By Leo Igwe
The emergence of Muslim presidential candidates of the two major parties, especially that of Bola Ahmed Tinubu (BAT) from southern Nigeria has generated a lot of debate on the role of religion in political permutations in the country. Discussions on the choice of the vice president have been overshadowed by the religious affiliation of potential candidates. Many people have been projecting and analyzing how the religious particulars of the proposed vice president would yield victory or defeat for the ruling party. Analysts have been weighing in on whether Tinubu’s party, the APC, would field a Muslim-Muslim ticket or a Muslim-Christian ticket, and succeed at the polls in February.
This debate has yielded two schools of thought. First of all, some think that a Muslim-Muslim ticket would lead to a defeat for the APC. Those in this school of thought advise that Tinubu and the APC should go for a Muslim-Christian ticket or they would lose the election in February. These persons are of the view that a Muslim-Muslim ticket would alienate the Christian electorate in the country. They have argued that such a ticket is insensitive to the religious diversity in the country. At a time when the government of Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north has polarized the country along religious lines, they opine that an all-Muslim presidential ticket would not augur well for the country. The Christian Association of Nigeria has been one of the bodies opposing an all-Muslim presidential ticket.
Another school of thought insists that APC and Tinubu should go ahead and pick a Muslim from Northern Nigeria as a running mate. They are of the view that religion should not count or be factored into the choice of a vice president. People in this school of thought are saying that competence, not religion should be the main criterion for choosing a vice president. Muslim politicians such as the governor of Kaduna State, Mallam El-rufai have been the main protagonists. According to El-rufai, religious affiliation should not be a factor in determining who would be BAT’s running mate. He gave an example with his state, Kaduna, where he chose a Muslim as his running mate and still went ahead to win the state elections. Some have noted that El-rufai used Muslim-Muslim ticket a while seeking re-election, not when he ran for the first time. In his first tenure he had a Christian as his running mate. In addition, some people are of the view that El-rufai is proposing this idea because he is interested in becoming a vice president. And in the current dispensation, it is only a Muslim-Muslim ticket that would favor him.
Now let us take a critical look at the entire debate. First of all the controversy over a Muslim-Muslim ticket is rooted in the assumption that northern politicians would not accept a non-Muslim, in this case, a Christian as a vice president come what may. It has been said that there is an unwritten political code that no non-Muslim president or vice president would ever emerge from the region.
I met an aide to an APC Muslim delegate from Taraba state during the just concluded convention in Abuja. He made it clear that the problem with BAT’s presidential candidacy was that he was a Muslim, and the north would never accept a Christian vice president from the region.
He said that there has always been an understanding in the north that the South would produce a Christian president or vice president, and the north’s presidential or vice-presidential candidate would always be a Muslim. He stressed that northern politicians were not ready to alter this arrangement and would do anything possible to frustrate any development that would violate this understanding. He said if BAT emerged and chose a christian as his vice president, Atiku had won because muslim politicians in the north would prefer to vote for a muslim presidential candidate in another party to voting for a muslim presidential candidate from the south with a christian vice president from the north. I mean, I found his declaration quite unfortunate. It was shocking to know that non-Muslim politicians in Northern Nigeria are second-class citizens. And when it comes to the presidency and vice presidency, they can vote but cannot be voted for. I mean this unjust realpolitik situation is grossly unfair, and must change.
Now think about it, if the understanding were that a non-Muslim vice president position was unacceptable to the north, why did Muslim delegates overwhelmingly vote for BAT? Why didn’t northern politicians vote and ensure that a southern Christian candidate emerged? It may be that Muslim politicians from the north are now ready to make a shift and allow a northern Christian vice presidential candidate to emerge. It could also be that Muslim politicians would, come what may go ahead with a Muslim-Muslim ticket as Elrufai did in Kaduna. In other words, nothing has changed. So, with the emergence of BAT, a Muslim presidential candidate from the south, the north may be disposed to elect a non-Muslim vice president. But only time will tell.
As the second school of thought has rightly noted, religion should not be the yardstick to determine who governs Nigeria. I mean, why should the religious confession of presidential and vice-presidential candidates matter? What has religion in the case only Christianity and Islam, got to do with the ability and capability of a person to effectively govern a country such as Nigeria?
Nigeria is not only a country of Christians and Muslims. Millions of Nigerians do not identify as Christians or as Muslims. There are Nigerians who are atheists/humanists, traditional religionists, Eckists, Mormons, Grail Messengers, OOBUists, Bahai faithfuls, Jehovah Witnesses etc Like their Christian and Muslim counterparts, they are also entitled to participate in politics and governance. They are entitled to vote and be voted for. Discussions over Muslim-Muslim, Muslim-Christian, Christian-Christian, and Christian-Muslim tickets have made religions especially Christianity and Islam, the main parameters for the choice of president and vice president.
The debate has made it seem as if the only way to politically succeed in Nigeria is to profess Christianity in the south and Islam in the north. Incidentally, nobody politically reckons with Nigerians who are neither Christians nor Muslims, no matter how competent they are. Nobody explores the possibility of a Muslim-Traditionalist ticket, a Muslim-Atheist ticket, a Christian-Traditionalist ticket, or an Atheist-Muslim or Atheist-Christian ticket. To make progress, the emphasis on religious credentials of candidates must be abandoned. Inclusive politics must be encouraged. Competent and qualified persons of various faiths and none must be considered for the positions of governance, of president or vice president without emphasis on their ir/religious credentials. It is then and only then that it could be said that politics in Nigeria has moved beyond religion.