People & Money

2023: The Danger of Ethno-Religious Opportunism

“Instead of making the primary election a fight of policy and ideology, the northern caucus made it about their turn, creating a situation where Jonathan’s eventual victory would be seen as a defeat of the North rather than a defeat of other contestants”.

One of the major problems Nigeria faces in nation-building is the issue of trust among its diverse people. Nigeria is linguistically one of the most diverse countries on earth, with more than 300 distinct languages and ethnic groups. Nigeria is also one of the few large countries on earth with its population split right down in middle by two religions. Available statistics point to the fact that Nigeria is virtually half Muslim, half Christian, with all the problems such delicate balancing requires. This is why for the last three decades there have been accusations and counteraccusation of Islamisation and Christianization in the country, along with perennial accusation of marginalization by virtually every single ethnic group in the country.

The electoral democracy we are practising has made the problem worse in some cases, as politicians and religious and ethnic champions take advantage. For the last seven years, President Muhammadu Buhari has been repeatedly accused of Islamising Nigeria even though nothing has fundamentally changed in the religious make-up of the country. As 2023 inches closer, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who is aspiring to the presidency, is now being accused of harbouring Christianisation agenda. While many might dismiss this cynical propaganda as just politics, there can be huge cost to pay for unbridled use of incendiary language during elections.

Take the 2011 elections, for example, the rhetoric leading to the presidential election was extremely toxic. It began with the in-fighting in the then-ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, over zoning of the presidency to the North. President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to run was represented by certain politicians and influential individuals as an attempt to deny the North its rightful turn at the presidency.

Instead of making the primary election a fight of policy and ideology, the northern caucus made it about their turn, creating a situation where Jonathan’s eventual victory would be seen as a defeat of the North rather than a defeat of other contestants. When Jonathan eventually won the primary, the political establishment in the north would go on to support another northern candidate in the general election.

For many in the region, the general election was not seen as a contest between just Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari, the North’s anointed candidate, but as one between the North and those trying to cheat the region. This victim mindset carefully cultivated by those who promoted the “it was the North’s turn” campaign would eventually contribute to turning the 2011 presidential election into a most violent election with some 800 people including nine youth corps members killed.

The Shaykh Ahmed Lemu-led committee which investigated the post-electoral violence reported that “the zoning controversy, which started basically as an internal political affair of the ruling party, ultimately changed the nature of the presidential election into an ethno-religious contest in the country particularly in the Northern states.”

Nigerian politicians and their intellectual enablers are masters of leveraging distrust and disaffection to their advantage. Whenever convenient, these people represent themselves as the representatives and advocates for their people in a bid to represent their ambition as the ambition of their people.

Also Read: Nigeria’s north needs jobs, not oil

In 2011, the presidential ambition of Atiku Abubakar, Muhammadu Buhari and co was not just their ambition but the ambition of the 100m people of the North. This is nonsense of course, but it is nonsense that has worked repeatedly, not only in the North but also in the South. This kind of cynical approach to politics has a huge cost for society and it is important politicians and citizens alike realise this.

Incendiary languages of marginalisation, Islamisation and Christianisation must be done away with. If a political office holder is appointing mostly people from religion, the immediate explanation should not be that the officeholder is trying to Islamise or Christianise the country. Nepotism could easily explain this action, and so could greed.  In fact, greed can explain most if not all unsuitable actions taken by political officeholders. There is little in the antecedents of our politicians to support the idea that these are people that are faithful or loyal to their religion or ethnic group. They do whatever helps their own personal cause. We need to stop seeing them as representatives of their ethnicity or religion.

There is a saying that goes: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In our case, never attribute to religion or ethnic supremacy what can be adequately explained by greed, stupidity and incompetence.  In addition, voters should focus on the proposed ideas of candidates rather focus on where they come from and what God they pray to. Many so-called men of God have held high positions in this country and their performance is not notably awe-inspiring. Let’s not listen to the propagandists who are out to convince us to make 2023 another North vs South or Islam vs Christianity election.

Sodiq Alabi

Sodiq Alabi is a communications practitioner and analyst who has experience in leading and supporting communication processes. He has expertise in organising media events, preparing reports, creating content, and managing websites and social media platforms.

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