Nigeria’s Christian leaders are calling for both full engagement in the country’s democratic process, and faith in the viability of the country’s future, ahead of elections scheduled for Feb. 25, after Islamic religious leaders have backed an all-Muslim presidential ticket on religious grounds.
The country’s upcoming election took on religious significance after the governing All Progressive Congress party decided to field an all-Muslim ticket for president and vice president, in a departure from the country’s customary electoral practice, which sees parties pairing a Muslim and a Christian.
The APC ticket has drawn support from prominent Islamic clerics in Nigeria, who have called on the country’s Muslims to vote along religious lines, fueling national tensions amid an ongoing series of mass attacks on Christian communities.
In January, clerics and representatives from over 75 Islamic groups from several Nigerian states and including both ethnically Yoruba and Igbo Muslims, held a special prayer conference in Kano, Northwest Nigeria, where they prayed for the success of Bola Tinubu's candidacy, and encouraged the country’s Muslims to see the election in religious terms.
The host of the Kano conference, state governor Abdullahi Ganduje, Governor of Kano State, recalled to the assembly the contentious 1993 election — the last time an all-Muslim party ticket ran for office but saw the election victory overturned by the courts — and said "History will not repeat itself and there will be no annulment this time around.”
Outlining the purpose of the Kano gathering, the conference’s convener, Nigerian Islamic preacher, Dr. Abdullmudalib Muhammad Auwal said that “The participants are Muslims and Islamic clerics. We gathered Muslims from all persuasions to enlighten them on ensuring that the Muslim-Muslim ticket succeeds."
According to Auwal, over 75 Islamic groups from across the country’s states and ethnic groups Muslims were invited to attend. “We told the Islamic clerics [and] participants that the issue [for the election] is not about building infrastructure for the nation, but the major issue is who will promote Islam.”
“We told the participants that a Muslim, wherever he is, is better than a Kafiri [unbeliever] or non-Muslim, and if you bring 2 Muslims together [on the ticket], they will give you the victory that one Muslim will not be able to give,” Auwal said. “This is the reason why we are enlightening people to understand that the main objective is that Muslim-Muslim ticket is a jihad to us.”
The ACP’s all-Muslim presidential ticket was announced in July last year, prompting several prominent members to resign in protest.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has 3 major religions, more than 400 languages and 250 ethnicities. Hundreds of Christians have been killed in the country in recent months in terror attacks that have also seen more than a dozen priests kidnapped or killed.
Nigerian society is divided between a predominantly Muslim northern region and predominantly Christian southern areas.
The country has customarily elected presidential tickets with one Muslim and one Christian candidate, usually representing both religious diversity and regional balance — a practice that many Nigerians believe has helped hold together a country with deep religious, regional, and economic rifts.
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At the time the ACP ticket was announced, the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference said that “ordinarily there would have been nothing wrong with a Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian ticket in a democratic dispensation if there is mutual trust and respect for the human person and where the overriding desire for seeking political office is the fostering of the common good.”
“But,” the bishops said, “one cannot really say so of our country at the moment.”
In the wake of Muslim leaders backing the ACP ticket on explicitly religious grounds, local Christian leaders told The Pillar that local Islamic leaders framing the presidential election as a “jihad” is “shocking” and “disheartening,” and could bring the country closer to political disintegration.
Henry Hoomlong Yunkwap, national chairman of the Catholic Laity Council of Nigeria (CLCN), told The Pillar that what unfolded at the recent kano prayer meeting “is an unfortunate development.”
Yunkwap, from the state of Plateau, said he was “truly saddened by the shocking revelation of the aims and objectives of that conference,” which, he said, amounted to an “endorsement of theocratic jihadism.”
“Regrettably, it seems these Islamic clerics are skilfully scheming to destroy our democratic system in favor of theocracy through their acclaimed ‘jihad’ of Muslim- Muslim ticket that must succeed at all cost,” he said.
“At a period like this, when Nigeria and Nigerians are in dire need of concerted prayers by religious leaders for harmonious coexistence, it is very disheartening to hear public leaders like the Kano state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, and Islamic clerics making such proclamations without concern for the negative repercussions on Nigeria and Nigerians,” the CLCN chairman said.
“The implications of such a chauvinistic move by Muslim clerics, for national integration in a multi-religious and secular state like Nigeria, is enormous,” Yunkwap said.
“Considering the paralyzing state of persistent security threats in this country,” he continued, “no one would expect religious leaders and groups who are supposed to be the epitome of peace and good neighborliness to make such a pronouncement. They have directly confirmed to the whole world that there has been a concealed plan to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state through political power along jihadist instincts.”
Yunkwap said that the mass endorsement of the ACP ticket for religious, not political reasons had opened “the eyes and ears of non-Muslims to the fact that the common slogan of playing politics devoid of religious and ethnic bias is merely lip service, and not from the hearts of these Islamic clerics as well as many of their followers.”
Christians and other Nigerian communities “should not allow this serious religious and political miscalculation to demoralize or affect their rate of active participation in the scheduled political process that would usher the next democratically elected leaders,” he said, but insisted that Christians needed to play a more self-conscious part in the political process.
“While some people are scheming to actualize their Muslim-Muslim ticket,” Yunkwap said, “nothing stops the other religious faith from strategizing to ensure the victory of their most credible candidates for presidential election — gone are the days when politics can be seen by Christians as a dirty game. Christians must actively participate in politics to sanitize the system in Nigeria.”
While Yunkwap admitted that there will likely be “attempts to intimidate and scare away” Christian s from the polls this week, he called on Christians not to “desert” the election stations “out of fear.”
Christians must “ensure that you cast your votes and defend your rights to their logical conclusion,” Yunkwap told The Pillar.
Mark Ifeanyi Ugwu, national president of the Catholic Youth Organization of Nigeria (CYON), the largest faith based youth organization in Africa, agreed with Yunkwap, telling The Pillar that the Kano conference had made it “obvious that the APC’s selection of a Muslim-Muslim ticket has a lot more to do with religious dominance than winning an election,” but that Christians needed to be doubly committed to the democratic process as a result.
And both Ugwu and Yunkwap agreed that calls for the country to break apart, into a secular Southern state for Christians and a confessional Muslim state in the North, would be bad for the whole country.
“I do not share those views,” Yunkwap said of calls for a secessionist policy. “Although religion is a very sensitive and complex issue in Nigeria, there were more serious conflicts in the past. Yet, Nigerians did not go their separate ways.”
Ugwu said the Kano conference’s calls for Muslims to back the APC ticket on religious grounds was an assault on the country’s constitutional integrity and that “any Christian has the right to see it as a deliberate attempt to further destroy Nigeria’s competency and credibility.”
But, he warned that while calls for the breakup of the country would only grow louder, such a course of action would only worsen the prospects for religious minorities in both regions: “What then is the fate of northern Christians or the southern Muslims?" he asked.
While Yunkwap conceded calls for secession are the result real grievances, and “glaring acts of injustice, unfairness, inequality, relegation and suppression of some sections of the country by others,” he insisted that reform of the government’s existing structures was “the best chance to sustain the future of Nigeria as a unified whole.”
“Indeed, restructuring would give every component part of this country the sense of belonging, dignity and brotherliness,” said Yunkwap.
Ugwu agreed, saying government reform was the only means to prevent further sectarianism, and that “the sooner Nigeria is restructured, the better if not, there will be more agitations.”
“The youth must look beyond senseless endorsements and understand that if this nation breaks down further, they are the ones who shall be the victims,” Ugwu said. “We ought to grow beyond any political party or individuals who are bent on destroying the needed unity in our country. Vote for competency and someone who will defend our values and beliefs.”
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While Christian lay leaders have warned of worsening sectarian tensions, and the danger to democracy posed by the Kano conference’s endorsement of the APC ticket as a matter of political “jihad,” the country’s bishops have also spoken out about the worsening situation.
In his Christmas message last year, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto questioned why the ruling president Muhammadu Buhari would allow his party to run a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket in the first place.
“Am I to believe that he knew and could do nothing about the Muslim-Muslim ticket within his Party?” the bishop asked rhetorically. “Still, we pray for a free, fair and credible election.”
Bishop David Ajang of Lafia, the liaison bishop in charge of communications at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) added to Kukah’s comments, saying that the APC ticket was more than just “a departure from what has become like a standard practice in Nigeria.”
“Considering the fact that the country is struggling with religious intolerance and the insinuation of Islamization, at this point in time, all efforts from all quarters should be geared towards building the unity of the country of which balanced representation is key,” Ajang said. “Unfortunately, the APC acted differently.”
“It would seem as if not very many Muslims are willing to accept the fact that Nigeria is a secular state,” Ajang said. “They see the idea as conflicting with their faith, which preaches that the non-Muslim be either converted or conquered. The move will further threaten the peace and stability of the country which is already greatly challenged.”
“Considering the Islamic principle of ‘convert or conquer,’” Ajang said that he sees the wider Muslim backing of the ACP ticket on religious grounds “as a subtle nod in the direction of theocratic jihadism.”
And, the bishop warned, “the deep-seated suspicions and distrust harbored against each other by adherents of the two major religions in Nigeria, will most certainly lead to a fracturing of the nation.” “At a time when smaller countries are forming alliances to boost their numbers, we should not allow Nigeria to disintegrate,” Ajang said.
The bishop said all Christians in the country should “vote according to their interests” and noted that the bishops’ conference had released a communique urging all Nigerians to vote for candidates of “credibility and integrity with a demonstrated capacity to pilot the affairs of the nation in a responsible and corruption-free manner.”
“I encourage all Christians to adhere to this and even if their preferred candidate does not win, they should accept whoever wins,” the bishop said.
“I also advise them to pray for Nigeria. The Catholic bishops released a powerful prayer for Nigeria to have free, fair and credible elections. I urge everyone to make time daily to say that prayer both as a group and as individuals until the elections are over.”
“Then,” the bishop said, “endeavor to vote.”