Nigeria’s ruling party announced Sunday that its ticket in the 2023 presidential election will not include a Christian, as presidential candidate Bola Tinubu selected Senator Kashim Shettima as his running mate in the 2023 general elections.
The announcement came less than a month after the Nigerian bishops’ conference warned that a ticket consisting only of Muslim candidates would further undermine national unity, amid years of bloody Christian persecution in the West African nation.
After the announcement Sunday, Christians expressed concern that ignoring the country’s custom of electing Muslims and Christians together could compound religious employment and property discrimination in the country.
Several high-profile members of the All Progressives Congress, Nigeria’s ruling party, having resigned their membership over the decision.
The June 10 announcement was made in Daura, the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is leader of the APC. Buhari is term-limited and can not seek a third term in office.
With Catholic and other Christian leaders pushing back on the prospect that both Nigeria’s president and vice-president will be Muslims, the announcement has amplified division among Nigerians along religious lines, in a country where the fault lines of ethnicity and religion have claimed lives and livelihoods.
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.
Government ministers are also usually appointed in Nigeria with an aim to achieve regional and religious balance.
Even during the periods in which the country was led by military dictatorships, Nigeria’s leadership cadre mostly maintained a religious balance, apart from a two-year period under Buhari’s military leadership in the early 1980s.
But Tinubu, who is Muslim and the presidential frontrunner for the 2023 election, said this week that he chose a fellow Muslim as his running mate because of his confidence in Shettima’s competence as a leader.
“If we truly understand the challenges upon us a nation, then we must also see the imperative of placing competence in governance above religious sentiment,” the candidate told reporters this week.
Tinubu recalled that a previous Nigerian presidential candidate, MKO Abiolo, also chose a fellow Muslim as his running mate in the country’s storied 1993 presidential election. While Abiolo was immensely popular among Nigerians and is believed to have won the national election, results were nullified soon after the vote, in the lead-up to a military coup in the country.
Promising a fair election and reform to the country’s corrupt government, Tinubu said that “the spirit of 1993 is upon us again.”
Whatever else motivated Tinubu’s choice, regionalism was likely a factor in the candidate’s choice of running mate. Tinubu is a Muslim from Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south — his running mate, Shettima, represents a predominantly Muslim northern region. But critics say that even if Tinubu was bent on choosing a northerner, he should have chosen a northern Nigerian Christian.
Since his announcement, Tinubu’s selection of a Muslim running mate is now facing pushback from religious leaders and some civic groups.
The Catholic bishops’s conference in Nigeria condemned the possibility of a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket even before it was announced.
“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 one cannot really say so of our country at the moment,” the secretariat of the Nigerian bishops’ conference said in a June 14 press release.
“With the present glaring crisis and division in the nation, a Muslim-Muslim ticket would be most insensitive and a tacit endorsement of the negative voices of many non-state actors who have been threatening this nation’s unity and peaceful coexistence without an arrest.”
“While all this is going on, we must not lose sight of the fact that the unity of this country has, over the years, been maintained by a delicate balancing of the religious and the regional,” the bishops’ conference secretariat added.
The statement noted that “it was only during the General Muhammadu Buhari era as military head of state [Dec 31, 1983 - Aug. 27, 1985] that we had a Muslim-Muslim military dictatorship.”
The bishops also lamented that it is "disheartening to observe that the conduct of most of our politicians seem to be going from bad to worse as we witnessed a show of shame and heightened ugly culture of money politics during the recently held primaries.
Since the announcement, Nigerian clerics have continued to raise alarm about the prospect that the country’s presidency and vice-presidency will be held by Muslim politicians.
Fr. Emmanuel Ojeifo is a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.
Ojeifo told The Pillar that,"after Buhari’s squandered opportunity to unite this nation in the last seven years, after his thoroughly lopsided political appointments in favor of his Northern Muslim base, after the atrocious decimation and systematic liquidation of Nigerian Christians in the last 7 years, APC’s tragic choice for the 2023 election is an insult to national cohesion.”
“To say that religious balance doesn’t matter is to say that Nigeria’s 100 million Christians do not matter, that we do not belong, that we mean nothing for national politics, that we are a useless lot,” the priest added.
But Ojeifo told The Pillar that Nigeria’s Christians should make their voices heard on the matter.
“This is a brazen and an insensitive decision. APC is clearly telling us that it doesn’t care two hoots and that Nigerian Christians can go to blazes! If Nigeria’s 100 million Christians fold their arms and allow this to pass, the joke will be on us for a thousand years to come.”
Alongside the bishops’ conference, the country’s umbrella network of Christian denominations warned in June against a Muslim-Muslim ticket, predicting that such a choice would be catastrophic.
“We call on all the presidential candidates to choose men or women of alternative religion as their running mates. For avoidance of doubt, the CAN will not accept any presidential ticket that is Christian-Christian or Muslim-Muslim,” the Christian Association of Nigeria said in a statement.
“This simply means that where the presidential candidate of the party is a Christian, the deputy should be a Muslim; and where the presidential candidate is a Muslim, the deputy should be a Christian,” the group explained.
Anglican leaders have also pushed back on the APC’s decision.
Anglican bishop Nneoyi Egbi of Calabar told reporters this week that the country’s Anglican leaders “absolutely do not, will not and cannot accept a Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian ticket. Nigeria’s secularity must be respected by our leaders, everybody must have a sense of belonging.”
“No one has more rights than others,” Egbe added.
Beyond religious leaders, politicians across Nigeria have made public resignations from the APC in the wake of the July 10 announcement. Several local APC leaders have said the decision will make it impossible to win local elections, and cause both political backlash and national division.
Christians concerned about the exclusive nomination of Muslims on the APC ticket say they are worried that a lack of religious balance would see elements of Sharia law - which already governs public policies in 12 Nigerian states - implemented more broadly across the country.
That, critics say, would deepen discrimination against Christians, both in employment and admission into federal and quasi-governmental institutions, and in the impartiality of local courts.
International religious freedom and aid groups in Nigeria have noted that violence against Christians is on the rise, and that Christians have lost billions in property damaged or seized in Islamist terror attacks in recent years.
Aid groups have especially lamented that, even when they can be identified, the leaders of terror attacks have gone mostly unprosecuted in Nigerian courts, with little intervention from the APC or local leaders in Nigeria’s north.
Nigeria is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a large international organization with 57 member nations.
In 1989, Muslim leaders from 18 African nations affiliated with the OIC met in Nigeria to issue “the Abuja Declaration,” which, according to the Christian Association of Nigeria, called for a greater role of Islamic law in federal policies, and for the support of Islamist politicians for federal offices.
For its part, Nigeria’s bishops’ conference secretariat urged in its June memo a commitment to religious pluralism in Nigerian public life.
The conference made three recommendations:
First, that “those political parties toying with divisive agenda to have a rethink by presenting a more inclusive ticket, while calling on all people of goodwill to resist this budding injustice that may be hatched against a cross section of the people.”
Second, “in pursuit of peace, it is imperative to remind everyone that all Nigerians, irrespective of creed or region, are equal; as such, there must be sensitivity in the spread of political positions without compromising competence.”
Third, “we call on all Nigerians, individually and collectively, to do everything in their power to seek and work for unity and justice, so that we may attain that peace we all desire.”
“There is no alternative to peace,” the bishops’ conference urged.