Religion has been a vital phenomenon in political discourse in Nigeria. Since the 1960s, opinions and participation of religious actors in the country’s political affairs have manifested a series of religio-political violent conflicts.
In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christain from southwest Nigeria was democratically elected as the president to end decades of military authoritarianism. A year after, Islamic fundamentalists enforced sharia law in the northern part of the country which led to a series of violent conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Kaduna killing more than 2000. To revenge for the killings of fellow Igbo Christians in the north, the Igbos violently attacked the Hausa-Fulanis Muslims residing in the southeast region.
In 2001, a Muslim politician was elected as a local coordinator of the federal poverty alleviation programme in a predominantly divided Christians and Muslims area in Jos, Plateau State. This led to another religio-political violence that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced thousands within a week.
The death of President Umaru Yar’Adua on May 5, 2010, gave his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christain from the southern region, the constitutional right to become the next president. In 2011, Jonathan contested and won the presidential election with 22.5 million votes compared to Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler and a Muslim candidate, who had more than 12 million votes. Some Muslims in the north rejected the result and staged a series of violent attacks against Christians, burning churches, shops and houses, killing Christians and members of ethnic groups from the south perceived to have supported the ruling party. Mobs of Christians retaliated by killing Muslims and burning mosques and properties in communities highly populated by Christians in Kaduna. The post-election violence killed more than 800 people from both religions.
Goodluck Jonathan’s ambition to retain the seat as the president by contesting in 2015 grieved some northern elites who felt they had been politically short-changed. They wanted another tenure on the ground that Yar’Adua did not complete his 8 years. In their ploy to discredit President Jonathan and bring power back to the north, the activities of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, were politicised. His administration’s inability to eradicate the insurgency and rescue 276 Chibok girls (all Christians) kidnapped in April 2014 by members of the jihadist group were some of the reasons he lost the 2015 election.
In October 2021, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) voiced its support for a Yoruba Muslim to become the president of Nigeria in the forthcoming 2023 general election. They urged Muslims not to vote for a Yoruba Christian on the ground that Yoruba Muslims have been politically marginalized. On January 14, 2022, MURIC publicly affirmed its support for Bola Tinubu, the National Leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and a Yoruba Muslim, as the best candidate. In November 2021, Bishop Wale Oke, the president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), said that for equity and fairness to reign the next president of the country in 2023 should be a Christian because a Muslim president has governed for 8 years.
On February 28, 2022, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) announced the creation of a directorate for politics and governance to support members who are aspiring to occupy political offices. The memo directed to the church leaders stated that “The essence of this directorate is to help coordinate the engagement of our people who are willing to be involved in politics, as well as mobilize support for them when required.” This triggered xenophobic feelings among Muslim clerics who thought the idea is intended to favour a Christain candidate.
Since 2021, the issue of Muslims being the president and vice president of Nigeria is another issue that has been creating political arguments among Christians and Muslims which is already inciting religio-political division among their followers. On 21 June 2021, there was a mass protest outside the secretariat of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Abuja, Nigeria, that Bola Tinubu, the party’s flag-bearer in the 2023 presidential election should refrain from choosing a Muslim as his running mate, but rather choose a Christain. A year later, on 3 July 2022, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) cautioned that Muslim-Muslim ticket may worsen the recent aggression by bandits and terrorists against Christians
Nigeria is currently faced with multiple violent conflicts ranging from farmer-herders conflict, Boko Haram terrorism, banditry, violent secessionism, kidnapping for ransom, rise in cultism among youths etc. Another violence will be a threat to the people’s rights to religion and life as politicking for the 2023 general election is already carrying a religious undercurrent. Appropriate and strategic awareness should be undertaken by the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to step up its game in promoting inter-faith understanding and peaceful co-existence between the two religions. Strategic awareness should be channeled towards peaceful electioneering and democratic process for altruistic political representation of the Nigerian citizens. Media organizations as major stakeholders should come together to form a strategy and tactics to control the religio-political narratives spreading through various media platforms to mitigate violent conflict risk in the forthcoming election.
Director for Research
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation