The fabled, eagerly anticipated 2023 Nigeria’s presidential election has come and gone, and while there are no more queues in polling units and the thrill of vote casting, the intrigues and mechanics of Nigeria’s political machinery is still at play. And in this piece we can see how so easily we could have gone down the slippery-slope of religious tension.
Ahmed Bola Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress finished first with 8.7 million votes, followed by Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, 6.9 million votes, and then Labour Party Peter Obi’s 6.1 million spirited, if not poetic votes. The LP and PDP have passionately denounced the results with the duo dragging the APC to court in separate suits.
For keen observers this was predictable. Nigeria’s elections are only truly ratified and confirmed by the courts. Lawyers hover over every election like vultures at a slaughter, waiting for a kill, waiting for decaying carcass.
With the bile, lies, half-truths and heartbreaking commentary that came at the wake of this election, it was inevitably destination court. And we should be grateful passions didn’t pour out into the streets in the form of a protest.
But if passions were high it was done by one man. A man who understands the emotional fragility of the times, the widespread, increasing disenchantment by Nigeria’s young and the unchecked inflow of wokist culture.
Enter Peter Obi. Easy-features across his chocolate face, a permanent smile, good dentition, soft spoken, doesn’t womanise, doesn’t drink, two pairs of shoes and a wristwatch. This was it. This was it. The Knight in shiny army to whisk Nigeria out of the oppressive grip of big, green ogres.
It was an Arab spring of sorts. The internet went into a meltdown and there were many sects of ‘obidients’ at urban settlements. But in all the drama and deceptions of the 2023 presidential election, Peter Obi’s callous, cynical and desperate attempt at inflicting a sharp, perhaps irreparable gash at Nigeria’s already weary Christian and Muslim relationship, stood out.
Taking advantage of APC’s all Muslim ticket, Obi began a dangerous experiment of seeing if only one religion could produce Nigeria’s next president. Wailing over and whitewashing on Tinubu/Shettima ticket were perfect strategy at endearing himself to Nigerian Christianity and the end-game was to harvest the huge caches of Christian votes after an us-vs-them scenario must have been created.
Strategically, first warning shot was fired at the heart of Nigeria’s Islam when a notoriously liberal northern Muslim, Ahmed Datti – a luxury university owner and an open critic of conservative Islam, was announced as his vice. This was, in some ways, trying to put some contrast on Tinubu’s vice, Shettima, which the LP propaganda wing has for some time tried to brand a Boko Haram sympathiser.
In fairness to Obi, this is not the first time religion has played central role in Nigeria’s national politics. Goodluck vs Buhari (2015 and 2011) saw tasteless spectres of that. Both presidents, in the two elections they faced themselves, needed to explain to the other religion in the opponents half of the country that they were neither crusaders nor jihadists.
Obi understands these complexities, these suspicions, these lack of trust and while they run deep and have always been there, in his opportunism he almost ruptured the abscesses of Nigeria’s precarious religious mix.
His campaigns began at the pulpit, a triumphant visit to the Dunamis International Gospel Center on 30th July 2022, an August Redeemed Christian Church of God visit, a Methodist visit at the eve of August. By November when campaigns were most intense, with both PDP and APC competing on who would cover the land mass of Nigeria first, Obi was at Living Faith Church’s Shiloh 2022.
That November Obi visited Salvation Ministries in Port Harcourt, Dominion City headquarters in Lagos, Redeemed Envagelical Mission, TREM. He also attended the 14th National Conference and Jubilee Celebration of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Ubulu Uku, Delta state. Intelligently, Obi and his team downplayed his Roman Catholicism and how it runs to the very far edges of extremism.
Peter Obi’s barefaced, unabashed nepotism would hit a crescendo in his Anambra days at the twilight of his governorship when he would begin shopping for, preaching for, and advocating a Roman Catholic candidate who would continue that faith’s streak of ‘dominance’
That toxic, manipulative style of leadership gave Obi his personal results, not the collective results Anambrarians had hoped for, he became the best player on the field when his team lost the match in a drubbing.
The Anambra experiment would spur him to the national stage. First as the diminutive vice to Atiku’s 2019 run then destiny would bring 2023 his way. There are those who believe Obi had a real chance, beyond a fighting chance to victory, but he spurned it when he became a red-crossed crusader on galloping horse riding to expel Saladin and his armies from Jerusalem.
His game plan was unambiguous. Get the bulk of the Christian votes in the South, and in the North, the anticipated brawl between Shettima, Atiku and Kwankwaso would split Muslim votes in three.
While Julius Abure, the LP chairman (now embattled) was a southern Christian, he appointed Doyin Okupe, former presidential spokesperson, a southern Christian as the director-general of his campaign council.
Conspicuously, and true to plan, he appointed Ifeanyi Ezeagu, a South-eastern Christian his coordinator in Sokoto state which has a Sunni majority and a Shia minority (the undisputed Mecca of Nigeria).
A Rev Fr. became his coordinator in Bauchi. A Christian, Emmanuel Dan Jumai, was his coordinator in Kebbi and John Ezeigbe, a South-easterner coordinated for him in Lagos. This writer believes if Obi had pretended more, in his quintessential way though, played the religious card at night and a pan-Nigerian by day, and had respected this country’s diversity he could have won.
But in his march he cast aside the Muslims, same way he did the Anglicans and Pentecostals at Anambra, and clung to the church and the church alone for votes and victory. What he didn’t understand was that Abuja’s storied nocturnal politics is blind to religion, tribe and creed. It is the politics of who gets what in its crudest form.
The Christians who supported and voted Tinubu are often seen as saboteurs as a result of the dangerous rhetorics from Obi and his team. Peter and co smartly took APC’s all Muslim candidates out of the context of Nigeria’s sociopolitical definitions.
The Abiola/Kingibe ticket and the Tinubu/Shettima ticket were looking for balance. It’s an open secret that many northern Muslims view southern Muslims as peripheral Muslims, especially one whose wife is a pastor at RCCG. In the intricate way our politics is knitted, getting a Christian vice would have been electoral suicide in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim North. But religion has never been our thing in the South in terms of politics. It became for the very first time.
For the skeptics of Obi’s bigotry, the leaked call to Pastor David Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith Church, aka Winners Chapel, calling and describing the elections as a ‘religious war’ was the final nail on the coffin, the icing on the cake and the affirmation there was a dangerous man running wild with the microphone.
It is hard to imagine what the alternative realities could have been. The only clear thing was that Obi was ready to explode this country in an orgasm of religious violence, was ready to widen the gulf between Christians and Muslims and stretch our existing anxieties even further and further.
We didn’t just escape a manipulating fascist, we survived a Joseph Kony with a microphone and we dodged a bullet headed for the remains of our already broken hearts. Julius Bokoru is an essayist and public affairs commentator. He is the author of The Angel That Was Always There.
Bokoru writes from Jos, Plateau state