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Nigeria: Will Tinubu choose a Muslim running mate for 2023?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 19 March 2021 12:11

Bola Tinubu, former Lagos state governor and All Progressives Congress leader, gestures at a party meeting with President-elect Muhammadu Buhari beside him in Abuja
Bola Tinubu, former Lagos state governor and All Progressives Congress (APC) leader, gestures at a party meeting with President-elect Muhammadu Buhari beside him in Abuja Febuary 17, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

A lack of powerful Christian politicians in the North means that the APC frontrunner Bola Tinubu may need to break a taboo and front an all-Muslim ticket for the next presidential elections in 2023. Might Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje be on the ticket?

Nigeria’s frontline Presidential hopeful, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, who is commonly referred to as the National Leader of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, and is credited with ensuring the victory of the President, Muhammadu Buhari, is currently in a fix regarding his choice of a running mate, close associates have told The Africa Report.

Although he hasn’t officially declared his intention to take a shot at the Presidency, he previously said in 2016: “It depends on the timing; it depends on the environment and what political leadership dictates. I will not brush aside such an aspiration…”.

He added: “May be as a senator, may be as a President, you can’t rule it out. How can I rule such a thing out? Opportunity to serve my country? But you only do that when there is a vacancy”. The daily emergence of support groups pushing his ‘2023 mandate’ may be seen as Tinubu’s subterranean moves.

But he faces a major hurdle in his election path: a running mate who can win him the north.

Tinubu, who holds the sobriquet Jagaban a title bestowed on him by the Borgu Kingdom of northern Nigeria, is a Muslim from southern Nigeria. Based on the usual practice of ‘power sharing’ in Nigerian politics, Tinubu, a former Governor of Lagos State, will be expected to choose a Christian running mate from northern Nigeria.

A Christian to win the north?

The North is critical to winning elections in Nigeria. Northern Nigeria has 19 states while the South has 17. Currently the South has 39.1 million registered voters while the North has 44.8 million, according to data from the Independent National Electoral Commission.

Tinubu’s associates fear that if he picks a Christian northerner, he may not be able to garner the needed votes from the North, a region that holds over half of the total voting population and has witnessed a larger voter turnout in every election in the last 20 years.

“Based on our calculations at the moment, there is really no northern Christian candidate that has that mass appeal in the region. Even the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, who is a Christian from the North, is not a strong grassroots politician and has no political base”, says an associate of Tinubu.

“His [Mustapha]’s state of Adamawa is led by the PDP. If Tinubu picks a northern Muslim, he will get more votes from the core north and can still secure votes from his South-West. That should be enough to win him the Presidency,”

It would, however, be breaking a serious political taboo.

The zoning taboo

‘Zoning’ presidency between north and south has been the practice since Nigeria adopted the American Presidential system of government in 1979, except during the botched 1993 election. In 1979, then Presidential candidate Shehu Shagari, a Muslim from the northern state of Sokoto, handpicked a southern Christian, Alex Ekueme, as his running mate.

In 1993, business tycoon, MKO Abiola, a southern Muslim like Tinubu, broke the established tradition by picking a Muslim northerner as his running mate due to a dearth of a popular Christian northern candidate. Although Abiola was the acclaimed winner, the election was annulled by then military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida.

In 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, picked a Muslim northern governor-elect, Atiku Abubakar, as his running mate. While in 2007, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, picked a southern Christian, Goodluck Jonathan, as his running mate.

Following Yar’Adua’s death, Jonathan was inaugurated as President and picked a northern Muslim, Namadi Sambo, as his deputy. However, this trend was almost broken in 2015 when Tinubu reportedly attempted to be the running mate to President Buhari.

According to a former Senate President, Bukola Saraki and political foe of Tinubu, the Jagaban saw nothing wrong in Nigeria having a President and Vice-President sharing the same religion during the 2015 electioneering, an anomaly in Nigeria, a nation deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.

“As for Tinubu, we have never expected any good words from him. All his life, he will continue to belly ache and nurse grudges over my opposition to the Muslim-Muslim ticket idea in 2015. As far as he is concerned, I stopped him from realizing his ambition then. However, I believe my action then and now was in pursuit of national interest,” Saraki said in a statement in 2019.

Similarly, former President Obasanjo had during the build-up to the 2015 Presidential elections, made a reference to the Muslim-Muslim issue amid reports that Tinubu wanted to be Buhari’s running mate.

“It will be insensitive to the point of absurdity for any leader or any political party to be toying with Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian ticket at this juncture,” Obasanjo had said.

The North: Muslim dominance

Nigeria has 19 northern states out of which only three are Christian dominated. They are: Plateau, Taraba and Benue; states dominated by ethnic northern minorities. About 12 northern states practice Islamic law known as Sharia. Also, 16 northern states have never elected a Christian governor before, a reflection of the role of religion in Nigerian politics. The few Christians that ever led such northern states served in acting capacity or by contingency.

The Head of Department, History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos, David Aworawo, says Nigerian politics is such that it is very difficult for a Christian northern politician to have widespread support.

“There are factors that influence voting in Nigeria and some of the most powerful determinants are ethnicity and religion before you consider competence. Any political party that wants to pick a politician from the North would have to pick a Muslim and vice versa,” he says.

Aworawo, who has published widely in the area of African politics, says this was why MKO Abiola, who was a Muslim from the South, had to pick a northern Muslim as his running mate.

He adds that Tinubu would also encounter this challenge when it is time to pick a northern running mate

“If Tinubu were a Muslim from the North, it would have been easier for him to pick a Christian from the South… Tinubu would have even been running mate to President Buhari (who is also a Muslim) but the religion thing was the problem. So, it is a challenge he will face as he proceeds to 2023,” says Aworawo.

Potential Muslim running mates for Tinubu

Frontline northern candidates who could be paired with Tinubu include: Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State and Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum.

These two governors openly supported Tinubu’s faction of the APC during the party’s crisis of 2020 that led to the dissolution of its executive council. Kano State gave the APC its largest number of votes in the last two Presidential elections with 1.9 million and 1.4 million in 2015 and 2019 respectively. While Zulum is popular due to the reforms being implemented in Borno State, Tinubu may see a politician from Kano State as a surer way to deliver more votes.

Internal APC fights

Beyond the zoning taboo, Tinubu well may be facing opposition from within his own party. The new Chairman of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency, the EFCC, has asked for more details on Tinubu’s asset declaration.

A spokesperson for the APC in Lagos State, Seye Oladejo, denies internal friction with the political clique surrounding Buharu, and says that Tinubu retains the popular attention. “I think it is still early days because between now and that time, a whole lot of things could play out and things would be sorted out… Tinubu hasn’t officially declared [his intention to contest] but he is the most talked about person. I believe whatever issues that are at stake will be resolved politically,” Oladejo says.

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