Current estimates put the Christian and Muslim population in Nigeria at almost par, though some estimates give a slight edge to Muslims in the country. While the north is predominantly Muslim, the south is predominantly Christian. Yet, these broad categories ignore significant populations of both faiths across both sections of the country. For instance, the Middle Belt and parts of the North East have significant Christian populations, while the Southwest has significant Muslim population. The balance of the faiths has encouraged a balancing act in the choice of political leaders but there are fears that if current projections are right Christians will have a hard time leading this country in future.
According to the Pew Research Center, Nigeria’s delicate population balance between Christians and Muslims will tip significantly over the coming years. It predicts that by 2060, some 40 years away, 60.5 percent of the country’s projected population of 283.2 million people will be Muslims, while Christians will make up just about 37 percent. Four years ago in 2015, Muslims made up 50 percent as against 48.1 percent for Christians.
The implication of the large shift in the population is significant in political terms, especially for Nigeria where political leadership at the national level and in several states have been coloured by partisan interests such as religion and ethnicity. In the country’s history there have only been four heads of state/presidents who were Christians and seven Muslim heads of state/presidents. The Christian heads of state and presidents were General Aguiyi Ironsi, General Yakubu Gowon, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Dr Goodluck Jonathan. The Muslim leaders have been General Murtala Muhammed, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, General Ibrahim Babangida, General Sani Abacha, General Abdusalam Abubakar, President Umar Musa Yar’Adua and President Muhammadu Buhari. While all of the military heads of state came through coup d’états facilitated by their positions in the military, the political leaders have emerged through an unwritten understanding that power should rotate between the north and south and between Muslim and Christian to breed inclusiveness and cohesion. So far that principle has held at the national level. Given the ethnic and religious mix at the national level and in many states, there has been a deliberate attempt to balance the leadership between the two faiths such that there is a Christian deputy when a Muslim is president and vice versa. This assures most people that at the highest level of decision-making they are represented. This has been the practice over the years but at no time is it more necessary than now when the country is buffeted on all sides by conflicts and cries of partisanship. Yet, the signal from certain quarters raise fears and call us to vigilance.
In the last general election the Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai went against the grain of this basic understanding to present a Muslim-Muslim ticket, which eventually won the election in a state with a significant Christian population. While the governor called his decision an informed one based on competence, many people saw it as pushing the envelope too much. In the words of Femi Fani-Kayode when governor’s decision was made November last year: “It is wrong, divisive, dangerous, provocative and insulting for Nasir el-Rufai to field a Muslim/Muslim ticket in the governorship election in a state like Kaduna in which 50 percent of the people are Christians and in which thousands of Christians were butchered over the last three years.”
Indeed, we have had cases in the past, like the famous ticket of the Social Democratic Party in 1993 which had both Muslims – Chief MKO Abiola and Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe – on the ballot, and which is generally believed to have won the annulled election. But Nigeria has drifted terribly in recent years because of nepotism in government and the reality that political leaders have exploited their leadership positions to apportion favours on partisan parameters, including religion. A clear case in point is in the distribution of the local governments across the country, which has seen less populated dominant Muslim states with more local governments than states in the south with significant Christian population. These were largely enabled by the military governments but they have come to stay as immutable facts of the Nigerian reality, perpetuating a culture of discrimination against Christians.
A second reality of the adverse effect of sectional dominance is the nepotism that has attended the federal administration such that the key security agencies are all headed by Muslims. This has led to cries of sectionalism and, in some cases, pogroms, from minorities and Christians. Over the last few years, criminals working in tandem with herdsmen have terrorized communities across the Christian states, especially in the north, burning churches, razing villages and something akin to religious cleansing. These security challenges have raised fears of exclusion across sections not in power. .
President Buhari has already kicked off his second term in office, which will run till 2023, by which time the presidency should go to the south and to the Christian faith. Already, permutations are afoot in both the ruling All Progressives Congress and opposition Peoples Democratic Party on the succession. Christians must insist on their due right, despite the obvious undercurrent to raise the ‘competence’ argument as a smokescreen to continue the tradition of nepotism and sectional dominance. Balancing the presidency and political offices are central to guaranteeing inclusion in Nigeria. The country is too fragile, with widespread insecurity, reports of ethnic and religious cleansing and partisanship to disregard the zoning principle and religious sensibilities. The recently released 2019 Fragile States Index ranks Nigeria as the 14th most fragile state in the world, with a score of 98.5 out of a maximum 120 points, even much worse than Mali. Insecurity and marginalization of ethnic and religious groups have not helped. There are fears that more crises will come if equity takes a flight in the sharing of political offices. Already, the signs are ominous. The National Assembly has just been inaugurated and for the first time since the return to democracy, the heads of the two arms – Senate and House of Representatives – are Muslims. Fears have rightly been raised by different political and pressure groups because it means that for the first time Muslims now occupy three of the four leading political offices at the federal level, with the vice president being the only non-Muslim. Added to the fact that the Chief Justice of Nigeria is also a Muslim and key military and intelligence agencies are led by Muslims, the possibility of further tension and cries of marginalization are not farfetched. This permissiveness must not set the tone for the presidency in 2023. Christians must insist on a shift not just in the geopolitical origin of the next president but on a Christian president.