2023: Being a Muslim or Christian doesn’t add to a politician’s competence

Tunji Olaopa

By Tunji Olaopa

I grew up within a cultural context that grounded Ali Mazrui’s triple heritage thesis: that Africa has arrived at a stage where three fundamental cultural influences—Euro-Christian, Islamic and traditional African are locked in mutual relations.

This context permitted the mutually beneficial and respectful relationship my great grandfather who was a Christian and my great grandmother, a Muslim had. It was a mutually reinforcing reciprocity that saw both husband and wife assisting each other’s belief system, and combining the core moral insights of their religions to the moral upbringing of their children.

For those familiar with my commentaries, it should be obvious that I significantly embody the ecumenical spirit that my grandparents and parents demonstrated in relating with one another and within their cultural contexts.

What I just related is an example from a small corner of the larger Nigerian society, which is replicated in some other village or town contexts all across.

The Nigerian polity displays something different, as the current agitation and outcry over the religious affiliations of presidential and gubernatorial aspirants demonstrate. This agitation for religious representation is not a new one.

It has been a formidable part of Nigeria’s political development, from Awolowo down to MKO Abiola’s June 12 political saga.

In other words, Nigeria’s political class has always been entrapped within a mindset that facilely insist that religious affiliations matter in the determination of the success or failure of any political positions.

This matter of religious identity of political aspirants is receiving renewed and more frightening dimension against the background of national fear, especially about an alleged fulanization or jihadist agenda that might have been playing out in Nigeria in the past seven years or so.

This fear is given some backing by ostensible permissiveness with which the Federal Government has been handling the rampaging criminalities of the Boko Haram insurgents, herdsmen-farmers carnage, as well as the sundry banditry and kidnapping that have made Nigeria a most insecure place to live.

As 2023 approaches, the political space is already on fire over the religious affiliations of the three presidential candidates and their nominated vice-presidential running mates. For the APC, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu has chosen Senator Kashim Shettima, a fellow Muslim. In the PDP, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, a Muslim, chose Ifeanyi Okowa, a Christian from Delta State. Peter Obi, on his own, picked a northern Muslim as his running mate.

This leaves Tinubu with the most troubling Muslim-Muslim ticket. For those who are concerned, especially the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and others, a Muslim-Muslim ticket is a slap on the face of Nigeria’s religious dynamics.

This dynamics is represented across the entire six geo-political zones of Nigeria, from the southeast with an all Christian tickets in all the states, to the north-west with an all Muslim tickets, and all the other zones with a mixed configuration.

The fundamental question is how religion became such a substantive issue that determines electoral success. This question is all the more so within the vaunted secularity of the Nigerian state.

The secular creed not only separates between state and religion, but also denotes religious beliefs and faith as personal and private. The implication of this is that religious belief must not be taken as having any critical role to play in the public sphere where people’s credentials transcend their faith.

My credentials as of, say, a neurosurgeon, should absolutely have nothing to do with my faith. Being a Muslim or Christian does not add to the competence I possess in dealing with the human brain. But of course, we know that Nigeria is not really a secular state. Like ethnicity, successive governments have discovered religion as a divisive mobilizing weapon.

Once the Federal Government began to subsidise pilgrimages for both Christians and Muslims, religion had escaped the private space into the public for Nigerian politicians, fueled by those who take religion ever so seriously.

The significance placed on religion flies in the face of the most fundamental issue in party
politics—electoral victory.

Politicians enter into electoral competitiveness to win elections and gain political power. And in doing that, their most significant calculation has to do with what possible political iterations could get them the positions they covet. Religion is just another variable in the mix which do not always count.

Thus, if Shettima, for instance, were to be a strong Christian who can deliver the north, Tinubu would still have made that choice. The main issue is the figure of Shettima and his capacity to deliver large number of votes for Tinubu and the APC.

The Muslim-Muslim ticket chosen by Tinubu, or the “balanced” ticket of the other two aspirants, are pure political expediency. Politicians want to win elections at all costs. And Tinubu is no less of a politician in this regard; he is in the race to win.

With 2023 looming, and with all the outcries, we really have an opportunity to get our electoral sensibility and the future of Nigeria right. And that means deep reflections on several issues, beginning from the constitutional provision for active secularity in the Nigerian constitution.

Similar to so many of its provision, the Constitution is contradictory on the issue of religion in public life. While Section 10 states categorically that “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion,” there are also several provision, under the “Fundamental Directives,” that directs the government to facilitating the enjoyment of religious benefits.

Thus, the Nigerian state is not adequately secular in maintaining a strict distance between religion and the state. Of course, secularism itself is under siege even in societies that have secular credentials. That is not to say Nigeria cannot determine her own secular construct in ways that respect her realities.

The second issue is a serious national reorientation on the idea of religion as the care of the soul, rather than as a political positioning. And this requires the attention of the clerics from the major religions. It should be noted that CAN is not innocent in the accentuation of religion into a national issue in the Nigerian polity, and that is most unfortunate. Christians and Muslims alike will benefit if the country is under the leadership of those who are sufficiently competent to govern.

The religious identity of these people does not in any way matter. We all need to care more about genuine credentials that guarantee governance potentials, rather than heating up the polity over whether a politician is a Christian or a Muslim. It should bear noting that the African traditionalists amongst us have not joined the fray in demanding the representation of their religious identity.

Maybe that has a lot to do with the inherent expansiveness of African traditional religions. Turning religion into political positioning abandons its significant essence as a private enterprise. Much more than this, it injects it into a situation where it does not serve any governance purpose. Is there a calculus to determine whether a Christian will govern better than a Muslim?

It is in this light that we should see the choices of the aspirants. Indeed, from some perspective, there is a sense in applauding the courage of Tinubu in damning the possible consequences of a Muslim-Muslim ticket in the pursuit of the political calculation that will get him victory in the coming elections. If he wins, perhaps Nigerians would be convinced that it was time to lay to rest the spurious place that we have given to religion and religious affiliation in our national life.

Afterall, we have a precedent in the bold calculation of MKO Abiola and the choice of Alhaji Babagana Kingibe that gave us the June 12 victory like no other in Nigeria’s political development.

It would seem that we did not learn the lesson then, that political leadership should be about who can improve our wellbeing, rather than their religious beliefs.

And this brings me to the third issue that calls for deep concern as we approach the 2023 elections.
This is the rethinking of the role of ideology and issue-based campaigning in party politics. As the campaign season picks up, the focus unfortunately has remained on the religious identity of the aspirants and their running mates. There is also a lot of focus on mobilizing Nigerians to get their permanent voters’ cards.

But then, what do the PVCs achieve if we are all clueless about what the aspirants are bringing to the table? What makes them electable if not their programmes, founded on specific ideological and practical frameworks and dynamics? This ought to be the seasons for debates and discourses around specific issues on how to fix Nigeria, and programmes that should make life qualitative for Nigerians. How will the aspirants deal decisively with insecurity in Nigeria? What about micro- and macro-economic policy concerns? The naira is in freefall already!

What about education, and especially the fate of higher education as the source of qualitative
human capital development? What ideological orientation will enable the aspirants attend to public service reform?

These are the real issues around which we need to put the aspirants’ toes over the fire. If we fail to grill them on significant issues and their blueprints for making life better for us, our prayers will then not be enough when they fail. Even God will think us shockingly silly.

*Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos. tolaopa2003@gmail.com