by Akin Osuntokun
One of the novelties of the 2011 presidential election was the choice of Pastor Tunde Bakare as running mate to General Mohammadu Buhari on the presidential ticket of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). It attracted a lot of curiosity and invited ceaseless speculation. Bakare attained a measure of national recognition during the agitation against the attempt by the loyalists of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to hold Nigeria hostage following the health crisis of the former president in 2010.
He convened a group called the Save Nigeria Group to exert pressure for the application of the constitutional prescription for succession in the event of the infirmity of the president. Before then, he was little known outside the Pentecostal Christian circles where he had cultivated the image of a radical cleric. A substantial proportion of that radicalism was pulpit political activism in the genre of the liberation theology tradition of South America.
Now as before, Gen. Buhari labours under the burden of a general perception of him as Islamic religious hardliner. Much of his populist appeal is grounded in his self-exposition and definition as ethno-religious irredentist leader. The image has served a contradictory purpose and has been of mixed blessings. It has engendered for him the worship and devotion of the fervid masses across the Muslim North. It has equally precluded him from being accepted as a national leader. It is safe to assume that it is in the appreciation of the need to compensate for this politically balanced identity deficit that he chose not just the complement of a Christianity professing running mate but a Pentecostal pastor to boot. There is also this noticeable affinity in name and temperament between Bakare and erstwhile deputy to Buhari — the late General Tunde Idiagbon.
Is this evocation a coincidence or borne of a bout of nostalgia?
Although the inherent positive gesture and sensitivity did not yield the hoped for dividends of helping to clinch substantial votes across the religious divide, it has gone down in memory as an acknowledgement of the obligation to respond to a widely held negative public perception. How then should we classify the reversal of this positive impulse into a mold that reinforces the negative perception of the same actor?- The mold of his first coming as military ruler for instance. In leadership composition, Buhari’s military regime was conspicuously and uniquely lopsided. The three most senior functionaries comprising himself, Idiagbon as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters and General Ibrahim Babangida as Chief of Army Staff were all Muslims from the Northern half of the country. Before and after his dictatorship in both civilian and military government dispensations, this peculiarity has been the sole exception to the norm of geopolitical balancing.
I’m neither a member nor promoter of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and so I’m not expected to, and will not play the role of strategising for the national electorate acceptance of the APC. But I hold a non-partisan vested interest in the welfare and well-being of Nigeria. And this is what is at stake when a major political organisation purports to take the position that Nigerian politics is religion blind or that it is impervious to religious sensibilities. And there is nothing idealistic about this position either. It ceases to be idealistic when you exercise the power of choice in a manner that ignores the sentiments and sensibilities of large numbers of your country’s population.
I’m not required to be in the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to expect – given Nigeria’s religious composition and political susceptibilities, the President of CAN to speak out against a potential Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket neither would I find fault with the President of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) if he chooses to make an issue of a Christian-Christian ticket.
It is their duty and obligation to ensure that adherents of their faith are not exposed to the psychology of political marginalisation and vulnerability. The matters of faith are not readily amenable to logic and rationalisation. It is one aspect of our life where perception is far more consequential than reality. We worship a God we do not see whose dispensation is often discretionary and arbitrary. Religion begins where logic stops. And so it is foolhardy to suggest that in a nation as steeped in religiosity-albeit mostly ostentatious, as Nigeria is, sceptical Christians can somehow be disinterested in the spectre of a president and vice-president attending Jumat service and other newsworthy religious observances as a pair of same religious faith bearers and vice versa.
Rightly and inevitably, my attention will be drawn to the presidential ticket of Chief Moshood Abiola and Babagana Kingibe in 1993. That precedent is unique to the extent that religion came in contact with a more powerful though ephemeral sentiment of power shift to the Southern half of Nigeria. It is the cause of the fulfilment of this passionate ‘Southern’ nationalist aspiration that the facility of inter faith concession was called to serve. The concession was compelled by the supervening desire of a Southerner acceding to the Presidency.
Of greater significance is the observation that the 1993 event belonged to a qualitatively different era from the one that commenced in Nigeria in 1999 and the world at large in September 11, 2001. The latter era of high profile religious politics was initiated in the Sharia uprising that erupted in the heydays of the Fourth Republic. The reading of the subtext of the Sharia crisis was its interpretation as a contrived instrument of subversion against the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo who happens to be a Christian professing president from the South. This reading may be right or wrong but if any politician should make atonement for the role he or she played in this sad episode the two leading contenders for the prize are the former governor of Zamfara State, Senator Ahmed Yerima Sani, and Gen. Buhari.
There is nothing in the conduct and profile of Sani, before, during and after his tenure as governor that can be adduced as evidence to suggest that he mooted the introduction of fundamentalist Sharia jurisprudence out of piety and concern for the religious health of the people of Zamfara State. I will let Buhari speak for himself: “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria… God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country. Muslims should vote at the next presidential election only for someone who would defend their faith”
Since 1999, the misuse and abuse of religion-resulting in interminable crisis and widespread explosion of violence has escalated and lately peaked in the rogue manifestation of the Boko Haram insurgency. Concurrent with the Nigerian calendar of escalating religious crisis is the world-historic resurgence of Al Qaeda which dramatically altered the consciousness of religion inspired terrorism all over the world with the assault on the United States of America on September 11, 2001. The Al Qaeda network rapidly blossomed to become a global franchise and it was predictably not long before its affiliate in the Maghreb found common purposes with its Nigerian imitator, Boko Haram. Subsequently Nigeria was emphatically introduced to the world as a newly acquired homestead of international terror with the bombing of the United Nations building a few years ago.
With Boko Haram as pace setters, we now contend with its proliferating mutations. Nobody now knows whether the bloody intra-regional fragmentation along religious and tribal lines in the towns and villages of the Middle Belt occur independently of the Boko Haram command or not. Today we are told of the murderous visitations of Fulani marauders to the villages and settlements of fellow Fulani in Katsina and Zamfara States. Another day it is reported that rampaging Fulani are engaged in a war of attrition against the Eggons and the Ombatse cult in Nassarawa State.
Immediately after the inauguration of the National Conference by President Goodluck Jonathan, religion forced its way to the top of the conference agenda-aided and abetted by the choice of the opening and closing religious salutation by the conference chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi. Within a day or two of the inauguration, the scribe of the SCIA, I cannot now remember his name, gave out the new census distribution of Nigeria in the ratio of 62 per cent Muslims to the 38 per cent of Christians and others.
This earth-shaking revelation was intended to highlight the grave injustice inflicted on the Nigeria Muslim umaa by the negatively disproportionate representation of the Muslims in the composition of the conference delegates. The convener of the conference, President Jonathan, dutifully cut short his visit to Europe and rushed back home to receive a powerful delegation led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Saad Abubakar III, which came to seek the immediate redress of this offence against Nigerian Muslims.
The CAN of course did not take all this lying low. The battle was soon joined by the secretary-general who warned his SCIA counterpart to withdraw the provocative Christian marginalising census figures failing which he would announce his own figures and initiate legal proceedings to contest the Islamic version. It was in the thick of this religious muscle flexing and mutual aggravation that the breaking news of APC getting set to unleash a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket was served hot and sizzling on the front page banner of a prominent newspaper.
I have never believed that the presidential aspiration of the APC will seriously go beyond propaganda and hot air. And I couldn’t care less but I’m worried at the nuisance value of such a ticket. It promotes exclusion precisely in the aspect of our life where we most need inclusion. It is dismissive of the Nigerian federalist motto of unity amidst diversity. It is provocative and fraught with the danger of lending its platform, wittingly or not, to sectarian bigotry, chauvinism and conflagration. Let us hope that the spirit of the Buhari-Bakare ticket will prevail over that of the Buhari-Idiagbon junta that abrogated civil democratic rule three decades ago.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Akin Osuntokun/Thisday