Nigeria: Obi, Tinubu, Atiku… Will identity politics trigger electoral violence in 2023? 

By Eniola Akinkuotu

Posted on Wednesday, 16 November 2022 10:10, updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 12:31
Peter Obi, Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar (TAR)

In order to gain political advantage ahead of the crucial Presidential election in February 2023, major contenders Atiku Abubakar and Bola Tinubu are using every trick in the book, including evoking ethnic and religious sentiments in the people. Will this trigger violence in a heavily divided country? 

Apparently frustrated by attempts to scuttle his presidential ambition ahead of the primary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Lagos godfather, Bola Tinubu, told a gathering in the ancient city of Abeokuta, southwest Nigeria, that he helped a serial election loser, General Muhammadu Buhari, to win the presidential election.

He said now that Buhari – a northerner – was completing his tenure, it was the turn of the Yoruba people of the southwest and by extension, his turn to be the next President. Tinubu specifically said, “Yoruba lo kan… Emi lo kan”, which means, “It is the turn of the Yoruba… and it is my turn as a Yoruba man”.

This may have done the trick as 11 northern governors signed a joint statement two days later, stating that since President Buhari – a northerner – had served for two terms it was time for the APC to give its presidential ticket to a southerner.

Emi lo kan

Following Tinubu’s victory at the APC primary in June, the term ‘Emi lo kan’ became a permanent feature in Nigeria’s political lexicon.

Since then, Tinubu’s footsoldiers including the governors in the southwest, have asked the Yoruba people to see the Lagos godfather’s ambition as their collective assignment.

It is the turn of the Yoruba… and it is my turn as a Yoruba man.”

At a Yoruba festival that was well attended by dignitaries from the southwest, Tinubu’s protégé, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, said it was indeed the turn of the southwest and the people must not fail Tinubu.

“It is my firm hope that the Yoruba race will unite as one behind the momentous candidature of Bola Tinubu, a proud son of the race and one of the most formidable politicians to have ever emerged from Africa,” Sanwo-Olu stated.

Weeks later, Senator Teslim Folarin, the APC governorship candidate in Oyo State in the southwest, urged all Yoruba people to give Tinubu 100 per cent of their votes.

Atiku’s slip

But it is not only Tinubu that has been playing the ethnic card. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, a northern Muslim, has also been pandering to ethnic sentiments even though on the surface, his campaign is based on “unifying Nigerians”.

At a recent interactive session with a group of northern political leaders under the Arewa Joint Committee at Arewa House, Kaduna, Atiku, who is the candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), stressed the need for the north to vote a fellow northerner.

“What the average northerner needs is somebody who’s from the north and also understands that part of the country. This is what the northerner needs, it doesn’t need a Yoruba or Igbo candidate, I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of northern origin,” Atiku said.

While Atiku’s camp has tried to clarify the statement, the opposition has continued to hit him, accusing him of trying to divide the country.

Igbo sentiment

So far, Peter Obi, an ethnic Igbo from the southeast, has tried to present himself as a pan-Nigerian candidate.

In an interview with The Africa Report in September, the Labour Party candidate said, “I don’t want people to vote for me based on ethnicity, I don’t want them to vote for me based on religion… I want them to vote for me based on a character they can trust.”

But while Obi is not playing up the ethnic card directly, the same cannot be said for many of his supporters who see him as an embodiment of the aspiration of the Igbo people in the southeast, a region that has not held presidential power since it tried to secede during a bloody civil war that ended in 1970.

What the average northerner needs is somebody who’s from the north and also understands that part of the country … it doesn’t need a Yoruba or Igbo candidate, I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of northern origin.”

Many believe a victory for Obi would help put an end to recent violent secessionist agitations in the southeast triggered by marginalisation.

Apart from the ethnic factor, Obi is also being supported by the Christian establishment since he is the only Christian with a realistic chance of victory at the poll.

He has in recent times been attending services at mega-churches where he receives a standing ovation from congregations. In some of such services, Obi is given the microphone and allowed to address congregations, a move which drew the ire of the PDP.

Doom ahead?

A Fitch Solutions Country Risk and Industry Research report says while Tinubu would likely win the presidential poll, his victory will lead to protests and social instability because of the same faith ticket and the expectations of the followers of Peter Obi, which will be dashed.

Tinubu, who is a southern Muslim, broke with a long-established political tradition by picking a fellow Muslim as his running mate to gain the support of the Muslim north which is the country’s largest voting bloc.

The report on the Nigerian presidential election, done by a subsidiary of international credit rating firm, Fitch Ratings, says a win for Tinubu would likely fuel sentiment of perceived marginalisation among Christians.

“In addition, Obi’s supporters – mostly young, urban voters – are likely to question the fairness of the electoral process, especially after recent polls have predicted a win for Obi,” the report states.

History of violence

Should the prediction come to fruition, it would not be the first time. In 2011 after President Goodluck Jonathan – a southern Christian – won the presidential election, there were riots in Muslim northern states that had voted en masse for Buhari.

An investigation commissioned by the government found that 943 people were killed while the United States Institute for Peace determined that 65,000 people were displaced.

But with the 2023 election now religiously and ethnically charged, violence seems inevitable. In Lagos, especially in areas that have a large Igbo population, there have been some incidents of violence triggered by ethnic politics.

Dr Charles Omole, Director General of the Institute for Police and Security Policy Research (IPSPR), tells The Africa Report the violence may be triggered by ethnic factors rather than religion.

Peace in the north?

Omole, who is the author of the book, How to Win Political Elections, says the violence will be prevalent in the southeast and the southwest while the north may not witness significant violence.

“The violence I see erupting is in the southwest and the southeast. These two zones will be the bedrock of ethnic-based violence. Elections in Lagos may end up being violent especially if you look at a detailed study of elections in Lagos in the last 20 years.

“The Igbo in Lagos don’t usually vote or their votes are usually suppressed but Peter Obi on the ballot means more Igbo people in Lagos will want to vote. This will trigger more tension between the Yoruba and the Igbo. There will also be allegations of marginalisation,” he says.

Also, Prof. David Aworawo, who heads the Department of History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos, says there would be incidents of violence in the southeast if Obi loses and also in the southwest if Tinubu loses.

Aworawo, however, believes there would be no violence in the north should Atiku lose since President Buhari – a northerner – has already served two terms.

“If Peter Obi doesn’t win there will be violence in the southeast because they will feel marginalised having been denied presidential power for so long. If Tinubu doesn’t win, there may be some violence in Lagos, Osun and a few places that will feel betrayed by the north.”

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