Nigeria’s close-run presidential election was not about religion, until it was.
When, last July, then standard bearer of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Ahmed Tinubu put an end to weeks of speculation by picking former Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima as his running mate in February’s presidential election, he ignited a controversy whose shadow continues to loom over the country’s political landscape.
The former Lagos State Governor’s choice was controversial for a reason—Tinubu and Shettima are both Muslims. From the standpoint of the Nigerian Christian community, the selection of a Northern Muslim running mate by a Southern Muslim presidential aspirant was not just proof of the contempt in which the community had good reasons to believe it was held, it was a direct provocation. Not only would a Tinubu presidency effectively mean sixteen unbroken years with a Muslim in the country’s highest job, with a Muslim Vice-President, Christians would in addition be deprived of the “consolation prize” that they can at least point to in the outgoing Muhammadu Buhari administration.
Tinubu’s decision to go with a selection that he most certainly knew would anger a section of the country’s Christian community was a matter of political expediency. With Atiku Abubakar having emerged as the presidential candidate of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Tinubu’s only chance of making sure that the former did not run the table in the Muslim north was to choose a northern Muslim. Not only has the pattern of results in the presidential election whereby both Tinubu and Abubakar split the northern Muslim vote confirmed his intuitions, it is clear that Abubakar would have won easily had Tinubu, fearing Christian retribution, chosen a northern Christian as running mate.
While risky in hindsight, the decision to go with a Muslim (as opposed to a Christian) running mate of northern extraction was far from reckless. In the first place, it was, as previously mentioned, political exigent. Furthermore, it is not unprecedented: millionaire businessman Moshood Abiola won the ultimately abrogated June 12, 1993, election with a Muslim running mate, Borno-born Baba Gana Kingibe. Third, being a Yoruba Muslim, i.e., the kind of Muslim who is not averse to attending church service and is married to a Pentecostal pastor to boot, Tinubu could afford to play with house money in a southwestern region where ethnic identity generally overrides religious identity, and an anti-essentialist attitude prevails in confessional matters.
That said, although Tinubu’s calculations ultimately panned out, there are indications that even he may have underestimated the depth of Christian angst, the sources of which are not far-fetched.
Insofar as the Buhari administration can be said to have failed in its promise to bring the Boko Haram insurgency under control, Christians, especially Christian-majority farming communities and villages in the northern and middle regions of the country, have borne the brunt of the insurgents’ murderous attacks. According to a Genocide Watch estimate, more than 45,000 Christians died at the hands of Islamist insurgents between July 2009 and March 2022. This, coupled with random attacks on churches and abduction of Christians (of which there were more than 2,300 cases in the first ten months of 2022 according to an International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law report) fuels a Christian sense of injustice and perception of marginalization.
For many Nigerian Christians, not only did a Muslim-Muslim ticket seem like an extension of the status quo, it amounted to a tacit imprimatur to Islamists who had sacked Christian communities and killed Christians in their thousands.
The foregoing is the all-important backdrop to the leaked recording of a telephone conversation between Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP), and Bishop David Oyedepo, pastor and founder of the Ota, Ogun State-based Living Faith Church Worldwide. In the audio clip, Mr. Obi is heard describing the just-concluded election as “a religious war” and soliciting the Bishop Oyedepo’s support in mobilizing Christians in the Southwest and “worrisome places” in the Middle Belt like Kogi, Kwara, and Niger States. While Kenneth Okonkwo, spokesperson for the Labour Party Presidential Campaign Council (PCC) initially confirmed the authenticity of the clip, Mr. Obi later denied it as “fake,” though he never denied having a conversation with Bishop Oyedepo. Nor did Mr. Oyedepo in turn deny having a conversation with Mr. Obi, only insisting, albeit digressively, that he “never campaigned for any politician during any election in the country.”
The audio exchange between Mr. Obi and Pastor Oyedepo is instructive on several levels.
Specifically, it illuminates Obi’s overall approach to the election, a “Southern Strategy” which aimed at garnering the maximum number of votes in the southeast, south south, southwest, and northcentral regions by tapping into the aforementioned Christian disaffection with the status quo. Obi’s reference to “a religious war” was a direct allusion to a real Christian sense of oppression under the Buhari administration, and it is not difficult to see how the outcome of the election might have been different had Obi, who fully expected to be routed in the core northern Muslim-majority states, had won the “worrisome states” he was seeking support for. Across the southern region, particularly in Lagos and the rest of the southwest, Christian support for Obi broke down into two strains: voters who pulled the lever for Obi based on explicitly religious reasons, and others who might have voted for Tinubu but abstained from voting out of lingering annoyance with the Muslim-Muslim ticket.
More tellingly, the audio clip offers insight into the power of Pentecostalism in Nigeria and the growing influence of Pentecostal pastors, revered as much for their deep pockets as for their control over their congregations. For one thing, the exchange in which the presidential aspirant repeatedly—some might say cravenly—refers to the pastor as “Daddy” is a vintage of the skewed relationship between contemporary Pentecostal pastors and their congregants whereby the former are lionized by the latter as infallible patriarchs. Within this economy, pastors are venerated as exceptional agents whose word is law more or less. The fact that Obi, a practicing Catholic, willfully submits to this protocol shows both the power of Pentecostalism and Obi’s desperation to access the Christian voters that he reasoned he might obtain through Oyedepo.
Given the self-erasure and de-individualization that are the terms of engagement between the congregant and the pastor, there is no doubting that the exchange portrays Obi in an unflattering, almost demeaning, light. This probably explains the haste of Obi and his followers to dismiss the leaked recording as a “deepfake.” Contra the public image of Obi as confident and self-assured, the recording reveals a fawning but hardnosed political insider who realizes that a deal will have to be cut in order to make his political wish come true. This, perhaps, is the real meaning of his assurance to Bishop Oyedepo that “If this works, you people will never regret the support.” Obi is apparently sending a message simultaneously to the clerical elite and Nigerian Christians that, unlike what obtains at the moment, they will not be marginalized under an Obi administration.
Overall, the audio clip reveals the depth of opposition to Tinubu among a cross section of the Yoruba (religious and political) elite as well as continued apprehension across the Christian landscape about the Muslim-Muslim ticket. At the same time, it raises important conceptual and policy-relevant questions on the location of political power, and the growing role of Pentecostal pastors and religious leaders as powerful intermediaries and political brokers in Nigeria and other African countries.
Blog Post by Ebenezer Obadare
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.