The Chief Justice of Nigeria will be the final arbiter of the country’s Presidential election in February 2023 -- that's why he has drawn the ... ire of the opposition for hobnobbing with Governor Nyesom Wike and his group of rebel governors in the People's Democratic Party (PDP)
On 22 September 2022, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Bola Tinubu, met with 19 bishops under the aegis of the Pentecostal Bishops Forum of Northern Nigeria. The aim was to gain their support ahead of the election.
Tinubu explained to the clergymen why he decided to break with the long-established political tradition that mandates presidential candidates to pick their running mates from a different regional and religious divide.
The Lagos godfather explained that his decision to pick a fellow Muslim as his running mate was not because he despised Christians, but because he believed in Shettima’s competence. He therefore admonished them to look beyond religion.
“How will Nigeria develop? How do we banish hunger? How do we improve the insecurity and how do we eliminate killing one another, shedding of the blood of innocent citizens, that is what we must take to the office and not our religion,” he said.
Pastor Adeboye and the RCCG have not and will not endorse any candidate for the 2023 general elections in Nigeria
Soon afterwards, photographs of his meeting with the northern bishops were splashed across his social media pages and forwarded to newspapers to publish. The images of Tinubu laughing and shaking hands with the clergymen in cassocks seemed to have flipped the narrative that the Christian leadership were against his candidacy. Or so his supporters thought.
Barely three days later, the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), which is the umbrella body of thousands of new age evangelical and charismatic ministries came out to publicly disown the bishops.
“The Pentecostal Bishops Forum of Northern Nigeria is not known to the PFN. The forum does not have any affiliation or relationship with the PFN that is registered with the government of this nation. The position of the PFN on the same faith ticket still stands as it was in the beginning and we have not, for any reason, shifted our position on that matter,” it said.
However, this would not be the first time that Tinubu’s overtures to the Christian community would end in a fiasco.
On 20 July, while officially presenting Shettima before the party faithful in Abuja, there was also an attempt to portray Tinubu’s decision as popular among the Christian community.
“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,” said Shettima.
However, the Christian Association of Nigeria disowned the bishops. Before long, “fake bishops” began trending in the media space, thereby causing more embarrassments for Tinubu’s campaign.
In a bid to douse tension, Tinubu visited the influential pastor Enoch Adeboye, the head of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), with a view to getting his support. Reports leaked to the media by Tinubu’s campaign team stated that Adeboye had no problem with the same faith ticket and gave Tinubu his blessing.
However, the RCCG, which is arguably the largest church in Nigeria, swiftly issued a rebuttal, insisting that the church’s position aligns with that of the larger Christian leadership.
“Pastor Adeboye and the RCCG have not and will not endorse any candidate for the 2023 general elections in Nigeria,” it said.
APC ‘Christians’ revolt
Amid the confusion, top members of the APC who are Christians, came out publicly to criticise Tinubu’s same faith ticket.
Babachir Lawal, who purchased and filled the APC presidential form on behalf of Tinubu ahead of the party’s primary, swiftly dumped Tinubu. Lawal, who is a former secretary to President Muhammadu Buhari, described the Muslim/Muslim ticket, describing it as a “grave error” and “satanic”.
He said the millions of northern Christians who feel marginalised will speak with their votes in February. Other senior members of the party including former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara and Senator Elisha Abbo, vowed to ensure that Tinubu is disgraced at the poll.
Eager to bring Christians to his side, Tinubu appointed Governor Simon Lalong of the Christian dominated Plateau State as his campaign manager. Lalong, who is the chairman of the Northern Governors Forum’ quickly began reaching out to the northern Christian leadership to make them see reason with regards to Tinubu’s decision to pick a Muslim running mate.
Responding to criticisms, Lalong argued that as a confirmed Roman Catholic holding the highest papal award, the Knight of Saint Gregory the Great, he had not received any directive from the Vatican to reject the appointment as Tinubu’s campaign manager.
“I’m a Christian. I went through missionary schools. I respect my being a Christian. I have been given the highest award by the Pope: The Knight of St. Gregory the Great and as a Catholic, everything we do, we send the advice to the Pope. The Pope has not told me that what I’m doing is bad to accept the appointment,” the governor said.
I now realise that this was an error on my part and has caused some level of concern and even embarrassment…
However, his statement drew the ire of the Catholic establishment for bringing the Pope into Nigerian political discourse.
In an open letter, Lalong apologised to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, saying: “I now realise that this was an error on my part and has caused some level of concern and even embarrassment to many, especially the members of the family of Papal Knights to which I belong.”
Despite Lalong’s efforts, however, the northern Christian establishment remained adamant
Osinbajo’s deafening silence
Another challenge has been the absence of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo from Tinubu’s campaign. Osinbajo, who is the most senior Christian government official, is also a senior pastor at RCCG.
Osinbajo, who is a protégé of Pastor Adeboye, was nominated as Buhari’s running mate in 2015 in order to assuage the fears of Christian conservatives who saw Buhari as a Muslim hardliner.
Ahead of the 2023 poll, Osinbajo had already begun receiving support from key leaders of the church, but he was defeated by Tinubu at the APC primary and was branded a traitor by Tinubu’s supporters for daring to contest against a man who brought him from relative obscurity to national relevance.
Osinbajo has been absent from APC events ever since, while a large number of his Christian supporters have failed to embrace Tinubu especially in the light of the same faith ticket. Rather, they have pitched their tent with Peter Obi of the Labour Party, who is the only Christian in the race with a fighting chance of victory.
To worsen suspicions, Tinubu’s campaign team released a list of over 400 members that would lead his presidential campaign, but while Buhari and the governors were listed, Osinbajo was conspicuously missing. Also absent was Boss Mustapha, who is the president’s secretary and one of the most senior government officials. Incidentally, Osinbajo and Mustapha are the two most senior Christian government officials in the country.
The VP is not comfortable with the same faith ticket, but he cannot openly say it for the sake of party loyalty.
Their absence subsequently triggered reports that they had refused to take part in Tinubu’s campaign because they were also opposed to the same faith ticket.
“The VP is not comfortable with the same faith ticket, but he cannot openly say it for the sake of party loyalty. The plan is for him to stay away from the campaign in order to protect his integrity because he will return to the pulpit when his tenure ends next year,” says Osinbajo, an associate who wished to remain anonymous.
When asked if Osinbajo could be cajoled into supporting Tinubu, the associate says: “I don’t see him compromising his stand, but you know nothing is impossible in politics.”
However, Tinubu’s campaign team says Osinbajo and Mustapha were left out of the campaign on the instruction of President Buhari so they could “focus on governance”.
Campaign dismisses protests
Fed up with the nagging issue of the same-faith ticket, Tinubu’s campaign team has now issued a warning to the Christian leadership in the country and the media.
According to the spokesman for the campaign, Festus Keyamo, the same faith issue is a mere media creation. Keyamo argues that hunger is the country’s biggest problem and that is the focus of the poor, not the religion of their next president.
The purpose or duty of pastors, we have said so before, is to lead people to heaven. It is not to lead people to [the presidential] villa.
He also lambasted the Christian leadership in the country and asked them to focus on saving souls for Christ rather than dabbling in politics.
“The purpose or duty of pastors, we have said so before, is to lead people to heaven. It is not to lead people to [the presidential] villa. The PFN should go and vote for their choice of candidates on election day if they seek to. They should not be questioning the decision, not our party publicly,” a livid Keyamo said on national television.
With campaigns officially commencing this week, the same faith ticket has remained an albatross around Tinubu’s neck. However, would this inability to gain the Christian support his chances at the polls? His supporters seem to think otherwise.
Coupled with the fact that his wife is a pastor in one of the largest churches in the country, Tinubu’s team believes that since he is a liberal Muslim from the southwest, many will look beyond the Muslim/Muslim ticket.
Additionally, since the northwest and northeast are predominantly Muslim and have often times voted along religious lines, the thinking is that they will not mind voting for a same faith candidacy. Moreover, since these regions hold a chunk of the country’s votes along with the southwest where Tinubu comes from, victory should not be a problem.
He might pull it off because the APC is the incumbent party, but it would mark a phase in Nigerian history…
This also implies that Tinubu may be willing to forgo the Christian votes in the southeast, south-south and the Middle Belt region of the north. Nevertheless, with Nigeria’s constitution mandating that a candidate must win two thirds majority in 24 states to become president, Tinubu still falls short even if he wins all the Muslim dominated states and loses woefully in the Christian majority states hence his dilemma.
Worse still, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), will be expected to neutralise Tinubu’s votes in the Muslim north since he is also a northern Muslim himself.
Tinubu’s team has now gone back to the drawing board with a view to expanding its campaign organisation.
In a chat with The Africa Report, social commentator and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, Abimbola Adelakun, said Tinubu’s decision to run on a same faith ticket will be a recurring decimal all through the campaign.
Adelakun says Tinubu could pull it off… but it could set a precedent of marginalisation of Christians in Nigerian politics.
“He might pull it off because the APC is the incumbent party, but it would mark a phase in Nigerian history that a political statement has been made that Christians could be dispensed with and their interest can be dispensed with and opponents will make political gain out of it,” she says.
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