Opinion: Why Nigerians Shouldn’t Vote Along Ethnic, Religious Lines – By Azuka Onwuka


There is no gainsaying that the 2023 presidential election is critical in the life of Nigeria. Sadly, there seems to be an attempt to get it encumbered by ethnicity and religion, thereby distracting Nigerians from the critical issues of development.

The first red flag came when the three most-discussed political parties picked their candidates from the three pre-1963 regions: Eastern Region, Northern Region, and Western Region. The Peoples Democratic Party picked its presidential candidate from the old Northern Region; the All Progressives Congress chose its candidate from the old Western Region; while the Labour Party looked towards the old Eastern Region for its candidate.

In the First Republic, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens was led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe from the Eastern Region. The Action Group was led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo from Western Nigeria. The Northern People’s Congress was led by Sir Ahmadu Bello from the Northern Region. Each of the three parties was in charge of its respective region and did everything possible to prevent any of the other two parties to eat into its support base.

Not surprisingly, the politics of the First Republic was heavily influenced by ethnicity and religion. To a large extent, the parties made no pretences about their appeal to ethnicity and religion. It was one of the drawbacks of the politics of the First Republic.

When the military began the transition to civil rule to usher in the Second Republic, the tribal politics of the First Republic was re-enacted on a lower scale. 19 states had been carved out of the three regions that later became four regions in 1963. Five parties participated in the elections of 1979. That republic also failed. Unlike the First Republic which lasted five years, the Second Republic lasted only four years. The military seemed too eager to bring it to an end, citing different reasons as usual.

To eliminate the issue of ethnicity and religion in politics, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, which announced that it would hand over power to a civilian in 1993, formed two political parties: the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. Babangida wanted Nigerians to join the two political parties based on their ideologies, rather than ethnicity or religion.

To Babangida’s credit, the ethnicity-free and religion-free politics he sought to create was realised as the two parties won elections in different parts of the country. The icing on the cake was the presidential election held on June 12, 1993, which saw Nigerians defy the issue of ethnicity and religion in their voting preferences. The SDP had a South-Western presidential candidate, Chief MKO Abiola, while the NRC had a North-Western candidate, Alhaji Bashir Tofa. Both of them were Muslims. Abiola chose Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe, a fellow Muslim from the North-East, as his running mate, while Tofa chose Dr Sylvester Ugoh, a Christian from the South-East, as his running mate.

The breath of fresh air was that the voting pattern was completely different from the politics of the first two republics that Nigeria had known. Kano State, for example, the home state of Tofa, voted for Abiola. Some states which had a majority of Muslims voted for Abiola. Analysts, however, point out that the only thing that has not been proved is whether the Nigerian Muslim community would vote for a Christian-Christian ticket. Ironically, the same Babangida, who purportedly wanted to midwife the birth of a new attitude to politics, annulled the election for bizarre reasons. Some accused him of not wanting a President from the South to emerge, while others accused him of not truly wanting to hand over power to a civilian. That action of his threw Nigeria into crisis and cost the nation a lot.

In 1998, Nigeria emerged from that crisis and prepared for another transition to civil rule. The Independent National Electoral Commission, established by the military regime of General Abdulsalam Abubakar, came up with stringent conditions that groups must meet before they could be registered as political parties. Again, the conditions which included having offices in all the six zones of Nigeria, sought to create pan-Nigerian political parties devoid of the appeal of ethnicity and religion. Only two groups met those conditions and got registered as political parties: the PDP and the All People’s Party (which years later, adjusted its name to All Nigeria Peoples Party). A third party (the Alliance for Democracy), which did not meet all those conditions, was eventually registered just to placate the South-West, which was still smarting from the annulment of the 1993 election won by Abiola. From 1999, there was an attempt to ensure that there was a balance in ethnic and religious representation in the parties, even though Nigerian politics has never been totally devoid of ethnic and religious consideration.

However, the coming of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) as President in 2015 quickly changed things. Buhari has emphasised ethnicity and religion in most of his actions and inactions, leading to the widening of the fault lines of Nigeria. Before Buhari became President, most Nigerians from the South did not know the difference between a Hausa person and a Fulani or a Kanuri. But that has changed.

As the 2023 elections draw near, there have been attempts by many people to keep the critical issues of development and security out of the front burner and push up ethnicity and religion. Over the weekend, the presidential candidate of the ruling APC, Senator Bola Tinubu, a Muslim from the South-West, appointed Senator Kashim Shettima, another Muslim from the North-East, as his running mate. This brought up the issue of religion to the fore of the presidential debate.

There is no gainsaying that in a multi-cultural and multi-religious country like Nigeria, there is a compelling need to ensure inclusiveness and balance. However, neither ethnicity nor religion should be made the core issues in next year’s election. Even manifestoes should not be focused on this time around. For example, after being elected based on the APC manifesto which had “restructuring” as a critical issue, Buhari jettisoned most of those items, including the verbal promises he made, and pursued his own views about what is best for Nigeria.

This time around, Nigerians should analyse the records of the candidates critically. What type of human beings are they? Are they people of integrity? Have they been involved in any shady acts? If they have held political offices in the past, do they have a clean record? How did they manage the resources at their disposal? What records did they leave behind? How did they treat people of other ethnic groups and religions? How have they been running their lives in and out of office? How did they make their money? What are their ideologies and visions? What is their state of health – mind and body? Are they strong enough physically and mentally to lead Nigeria at this critical time?

There is no need to prevaricate about the depth of damage Buhari has done to the unity, economy, and security of Nigeria. Anyone who will become the President of Nigeria from May 29, 2023 will face a gargantuan task. The person will be faced with how to raise money with which to service the mountain of debts Buhari has accumulated, how to block the high stealing taking place within government, how to boost the morale of the military and the police to fight against insurgency in different parts of Nigeria, and how to rekindle the belief in Nigeria by many Nigerians. Therefore, Nigerians should be concerned about electing a candidate who has the capacity to tackle these problems and pull the nation back as quickly as possible.

– Twitter @BrandAzuka

– Onwuka is a respected columnist with The Punch

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