Nigeria: Bola Tinubu must reckon with history after picking his running mate 

By Max Siollun

Posted on July 11, 2022 08:23

Nigeria Presidential Nomination
Bola Tinubu, centre , pays a visit at the St Francis Catholic Church following a gunmen attacked in Owo, Nigeria, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Nigerian history is repeating itself. Almost three decades ago, Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim from the south-west, won the 1993 presidential elections in what was meant to signal the end of a decade of military rule.

But the generals led by Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha annulled Abiola’s victory triggering five years of bitter contestation.

Now Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the favourite to win Nigeria’s presidential elections next year, is remarkably similar to Abiola. The candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Tinubu is a Yoruba Muslim, a billionaire, and hails from the south-west. And like Abiola, Tinubu is a talented political networker.

The similarities do not end with ethno-religious identity. Tinubu will face the same religious controversies that Abiola faced 30 years ago. Like Abiola, Tinubu has picked another Muslim from the north-east as his running mate: Kashim Shettima, a senator for the ruling APC  and a former governor from Borno State.

Religion is so woven into Nigeria’s identity that an academic nicknamed it the “Pentecostal Republic”.

Next year’s election will test the inter-twined relations between politics and religion in Nigeria. It may also reveal whether Tinubu has more political “street smarts” than Abiola – who won an election but never made it to the presidential palace.

‘Persecuted targets’

Expecting Nigerians to ignore geo-religious sentiment and vote for the best candidate would be naïve in a country where a third of the country’s states have implemented Sharia law. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is a pastor in the country’s biggest Pentecostal church and his boss is a devout Muslim. Over the past decade governments have presided over a worsening security climate in which Islamist insurgent fighters have killed over 35,000 people and displaced another 2 million people.

Both Christians and Muslims view themselves as a persecuted targets. Christian grievances flared last month after gunmen (whom Christians assume were Islamist insurgents) burst into a church and shot 50 people dead.

In reality it works in a binary way: a northern Muslim President would be teamed with a southern Christian as vice president – or vice versa.

Religion is so woven into Nigeria’s identity that an academic nicknamed it the “Pentecostal Republic“. There are many multi-faith countries but Nigeria is the only one whose population is almost equally split between Christians and Muslims.

Nigeria’s sectarian cleavages are one reason why the mainly Christian south and mainly Muslim north have alternated in the presidency for the past 23 years since the return to civil rule in 1999.

“Zoning” the presidency between the north and south is intended to “give everyone a go” at the presidency.

In reality it works in a binary way: a northern Muslim President would be teamed with a southern Christian as vice president – or vice versa.

The emergence of a southern Muslim or northern Christian presidential candidate disrupts this foundational tenet. It almost guarantees religious controversy.

As a southerner, Tinubu had to choose a northern VP. Whomever he chose, the religious affiliation of Tinubu’s running mate is almost certain to alienate a vast geographic or religious constituency.

Abiola faced this same problem prior to the 1993 election.

Troubled by the enormity of the decision, Abiola delayed the choice of his running mate as he consulted widely.

Fans of Tinubu will point out that Abiola won the 1993 election although both he and his running mate Babagana Kingibe were Muslims.

Abiola’s decision to reject the advice of military leader Babangida (who advised him to select a northern Christian as his running mate) added to the animosity around the annulment.

Today, Nigeria’s religious climate is far more incendiary than in 1993. Since then sentiment has been inflamed by the imposition of Sharia law, sweeping attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa Province, and the sometimes aggressive  proselytising of Salafists and Pentecostal Christians.

‘This is not 1993’

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has warned presidential candidates that “this is not 1993”, and that “If they try Muslim/Muslim ticket this time around, the outcome will be worse”.

Tinubu had little choice but to select a Muslim running mate. After President Buhari completes his second term next year, the key to succeeding him lies with winning over the almost 10 million voters who voted for Buhari in Muslim majority states in the north.

Buhari’s northern voting bloc is unlikely to stay loyal to the APC if they see their hero being replaced a by southern presidential candidate teamed with a northern Christian running mate.

It would play straight into the hands of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Atiku Abubakar. That calculus made it near certain that Tinubu would select a Muslim running mate from the north.

As a Muslim from the south, Tinubu will be heavily scrutinised by his fellow southerners. Christians will monitor the religious affiliation of his appointees; some will cry pro-Muslim and anti-Christian bias at every opportunity.

The Christian Association’s warning to Tinubu that “this is not 1993” resonates because Tinubu had a front row seat during the 1993 election crisis.

As Abiola lobbied the generals to rescind the annulling of his victory, Tinubu (then a young senator) accompanied him to those meetings, then campaigned on Abiola’s behalf against the military.

Tinubu’s anti-military campaigning eventually made him a target for Abacha’s murderous goons. Legend has it that Tinubu fled abroad disguised as a woman (using clothes borrowed from Abiola’s wife) after receiving death threats.

Before running for president, Abiola had so much influence on, and patronage from, the government, that a civil rights activist described him as “the de facto vice-president of Nigeria”.

Arguably, Tinubu has even more political influence than Abiola.  Unlike Abiola, Tinubu is a full-time professional politician. While Abiola turned to politics almost as an afterthought after running out of business mountains to conquer, Tinubu served his apprenticeship on the mean streets of the big southern cities like Lagos.

Tinubu transitioned from Abiola’s acolyte to political fugitive, to a godfather of Nigeria’s politics – his unseen hand has manoeuvred his favoured candidates into political office like pieces on a chessboard. Equally, he has dispensed with their services when they cease to serve his interests.

Last month, Tinubu boasted that “If not for me…Buhari would never have been president”. Buhari lost three consecutive presidential elections until Tinubu used his extensive economic and political networks to help Buhari become president in 2015.

No room for error

Yet Tinubu cannot afford to miscalculate – his main opponent Atiku is also a graduate of the “Class of 1993”. Atiku was in Abiola’s party and was tipped to be his running mate. Then Abiola unexpectedly picked the veteran spymaster Kingibe instead.

Atiku has been campaigning for the presidency for over 30 years. At 75 years old, next year’s race will be his sixth and surely final attempt. He will throw everything into the fight, waiting to capitalise if Tinubu stumbles.

How can Tinubu navigate the political and religious minefields? To win over southerners, he can point to the fact that his wife is a pastor in Nigeria’s largest Pentecostal church: the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG).

To get Buhari elected in 2015 and assuage the fears of Christians who portrayed Buhari as a Muslim extremist, Tinubu suggested the candidacy of Osinbajo (another RCCG Christian pastor) to balance the ticket.

Like Abiola, Tinubu also owns one of Nigeria’s most popular newspapers, and other media networks – which he can rely on to churn out propaganda for his campaign.

Tinubu is a deft political operator. Like an omniscient football coach, he manoeuvres his lieutenants into strategic positions from where they can best serve the team’s quest for victory.

Tinubu has said “it is my turn” to be president but now it’s show time. He will have to emerge from behind the scenes and run on to the political field –  no longer just the master manipulator but a striker in his own right.

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