Nigeria 2023: Muslim ticket banks on Christian campaign manager to pull in votes

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2022 16:42

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)

Haemorrhaging support from Nigerian Christians after he chose a Muslim northerner as his running mate, 2023 presidential candidate Bola Tinubu has appointed the Christian governor of Plateau State in central Nigeria as his campaign manager to help turn his fortunes around. Can Simon Lalong reverse the tide?

Tinubu, a liberal Muslim from the country’s southwest, broke with 22 years of political tradition last month when he announced his running mate. Instead of balancing the ticket with someone from a different region and a different religion, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate who’s seeking to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari picked a fellow Muslim, Senator Kashim Shettima from the northeast.

As a religious minority candidate from the mainly Christian south, Tinubu appears to have calculated that running alongside a Christian minority from the north would be too risky. In order to boost his chances in the Muslim majority north, he opted for Shettima, upsetting many Christian conservatives in the process.

The move was roundly rejected by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and several notable Nigerian clerics. In a bid to change perceptions, Tinubu made sure to surround himself with some Christian bishops when he formally unveiled Shettima before the party faithful in Abuja.

“30 bishops of the Christian faith are here to solidarise [sic] with us. I want to thank you for your leadership and generosity of spirit,” Shettima said.

However, the Christian association disowned the bishops. Before long, “fake bishops” began trending on Twitter.

Campaign problems

Some notable northern Christians in the APC also criticised Tinubu’s choice and vowed to work against him. Senator Ishaku Elisha Abbo, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara, and former secretary to the Government of the Federation Babachir Lawal, recently held a conference where they openly criticised Tinubu’s choice.

Lawal, who purchased the APC presidential form on behalf of Tinubu, described the decision to push a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket as ‘satanic’. He has begun meeting with Governor Nyesom Wike of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Another APC member, Daniel Bwala, a Christian northerner and aide to the deputy senate president, announced his resignation from the APC on live television. He subsequently joined the presidential campaign of PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar as its spokesman.

Desperate to tackle the problem, Tinubu visited Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the general overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and arguably the most influential Christian cleric in the country. After the meeting, information was leaked to the media that Adeboye had given Tinubu his blessing and had stated that he saw nothing wrong with the APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket.

Will it work? We will wait and see but what we want is a campaign that reflects the picture of Nigeria’s colour

However, Adeboye quickly issued a statement in which he denied endorsing anyone. He also restated his support for the Christian association, adding that as a CAN member he could not reject its position. This embarrassed Tinubu’s campaign team even further.

Tough task

Enter Lalong. The new face of the campaign is expected to pull votes for Tinubu from Christian northerners.

Lalong, who is also the chairman of the northern governors’ forum, will be expected to exert his influence in Christian areas of the north, such as southern Kaduna, southern Adamawa, southern Bauchi, northern Nasarawa, Plateau, Benue and Taraba states, which together hold approximately 10 million votes.

It remains to be seen whether Lalong can pull this off however, given that he struggled to win re-election in his own state in 2019.

Further complicating matters, the Christian areas of the north have witnessed a rise in Islamophobia amid a rise in violence from Islamist insurgents. It also remains unclear if Lalong’s presence in the campaign will be able to calm the frayed nerves of Christian conservatives in the south who believe a Muslim/Muslim ticket is forbidden.

High hurdles

Reverend Joseph Hayab, the secretary general for the Christian Association of Nigeria’s Kaduna state office and CEO of the Christian Awareness Initiative of Nigeria, tells The Africa Report that appointing Lalong as campaign manager won’t compensate for the Shettima surprise.

“Good luck to Lalong, but you and I know that a campaign manager is different from president and vice-president positions,” Hayab says.

He also questioned whether Christians would see the gesture as a genuine olive branch. “Will it work? We will wait and see, but what we want is a campaign that reflects the picture of Nigeria’s colour and represents the plurality of this country,” he says.

“What they are doing now is just trying to remedy the damage,” Hayab tells The Africa Report.It is a good trial, but I don’t know if it will work. It is like damaging a house and then painting it with the intention of covering the damage.”

Lalong may not completely change the situation

Professor Dauda Saleh from the Department of Political Science at the University of Abuja tells The Africa Report that Lalong may struggle to change perceptions because the position of a campaign manager is temporary while that of a running mate is permanent. The appointment, however, suggests Tinubu is listening to Christians’ concerns. 

“Lalong may not completely change the situation. This is because people know that his job is just for the campaign and after that, he will have nothing to do. So, the agitations by the northern Christians are more fundamental than just a campaign manager,” Saleh says. “They want a situation where a northern Christian will balance the ticket, so Lalong may not appeal to the generality of the Christian population, but it is a step in the right direction and it shows that Tinubu has a listening ear and if given the opportunity, he can work consciously to unite this country.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options