Opinion: The Curious Case Of Northern Christians – By Simon Kolawole


The rumpus over the Muslim-Muslim presidential pairing of the All Progressives Congress (APC) was, I have to say, inevitable. I would be lying to say I was surprised. Since Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu announced the choice of Alhaji Kashim Shettima, former governor of Borno state, as his running mate, the outrage has been deafening. First, I expected northern Christians to kick against it. I also expected the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pentecostal pastors to oppose it vehemently. I expected the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), its allies and other opposition figures to jump on it. So far, my predictions have been fairly accurate.

Many things divide us sharply in Nigeria depending on the situation at hand. It could be religion today and region tomorrow. It could be ethnicity or sub-ethnicity. It could be senatorial district or local government. Politics at state level often escapes national attention, but it is a microcosm of the macrocosm. What Tinubu’s candidacy has brought out clearly is the delicate balancing act in the macrocosm. We traditionally think Nigeria is north and south. A southerner has picked a northerner as his running mate. That is balancing, no? It solves one puzzle and creates another: a Muslim choosing another Muslim. It is not enough to balance the region — you must also balance religion.

Northern Christians saw Tinubu’s candidacy as a rare opportunity for one of them to be the vice-presidential candidate. But in the cold calculations of electoral dynamics, the question Tinubu and his strategists would have asked themselves is: how many northern Christian politicians carry enough weight to rally the critical mass of northern voters? To the best of my knowledge, there are no Hausa, Fulani or Kanuri Christians who are political heavyweights. More so, the major identity marker in the north is religion. You typically identify first as a Muslim or Christian before your ethnic stock. That is why politically, the north is analysed along religious rather than ethnic classification.
Conversely, religion is not the major identity marker in the south. Political classification is usually ethnic: Igbo, Yoruba and “southern minorities”. Even in the south-west, which is mainly a mixture of Christians and Muslims, religion is peripheral to politics, and that should explain why a predominantly Muslim state will elect a Christian as governor, sometimes along with Christian deputies. In Ogun, the baton is regularly passed between Muslims and Christians, even though it is not planned. In political fights, you will have Christians backing Muslims and vice versa. Religion is hardly on the front burner, although there are ongoing efforts to damage that admirable culture.

In view of the Tinubu situation, one question that is being asked again and again is why he was reluctant to pick a Christian from the north. One pastor even said there are more Christians than Muslims in the north, a claim that cannot be backed by evidence. Of the 19 northern states, only three are governed by Christians: Benue, Plateau and Taraba. Two other states that have produced Christian governors in this dispensation are Adamawa and Kaduna — both by default, after the governor or governor-elect resigned, died or was impeached. Why, then, are northern Christians not using their “majority” to vote Christians as governors if the pastor’s claim is the gospel truth?

But that begs the question. Must a northerner be a Muslim before he or she can enjoy the support of northern Muslim voters? That is the question at the heart of this debate which we are hardly addressing. Pray, what is wrong with northern Muslims voting for a northern Christian? Why can’t northerners support fellow northerners no matter the religion? If Yoruba Muslims willingly vote for Yoruba Christians without frontloading religion, why shouldn’t northern Muslims also back northern Christians and put region above religion? Do northern Muslims truly have an agenda against their Christian counterparts, to keep them perpetually subdued through the use of political power?

When you talk to northern Christians, especially those in the core north, they believe there is a plot to keep them down. They complain about being denied equal opportunities with their Muslim counterparts in areas such as allocation of land to build churches and state sponsorship of pilgrimage. They complain of being incessantly denied federal appointments and deputy governorship slots in states like Niger. Increasingly in recent times, they allege “genocide” by “Fulani jihadists” and allege that the security agencies are colluding with them, and that there is a plot to wipe out Christians from the north. This thinking has reinforced the northern Christian solidarity.

A closer look at the facts, though, will reveal that the animosity is limited to a few states. In fact, Kaduna is the “epicentre”. The governor and deputy are Muslims and all ministerial appointments since 2015 have gone to Muslims. Things were more balanced in the past, but it still has to be said that even when there were Christian deputy governors and Christian ministers, Kaduna was still prone to ethno-religious bloodshed. Thousands were killed in upheavals between 2000 and 2002. It is, therefore, difficult to blame the perennial animosity on political appointments. Gombe’s religious composition is similar to Kaduna’s but there is peace and harmony. Something should explain that.

From what I have observed so far, Christians in Kwara, Kogi, Adamawa, Bauchi, Kebbi, Niger, Borno and Nasarawa states appear to get along with their Muslim compatriots, at least generally speaking. There will be little tensions here and there but it is very rare to hear of religious upheavals and killings in those states. Perhaps they have devised a way of managing their differences. In Plateau, Benue and Taraba, Muslims often complain of being pushed to the margins. Jos, in particular, has been a basket case in the last 22 years and something tells you another bloodshed is just a snap-of-the-finger away. Some of these things are deeply rooted in history and sustained through politics.

The irony of it all, if it can be so described, is that Christians used to play prominent roles in northern Nigeria, notably from the 1950s when Sir Ahmadu Bello was the premier of the Northern Region. He ran a system that accommodated not just Christians but ethnic minorities. The case of Chief Sunday Awoniyi, a Yoruba Christian who served as executive secretary of the Northern Regional Government in the 1960s, is often cited, but there were many similar stories. Bello shared scholarships and economic opportunities equitably to hold the north together. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, whom he anointed as the prime minister in 1960, was of the minority Gere ethnicity in today’s Bauchi state.

When the January 1966 coup wiped out many northern military officers, it was Gen Yakubu Gowon, a northern Christian, that the north made head of state after the July 1966 counter-coup. His two deputies — military and civilian — were Christians. He ruled for nine years. In the military, which held power for decades, northern Christians were key players. Gen TY Danjuma, former army chief, was respected by both northern Muslims and Christians. In the 1980s, there was the “Langtang Mafia”, made of influential military officers from Plateau state. They were all Christians. Brig David Mark and Brig Tunde Ogbeha were at the centre of action and defended the “northern interest”.

In addition to getting key military positions, northern Christians used to head at least one federal para-military institution — customs, immigrations, prisons and fire service — until 2015. Clearly, the Christian north used to have its pride of place. They were no pushovers. So, what changed? What happened to the bloc that was “politically strategic” to the core north and that used to provide the balancing factor in the socio-political configuration of Nigeria? Why is the Christian north no longer producing personalities like Gowon, Awoniyi and Danjuma who had cross-ethnic and cross-religious appeal? That is the burning question. The bigger question is how this old glory can be restored.

I wish I had the answer. A northern Muslim, who often shares his thoughts with me without filter, sent me this chat in reaction to my article, “The Awkward Muslim-Muslim Ticket” (THISDAY, June 19, 2022): “This unfortunate situation started with the formation of CAN. Our Christian brothers were told, taught and blackmailed to stop playing politics with mainstream northern political bloc. Very hostile southern press are at the centre of all this, and [northern Christians] boxed themselves into a corner which will NEVER protect their political interest.” I would add that southern politicians also played up the religious differences up north in order to get the votes of the minorities.

But northern Christians will say something else: that they are only resisting an Islamisation and domination agenda by the Hausa-Fulani. What I can say with certainty is that since the 1980s, there has been a rise in religious extremism on both sides of the divide, and ethnic nationalism is getting stronger. There is mutual distrust, even hate. In short, the northern Nigeria of today is not the same northern Nigeria of the 50s, 60s and 70s. I suspect things started changing in the mid-80s, particularly with the storm over Nigeria’s involvement with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Today, a northern Christian feels more like a southerner and aligns with the south.

Meanwhile, if I were to advise Christians on the Tinubu-Shettima ticket, I would suggest that they play politics with wisdom. They must be strategic and less emotional. Since Muslims will hold the No 1 and No 2 positions if Tinubu wins, Christians should play for the No 3 and No 4 slots for “balancing”. Otherwise, they should vote for Abukakar Atiku/Ifeanyi or Peter Obi/Datti Baba-Ahmed. They definitely have plenty options. But, really, what do vice-presidents do? The senate president and speaker are more influential. More importantly, being vigilant over religious equity will be more useful for Christians than having a VP who is largely a space filler — like a redundant semi-colon.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

OBI-DIENT AFENIFERE

Chief Ayo Adebanjo, the leader of Afenifere, the Yoruba socio-cultural pressure group, has endorsed Mr Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party. This gesture should not be overlooked: the Yoruba and Igbo are political rivals. There is thus a “national unity” value in the endorsement by Adebanjo, who fell out with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the APC presidential candidate, over 20 years ago. The Afenifere endorsement may not carry much electoral value — they endorsed President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar in 2019 to no avail — but it is something that can be built upon as we continue to seek handshakes across the divides in our politics. Positive.

SPY CATCHER

Mr Usman Alkali Baba, the inspector-general of police, on Wednesday ordered a ban on the use of police SPY vehicle number plates “irrespective of whether it is authorised or not”. He said the order is necessary to forestall the “continuous disregard for traffic rules and regulations” by motorists “hiding under the privileges of SPY police number plates”. One of the things that will shock you about Nigeria is the way people of means get special treatment. I used to think SPY was reserved for the police, only to learn that Nigerians with good balances in their bank accounts can get it too. Criminals could pay for it to get privileged treatment on the roads by security agents. Nigeria!

PARADOX OF PLENTY

In the good old days — I mean not so long ago — Nigeria used to grow its foreign reserves and build up its excess crude account anytime crude prices went up. For the first time in our history, oil prices are going up and the naira is falling. It is now N620/$ in the open market. Why? Because we are earning virtually nothing from oil exports. We are not exporting much. Oil production is low, our share of production is low, NNPC is using most of our share to exchange for imported, subsidised petroleum products under the direct sale direct purchase (DSDP) arrangement. In 2014, NNPC brought in over $98 billion in oil sales. In 2021, the total from the same NNPC was $92 million. Dire.

BADENOCH’S BULLETS

I am happy for Mrs Kemi Badenoch, the Nigerian-born British politician seeking to be the next UK prime minister, for making the top five short list. More rounds of voting by MPs will cut the list down to two, after which members of the Conservative Party will vote for a new leader that will take over from the scandal-riddled Mr Boris Johnson in September. While it is gratifying that Badenoch has gone this far in her career, I was shocked at her unprovoked attack on Nigeria and Nigerian politicians before a British audience. The same UK where MPs watch pornography in office with taxpayer’s money and ministers award contracts to cronies? She needs to give us a break. Please.



– Kolawole is a respected columnist and publisher of TheCable

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