few other outlets. So he has a level of media exposure.
But the vice-presidential candidate comes with a certain corrosive baggage. Soon after he was announced as Bola Tinubu’s running mate, social media lit up with excavations of unsavory statements that he had previously made. One was a bizarre and rather disparaging statement he made in a chat with a South-western political buddy with regard to Igbos of the South East. Several other uncovered statements had him looking like he was supportive of, or sympathetic to, the Boko Haram insurgents. I won’t dwell too much on this point. Suffice it to say that the question of Shettima’s link to Boko Haram is still being litigated. There is also a yet to be controverted reporting that he had previously, for whatever reason, solicited amnesty for the terrorist group.
In sum, although indeed a Muslim-Muslim ticket once succeeded in Nigeria, there’s no guarantee that it will succeed this time around, especially with the apparent personal baggage of the APC ticket mates.
It’s not just the personal profile or image of APC’s standard bearers that is crucial. The historical ambience is also important. The Abiola/Kingibe Muslim-Muslim ticket had been floated in a highly regimented (though often chaotic) transition program which occurred in a political environment that was less fraught, from an ethnic and religious perspective, than what currently obtains. The polity was far less fractured. The Tinubu/Shettima Muslim-Muslim ticket, by contrast, is being floated amid rising religious tensions, with rampant persecutions of Christians in the Islamic ramparts of the country.
It cannot be gainsaid that a Muslim-Muslim ticket is an unwise and risky proposition at this precise conjuncture in Nigeria, certain to inflame the rude sectarian conflicts already destabilizing the country. Such a ticket, were it to prevail in the election, will certainly encourage further attacks on Christians, as it will convey an unmistakable signal of Islamic supremacy which will in turn further erode Christian confidence in, and fealty to, the Nigerian state. The security implications of a Muslim-Muslim ticket cannot be ignored.
Indeed, there was a July 15 report in the online media outlet, Peoples Gazette, which indicated that the Nigerian security service, the Department of State Service (DSS), had reached a similar conclusion and had conveyed its concerns to President Buhari through the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno. As might be expected, the presidency promptly came out to deny the said report, claiming that Buhari was not involved in the process that led to the announcement of Kashim Shettima as Tinubu’s running mate.
The denial makes no sense. Even the most cursory political analysis will point up the security challenges portended by a Muslim-Muslim ticket at this time. Were Buhari not implicated in an Islamic agenda as some suspect, or at least were he not retarded and thus less indifferent as the chief security officer of Nigeria, he might have vetoed the choice, especially as Tinubu had traveled to Katsina to confer with the president before announcing his running mate. We may recall that similar security concerns had caused President Obasanjo to force the shuttering of Rivers State governor Peter Odili’s campaign for the 2007 presidential election. In that case, the concern related to potential violent reactions in the North if Odili, a Christian and southerner who was considered a strong contender, were to emerge as president after eight years of Obasanjo, another Christian and southerner. Where Obasanjo acted decisively, Buhari has been divisive or derisively disengaged.
It is a show of sheer chutzpah for APC to float a Muslim-Muslim ticket in the present circumstances in Nigeria. Since independence, a Moslem has been at the head of the Nigerian government 57% of the time, versus 43% Christian incumbency. Estimates of faith distribution in Nigeria suggest a range of 50% to 53% for Islam, and 46% to 48% for Christianity, with traditional religion picking up the rump, according to the CIA’s World Factbook and Pew Research. Evidently, a Muslim-Muslim ascendancy in 2023 will further exacerbate the religious imbalance in the power-population ratio. This is the reason there’s been so much protest over the choice, across the political spectrum and in civil society, with over 10,000 Christians from across the 19 northern states storming Abuja on Friday, July 15, to demand an intervention by the president.
There’s no indication however that Buhari will intervene. It is quite possible that Buhari does not see anything wrong with Bola Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket. After all, he himself imposed that arrangement in his first outing as head of state. But, as our historical survey above shows, a Muslim-Muslim ticket is against what we might call the ‘Iron Law of Nigerian History’. Incidentally, on two occasions when this ‘law’ was violated, the emerging administrations were aborted. These were: Buhari’s military regime of December 1983 to August 1985; and the Chief Moshood Abiola election in 1993 which was annulled.
Given the historical precedence, it makes one wonder why Bola Tinubu would make such a gamble, or run into such a stumble, in his first major decision as a potential president. It also raises a concern as to whether the election will in fact be free from manipulation, given the apparent unpopularity of the choice among sections of the electorate. This is a quite legitimate concern considering the antecedents of the ruling party which controls the electoral system. The issues surrounding the 2019 presidential election, which Buhari had won under a cloud of controversies, are still vivid in our political memory.
The country is indeed on a sticky wicket. Religion matters still, greatly in fact, in Nigerian politics. Perhaps someday we will transcend the religious impulses in our politics and a same-faith ticket will not matter so much. We can certainly ask the gods to impel our politics toward that end. But, as in St. Augustine’s prayer, the gods should take their time doing so, to avoid a convulsive shock to our system.
⁕ PS: In the second installment of this essay, I will look at how PDP’s management of its primary also, like APC’s, collided with the fundamental ideals of Nigerian politics.