Nigeria’s Buhari wins in election tainted by Muslim-Christian divide

(NEWS ANALYSIS) The presidential and National Assembly elections held in Nigeria on Feb. 23 were characterized by violence, harassment, and malpractices. The lines were drawn by religion. Muhammadu Buhari’s election to president was immediately followed by theories that he would “Islamize” Nigeria.

The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, an amalgamation of 70 organizations, says 260 persons were killed in pre-election violence. On Feb. 25, CLEEN Foundation, a CSO that monitors the conduct of elections all over the country, said 39 persons were confirmed dead as a result of violence during the elections. This violent trend follows the pattern in previous elections conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In 2011, as many as 800 persons were killed in post-election violence, according to research conducted by Human Rights Watch. As many as 58 persons lost their lives in the 2015 elections violence, according to Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report.

Incidentally, religious division was the undercurrent during the campaign. The results from the polls across the country show heavy marks of the religious affiliations, divided by the Muslim North and Christian South Nigeria. Ordinarily, economic consideration should be at the forefront of electoral campaigns in Nigeria, considering the fact that data from the World Poverty Clock said in 2018 that Nigeria is home to the highest number of persons living below the poverty line— as many as 87 million out of a total population of 190 million. Though the frontline presidential aspirants canvassed infrastructural, economic, and anti-corruption agenda during their campaigns, on social media, in mosques and in churches, Nigerians were urged to vote for those who belonged to their own faith.

As many as 73 political parties fielded candidates in the presidential election, but the frontline contestants were President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from Katsina State in North-West of Nigeria. He is the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). His major challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, is also a Muslim from Adamawa State in North-East Nigeria. He flew the banner of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The total registered voters in the 36 states of Nigeria are 84 million, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In previous elections, less than 40 percent of registered voters turned up to vote and the outcome is not expected to be different in 2019.  

Both leading candidates chose Christians as their running mates. Accused serially of being a hard-line Muslim Jihadist, Buhari picked Professor Yemi Osinbajo, an ordained pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), one of the largest denominations in Nigeria, as his vice presidential candidate. He hails from the South-West of Nigeria. On his part, Atiku picked Peter Obi, a Christian from the South-East of Nigeria as his vice presidential candidate. Though the country’s constitution is silent on the need for those who run for political offices to choose their running mates from the two dominant religions in Nigeria, politicians have considered choosing a running mate from another faith as a strategy that could swing votes at the polls. 

In spite of these measures, in the run-up to the elections, the Muslim-Christian divide became a theme in the social media campaign. The leader of an extremist Islamic Sect called Izala, Sheikh Sani Yahaya Jingir, spoke in a video in Hausa Language to his followers against voting for the PDP candidate, though Atiku is a Muslim. The fundamentalist Izala movement has millions of adherents in North-Central Nigeria His offence? Atiku’s running mate is from the Igbo stock, who are mainly Christians, but who were accused of killing the Sardauna of Sokoto, the late prime minister of northern Nigeria, in a 1966 coup d’etat. Sheikh Jingir is very prominent in Plateau State, such that in 2015, the government appointed him as the leader of the state’s delegation to the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.  His video, in Hausa Language, went viral. Though it came under serious condemnation and was made to retract the message on a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Hausa Radio program, watchers of the political events in Nigeria knew it stuck among Muslim faithful. 

In Kaduna State, where there is the majority Muslim and minority Christians, the governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, a Muslim who is a confidant of Buhari, snubbed Christians in the southern part of the state, by appointing a Muslim as his deputy for the Mar. 9 governorship election.  He argued that even if the Pope were his running mate in the elections, Christian-dominated Southern Kaduna would not vote for him. 

He explained to Nigeria’s Channels Television station:

What if I tell you that no matter who I choose as my running mate, even if I choose the Pope, 67 percent of the Christians in southern Kaduna have made up their minds that they will never vote for me. This is what the polls show. So, for me, that is not the issue. The issue is this: Kaduna State is divided, it needs to be united. The way to begin to unite it is to take religion or ethnicity off the table. Since 1992, every deputy governor of Kaduna has been a Christian. What has it done for the state? Has it united the state? Has it assuaged the feelings of the Christian minority? My current deputy governor is a Christian and I didn’t pick him because he is Christian. I picked him because we were colleagues from university and I know him to be a brilliant, focused and just man. But, did that change anything?

Apart from the governor of Kaduna State, an allegation that Buhari has an agenda to Islamize Nigeria became prominent during the campaign. All the country’s service chief as Muslims from the North, the finance minister, Zainab Ahmed, is a Muslim from the North; the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Abubakar Malami, is a Muslim from the North, and recently a Christian Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghne, was removed and replaced with a Shariah Law judge, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad.

Reacting to the wide impression that Buhari has an Islamization agenda, Femi Adesina, the president’s spokesman, replied to critics, saying:

It has come to the notice of President Muhammadu Buhari, ahead of the forthcoming elections that some unscrupulous Nigerians are again falsely and wickedly claiming that the administration has an agenda to impose Islam on Nigeria. The objective is clearly to stoke up religious division for political gains. Some of those same persons made those dubious and fabricated claims ahead of the 2015 election. They failed woefully. The President strongly affirms the oath he took before the Nigerian people to faithfully defend the Constitution of Nigeria. That Constitution guarantees freedom of worship for every Nigerian. It is this guarantee that enables all Nigerians to practice their faiths or religion without hindrance. President Buhari further affirms his commitment to freedom of religion and worship for all Nigerians and that under no circumstance will any religion or faith be imposed on any Nigerian. It is dangerous, deceptive and ungodly to play politics with religion.

In Adamawa State, where there is a substantial Christian population, though they are still in the minority, Vice President Osinbajo, met with leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) last week to solicit for their votes for Buhari. However, after reeling out how they had suffered bigotry and the nonchalant attitude of government to their plights, the Christian leaders turned down Pastor Osinbajo’s demands. 

Over the last four years, Muslim-Fulani Jihadists had destroyed Christian communities in Adamawa State, killing hundreds of persons and destroying churches and properties owned by Christians. The Christian leaders led by CAN Chairman and Catholic Bishop of Yola, Most Rev. Stephen Dami Mamza, claimed that Buhari did not visit them during those dark days, neither did government send relief materials to those displaced in the violence. Also, Leah Sharibu, a Christian girl has been languishing in Boko Haram enclave since Feb. 21, 2018. Though she was abducted along with over 100 Muslim girls from Government Science and Technical School in Dapchi, Yobe State, government negotiated the release of the Muslim girls but has failed to secure the release of Leah Sharibu. For these reasons, the Christian leaders declined any commitment to vote for Buhari in the elections. 

Also, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, was also targeted ahead of the 2019 elections. Dogara, who hails from a Christian minority community in Bauchi State, another Muslim-dominated State, has won elections on four previous consecutive polls. However, in an attempt to play the religious card, Professor Salisu Shehu placed an advertorial in the Daily Trust newspaper, calling on Muslims not to vote for Dogara. The full page advertorial accused Dogara of neglecting Muslims who were displaced in one of the sectarian violence in the state. 

A paragraph reads:

For your information, before the 2011 crisis there were three Jumu’ah mosques and 45 daily prayer mosques in Tafawa Ba’ewa township. I am sure you may not know those figures, but I have no doubt that you know for sure all of these mosques, except the one at the Police Divisional Office (having been protected by the police), were destroyed and ruined by the people of your faith. The question is, why did you fail to include at least even the central mosque of Tafawa Balewa in the list of the mosques you wanted to renovate…?

The objective of placing this advertorial in a newspaper read widely in Muslim-North was to dissuade Muslims in Tafawa Balewa, the constituency of Dogara, from voting for the Speaker because he is a Christian.

Politicians, in their attempt to win the votes of Christians, patronized Christian groups and sought the endorsement of frontline pastors. Prominent among the preachers they patronised is a Catholic priest, Father Ejike Mbaka, whose Adoration Ministry attracts a huge crowd in the South-East of Nigeria. Agents of both President Buhari and the main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, visited the Adoration Ground in Enugu, ostensibly to seek the Reverend Father’s blessing. An endorsement by Mbaka, a populist preacher who is followed by millions of poor and downtrodden in Enugu State, could sway the votes of the congregation in favor of the endorsed politician. In December 2018, Father Mbaka’s romance with politicians turned scandalous, with his prediction of victory for Buhari in last weekend’s election. As a result of the partisan outlook of his activities,  the  Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN), Reverend Father Ralph Madu, had to issue a statement reprimanding Father Mbaka. 

Reverend Father Madu said in his statement, “As has always been our stand, the Catholic church in Nigeria as clearly stated in their August 7, 2018 directives, remains apolitical and does not support or subscribe to any political party. Our concern is for a peaceful election process seen to be free, fair, credible and just, and a democratic governance that guarantees peace, justice, equity, among others.” 

Result of the Elections

The results of the presidential elections that trickled in showed President Muhammadu Buhari will likely win a second term. But the spread of the votes shows the heavy religious divide. In the Muslim Northern states of Kano, Katsina, Borno, Yobe, Kebbi and Sokoto States, Buhari received more than 80 percent of the votes cast in the presidential elections. However, an attempt by the majority Christian South-East and South-South to replicate the same feat has led to massive violence, arson, and rigging. As the PDP’s candidate has been designated as a Christian candidate, voters in these states voted massively for him. But with the intimidation of voters by security agencies deployed to that region, many deaths have been recorded mainly in the region, while the integrity of the results being released is in doubt. 

An interim report of the election by CLEEN Foundation, which has deployed observers in all parts of the country, says: “There were reported cases of deaths in some states in the country including Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Kogi and Zamfara States. For example, two persons were killed and three injured in Amagu Community in Ikwo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State in a clash between rival political thugs. A prominent politician was shot dead at his hometown in Andoni LGA of Rivers State. Also, suspected thugs killed a voter at PU 006 at Ayingba, Dekina Local Government Area of Kogi State. There were also unconfirmed reports of killing of voters and others sustaining various injuries in Rivers State.”

All of the places mentioned in this report, with the exception of Zamfara, have majority Christian population. At least, 39 people were killed in the violence.

The elections were marred by shortage of ballot papers, malfunctioning of card readers (which were used to accredit voters) absence of the electoral officers at some polling units, vote buying, ballot box snatching, arson, and bloodshed. As a result of the violence and killings, a Non-Governmental Organization – Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, (SERAP) has written to Buhari challenging him on the need to “immediately refer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) pursuant to article 13 of the Rome Statute to which Nigeria is a state party, all allegations of election-related violence, intimidation and killings between 1999 and 2019 for investigation and prosecution.”

SERAP argued, in the letter dated Feb. 25, 2019, and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, that:

It is important to do this to send a powerful message that election-related violence, intimidation and killings will not be tolerated under your watch. Referral of the cases of election-related violence, intimidation and killings to the ICC would serve as a deterrent and ensure that Nigerians, particularly victims in the states that have repeatedly witnessed violence and whose human rights have been violated are not denied justice and effective remedies. The violence, intimidation and killings in some states around the just concluded general elections suggest that the electoral law and criminal law have over the years not been adequately enforced, and deterrence, through criminal sanctions, is failing. Electoral violence - a species of political violence – is not only a criminal act but crimes under international law, given its widespread and systematic nature over many years.