By Emmanuel Mogbede, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
As parties gear up toward full-blown campaigns, ahead of the 2023 general polls, many observers of development in the nation’s political scene are keen to see the shape the electioneering campaign will take.
In previous general elections, religion and ethnicity always featured prominently during campaigns. Given Nigeria’s multi-ethnic makeup and a population fairly divided between Christianity and Islam, this is not a surprise.
Nigeria’s politics followed this pattern from Independence, with parties that were mostly ethnic/regional in nature including during the Second Republic when the then Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria was largely seen as a northern-Hausa/Fulani party.
In the same vein, the Unity Party of Nigeria led by late Obafemi Awolowo was perceived by many people as a Yoruba party, while the Nigeria Peoples Party of late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was seen as a Southeast/Igbo party.
However, the story dramatically changed in 1993 with the emergency of MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party after a two-party presidential election involving the former and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Party.
Abiola’s victory at the polls demystified politics of ethnicity and religion as he won in spite of picking Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, another Muslim as his running-mate. He polled enough votes from across the states in the country irrespective of their religious backgrounds.
Under the present dispensation, after a keenly contested primary, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu picked the presidential ticket of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar was elected by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Mr. Peter Obi emerged as the Labour Party’s presidential flag bearer.
In a radical shift from the norm of choosing a running mate from another ethnic group and religion, Tinubu elected to pick his running mate, Sen. Kashim Shettima, a fellow Muslim and former governor of Borno in a move that replicates Abiola-Kingibe pairing.
However, the present political campaign has generated so much heat in the system. Many observers have questioned the political parties’ presidential candidates and their running mates based on religious and religious considerations.
However, others say the utmost concern for Nigerians should be to elect a president that would guarantee the growth and development of the country irrespective of his ethnic or religious leaning.
One of the most vocal critics of the pairings is the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) which has expressed discomfort with the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC.
To the APC Northern Christian leaders, the party`s Muslim-Muslim ticket is divisive and insensitive because it doesn’t project the interest of all religions in the country.
“The adoption of a Muslim–Muslim ticket by our party, the APC, in defiance of protestations by well-meaning key national stakeholders, including prominent Islamic and Christians leaders, is divisive, unjust and insensitive,’’ the leaders of a northern Christian block in APC said.
According to them, the decision can divide Nigeria along religious lines and generate a ‘toxic media debate’.
The group led by former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Babachir Lawal, expressed its feeling at APC Northern Christians Political Summit with the theme, `Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people’.
Also, another block that describes itself as stakeholders from the North Central also kicked against the Muslim-Muslim ticket.
During a protest against the pairing in Abuja, the leader of the group, Mr Dauda Yakubu declared that “We are worried that the various indices at play with our great party do not suggest that the Christians from Northern Nigeria are considered in the party’s scheme of affairs.
But APC has moved to douse the tension. Dr Salihu Lukman, APC National Vice-Chairman, North-West, after a recent consultative closed-door meeting of the party`s North-West stakeholders, said that the party did not intend to exclude any ethnic group or religious block from its political permutations.
“They are about the Nigerian project, they are not fake projects and that is the emphasis and I think as a nation, we need to look much more positive,” he said.
Similarly, Mr Adams Oshiomhole, a former national chairman of the APC, while speaking on the development, said the challenge of building a greater Nigeria is beyond tribe and religion.
“I think the issues before us which we have to spend time discussing is what will any of the presidential candidates do differently to expect a different outcome, not what will a Christian or Muslim do,’’ Oshiomhole said.
He said that Nigerians should prioritise competence over tribe and religion in their choice of leaders.
“All my life, my decisions regarding the team around and supporting me have always been guided by the principles of competence, innovation, compassion, integrity, fairness, and adherence to excellence,” he said.
The Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) solicits that ahead of commencement of campaigns, politicians should prepare issue-based campaign topics rather than seeking to project themselves as champions of a particular religion or representatives of any ethnic group.
The group in a communiqué issued at the end of its two-day retreat urged northern votes to resist the temptation of voting for a candidate based on region, tribe or religious basis and instead, choose to install a credible leadership.
A similar position was canvassed by a religious sect leader and founder, One Love Family, Satguru Maharaj Ji.
“What we should concern ourselves with is the ability to perform. Muslim-Muslim ticket is okay, as long as they will be able to score the desired goal,” Maharaj Ji said during a recent interaction with the media.
Political scholars point out that Nigeria is not the only multi-party-multi-religion-multi-ethnicity democracy in the world, citing the case of India and Malaysia as examples.
In a study on Malaysia’s Political Polarization: Race, Religion, and Reform US-based Carnegie Centre, Bridget Welsh says Polarization over race, religion, and reform has afflicted Malaysia for decades and powerfully shaped its electoral politics.
Similarly, in an investigation into ‘the politicization of ethnicity in post-independent India’, Samrudh Kopparam posited that: “ the land of diversity inhabits more than a thousand ethnic groups spread across the country. While encouraging and upholding the tenets of diversity and secularism, it is posed with multiple challenges, one such being the ‘politicization of ethnicity.”
In spite of their differences, these countries have massive progress in human, economic and infrastructure development.
Many Nigerians are of the view that if these countries could excel in the face of these differences, Nigeria can do the same if we elect leaders based on competence rather than on ethnicity and religion.