On Sunday, the presidential candidate for Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, chose Kashim Shettima, a 55-year-old Muslim, as his running mate for the general elections scheduled for February 25, 2023.
Earlier, his main rival, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — a 75-year-old Muslim himself — nominated Ifeanyi Arthur — a Christian — as his running mate. Okowa, 62, has been the governor of Delta State since 2015 and is considered a PDP veteran.
It was no coincidence: The presidential and vice-presidential candidates were carefully chosen by their parties to ensure the maxiumum amount of votes in their respective strongholds.
“There is a very interesting ethnic, religious and geographic arithmetic taking place in these elections,” security analyst Ryan Cummings told DW. “Currently it seems to favor Tinubu in terms of his ethnic profile and who he chose as a running mate.”
An ‘unfortunate’ development
Analyst Tukur Abdelkadir from Kaduna University believes that all this strategizing is an “unfortunate” recent development in Nigeria’s politics. Until the turn of the century, religion did not play a role in politics, he said.
“The leadership we have had from [former Presidents] Olusegun Obasanjo, and Jonathan Goodluck, and President Muhammadu Buhari, have not helped matters, especially in trying to promote reconciliation in the country,” Abdelkadir told DW.
Tinubu, 70, is a former governor of Lagos state, Nigeria’s commercial hub. A Yoruba Muslim from southwestern Nigeria, he wants to succeed Buhari, who will step down next year after completing two terms.
Heated public debates
Shettima, meanwhile, is a former governor of Borno State, which has suffered greatly under a 13-year-long jihadist uprising that has so far killed 40,000 people and displaced 2.2 million. The APC hopes he will be accepted as deputy by the power brokers in the north, who represent a large voting bloc in the West African nation.
But the APC’s choice of candidates still sparked a heated public debate. In the most recent elections, presidential candidates from the largely Muslim north have selected a vice-presidential running mate from the predominantly Christian south — and vice versa — in an attempt to foster unity across the culturally diverse country.
“Christians and Muslims always play the ethnoreligious card, whenever they either run short of ideas or they are trying to capitalize on the disillusionment and discontent of the people,” lecturer Abdelkadir said.
A chance for Peter Obi?
This time, the disaffected — especially young people — could instead hedge their bets on a third candidate: Peter Obi. The 60-year-old ex-governor of Anambra State, who already has a strong following on social media, left the PDP to run for the Labor Party (LP).
“He is well-represented, specifically in southern Nigeria,” said Cummings. “[He could] at least play the role of kingmaker.”
His potential influence will increase if the race among the main contenders proves to be tight, as seems likely at this stage. Besides coming up with strategies to cancel out each other’s voter bases, the two main presidential candidates have more similarities than differences. They are both Muslim, members of the political establishment, over 70 and rich enough to finance expensive campaigns.
Both are in favor of much more liberal economic policies compared to those of Buhari, who has taken a strong protectionist and nationalistic approach. The candidates’ stance may also be a signal to outside investors, especially those in the West, that there is no need to already take sides.
The strategy seems to be working. “No matter what the election outcome, the [economic] policy trajectory will change fundamentally,” the Financial Derivatives Company wrote in a note to investors. “The protectionist policies of the last decade are likely to be discarded.”
Both candidates have also been investigated for corruption — Tinubu as recently as last June.
“They are billionaires perceived as using public office as a means of basically furthering their own political and economic aspirations,” Cummings said. This means neither of them is likely to dig up old graft allegations as ammunition in the election campaign.
However, their involvement in financial scandals has reinforced accusations that Buhari failed to keep his promise to fight corruption, further fuelling voter apathy.
Elections and security
A lack of security across the country, where violence continues to make headlines, is another serious obstacle to voter participation. In 2019, 35% of eligible voters went to the polls. Experts expect an even lower turnout in February.
Low participation not only increases the feeling that the elected government lacks legitimacy: “It is definitely a serious concern for the country moving forward,” Cummings said, as well as impacting the “strength and resilience of the country’s political institutions, which themselves have been looted through the various insurgencies that we’ve seen across the Nigerian state.”
So far, aside from promising better security, neither candidate has put forward a concrete plan to tackle the widespread violence plaguing the country through Islamic terrorism, banditry and ethnic strife. But as the elections get closer, this issue is likely to take center stage soon.
Isaac Mugabi contributed to this article
Edited by: Ineke Mules