Christian leaders in Nigeria are convinced: The outcome of Saturday’s election is crucial.
Against a backdrop of widespread insecurity, persecution, and corruption, on February 25 a record 93 million registered voters will decide the presidency of Africa’s most populous nation. And for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1999, no candidate has a military background.
One contender is a Christian.
Christianity Today interviewed seven Nigerian Christian leaders, and five directly declared support for their fellow believer, Peter Obi. None indicated any other candidate. And of the 18 candidates seeking office, Obi is one of only three projected to have a realistic chance.
But with no clear frontrunner, Nigeria may face another presidential first—a runoff election. In a nod to the nation’s ethnic diversity, a first-round winner must claim 50 percent of the overall tally as well as at least 25 percent of votes in 24 of 36 regional states.
The West African nation of about 220 million—nicknamed the Giant of Africa—contains roughly 370 ethnic groups, speaking 520 languages.
Each leading candidate represents one of the three largest groups. Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is a Fulani Muslim from Nigeria’s north. So is outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari, who at age 80 is completing his second of two constitutionally limited four-year terms.
Bola Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim from the southwest, represents Buhari’s All Progressive Congress (APC). The incumbent party won elections for the first time in 2015 when Tinubu, the former Lagos governor, offered his considerable political heft. He now openly proclaims it’s “his turn” for the presidency.
The PDP and APC are traditionally Nigeria’s two strongest parties.
The third candidate is Obi, an Igbo Christian from the southeast. A political free agent formerly with the PDP, the Catholic politician joined the then-minor Labour party last May just prior to the primaries. Now he is riding a wave of youth-led popularity, with many seeing in him an alternative to an aging political class.
Beyond the ethnic, regional, and political aspects to the race, there is also the religious: Nigeria is roughly divided 50–50 between Christians and Muslims. All these factors contribute to making this year’s contest far different than the norm. And unwritten rules that in the past attempted to ensure social cohesion have been discarded.
The presidency is understood to rotate geographically between the majority-Muslim north and majority-Christian south. But this election the PDP decided instead to stick with five-time failed candidate Abubakar, perhaps in part to seize the traditionally unified voting bank of northern Fulani peoples that helped bring Buhari to power.
More painful to Christians is the failure of the APC to nominate a split religious ticket. In choosing Tinubu as a southern Muslim, the party feared losing the northern vote and assigned a northern Muslim as his running mate. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN)—which represents Protestant, Pentecostal, Catholic, and independent churches—pledged to oppose the Muslim-Muslim ticket, outraged at the breach of religious-political protocol.
Rather than submit to political machinery, Obi struck out on his own. Beside disrupting what had been an emerging two-party system, he also represents the political ambitions of the Igbo.
Following a series of military coups in the 1960s, many Igbo were driven from their homes in northern Nigeria. And in fleeing to their heartland in the southeast, some pronounced the creation of an independent republic. The resulting civil war from 1967–1970 killed thousands; some say the election of an Igbo president would represent a moment of national healing.
The government has made strides to ensure a transparent voting process this year by instituting biometric safeguards on voter identity. But at least 23 officials are being investigated for alleged roles in illegal registration, as authorities scrubbed 2.7 million names from the list.
Additionally, past elections have been impacted by violence and many fear repetition. There have been more than 125 attacks on federal election offices, with 280 polling stations closed in insecure areas. Already one senate candidate has been assassinated, a Labour politician in the Igbo-majority southeast state of Enugu.
Meet the Candidates
Obi’s campaign does not focus on ethnicity but on competence and youth. At age 61 he is the youngest of the main candidates, and his supporters label themselves “Obidients” in reference to the social movement that has rallied around him outside of traditional political structures. Both as a businessman and as former governor of the southeastern Anambra state, the philosophy graduate earned a reputation for thrift and left behind a budget surplus while investing in education and paying salaries on time.
His critics point to his name being mentioned in the offshore accounts investigation known as the Pandora Papers—though Obi was never charged—and a likely inability to govern smoothly if victorious, since he lacks a political base in the halls of government. The Labour party has only two representatives in the House, one in the Senate, and zero governors in the states. To assist in the north, he has chosen a Muslim vice president from the northern Kaduna state.
At age 70, Tinubu also promotes his competency and justifies his Muslim vice presidential choice by saying it reflects the principle that religion should not be a factor in politics. With a Christian wife ordained in a leading Pentecostal denomination, Tinubu downplays any fears of sectarianism. Once exiled for his pro-democracy activism among those who helped lead Nigeria away from military rule, he is credited with generating growth as governor of Lagos, the economic capital, and aims to replicate this success on the national stage.
His critics say that despite increased revenues, Lagos lagged in infrastructure development while political patronage distributed the spoils. Twice cleared on corruption charges, Tinubu was also named in a US Justice Department report about heroin trafficking, though he settled via fine without an establishment of guilt.
At age 76, Abubakar is relying on his long political history while campaigning on a platform of reuniting a divided country—noted by his Christian vice presidential partner from the southern Delta state. An oil sector businessman and former vice president under Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian who served as president from 1999–2007, Abubakar led that administration’s economic team and instituted a series of successful reforms. Charitable, he established the American University in his northern Adamawa state, which offered scholarships to some of the Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram jihadists.
His critics say it will be difficult for Abubakar to unite a nation when his controversial geographic candidacy divided his own party. Also accused of cronyism, he is named in a US Senate report for transferring “suspect funds” but faced no trial, while accusations have never been proven in Nigeria. And many Christians are concerned that in transferring power from one Fulani to another, Muslims will continue to dominate the nation’s top offices. Husband to four wives and 28 children, Abubakar controversially deleted a tweet condemning the mob murder of a Christian university student accused of blaspheming Islam.
“My vote is for Peter Obi,” said Emiola Nihinlola, president of the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary (NBTS) in southwest Nigeria, citing Obi’s performance as governor. “There are good reasons to fear that a Muslim-Muslim presidency will lead to greater discrimination of Christians.” “My preference for president is…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 24, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.