By Malcolm Fabiyi
In 2011, Goodluck Jonathan won the Nigerian presidential elections. Jonathan’s winning coalition came from four broad groups of people: His primary support base was comprised of people who were fascinated with his “rags to riches” story. Jonathan’s simple tale of having grown up “without shoes” was for many people evidence that in a nation where connections matter – where who you know, what name you bear and what part of the country you are from appear to be essential requirements for success – miracles can still happen, and a man without pedigree or familial connections, from a minority ethnic group could become Nigeria’s President.
A second platform of support was from people who had been appalled by the disgraceful and disrespectful way Jonathan was treated during Yaradua’s illness. This group believed that Jonathan’s perseverance in the face of abuse during the Yaradua transition saga made him deserving of a full term in office. For this second group of supporters, the fact that Jonathan had not achieved much in nearly one year in office since he took over as the de-facto President in February 2010, did not mean much. They excused Jonathan’s failings and blamed his lack of policy or administrative success on saboteurs from the Yaradua cabal. They argued that Jonathan needed time, as well as his own mandate, to prove himself. The third group of supporters was comprised of those who believed that a minority South-South candidate deserved a full-fledged term in office, and that until that happened, Nigeria was still principally a nation that worked only for the benefit of the three major ethnic groups – the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.
Finally, there was a group of supporters who saw all that had happened to Jonathan during the Yaradua interregnum through the prism of religion. Why was it the case, they wondered, that the constitutional transition of power to a democratically elected Christian Vice President had become contorted and tortuous, when just a little over 10 years before, Abacha’s sudden death had been followed by a seamless transition of power to another Northern muslim – General Abdulsalam Abubakar. And so it was, that circumstances and momentous historical events came together to provide Goodluck Jonathan with an unlikely but broad coalition of support that propelled him to victory in the 2011 polls.
While Muhammadu Buhari was not without his own base of ardent supporters, his one track anti-corruption message did not catch on. He was also dogged by allegations of religious fundamentalism that he could not shake off. He was immensely popular, especially amongst Northern Muslim youth and southern middle class, intellectual types. Buhari – whom many of his supporters referred to fondly as “Mai Gaskiya” which means “the person of truth” – was treated with near fanatical reverence by many of his supporters in the core North. However Buhari lacked broad mass appeal and the clearly lopsided religious basis of his followership became a cause for concern for most Nigerians. Northern Christians in particular, who had been victims of the sharia crisis in the early 2000s and were bearing the brunt of Boko Haram’s assaults viewed Buhari’s candidacy with some measure of distrust. Statements that Buhari had made at the height of the sharia crisis in 2001 had come back to haunt him, and called to question his dedication to a secular nation and his commitment to being a leader for all Nigerians.
Buhari’s choice of Pastor Tunde Bakare as his running mate in 2011 was intended to bolster his ticket’s claims to religious tolerance. Despite Bakare’s notoriety and immediate name recognition, he was never able to provide the Buhari ticket with any strong in-roads into the Christian vote. Bakare is perhaps the most outspoken Christian cleric in Nigeria, and has had long running disagreements and issues with the General Overseers and Senior Pastors of major churches in Nigeria. For keen observers of the dynamics and undercurrents of Christian politics in Nigeria, there was a clear understanding that Bakare’s choice would at best stop the bleeding for the Buhari ticket – it was unlikely to yield votes for a Buhari/Bakare candidacy.
Since three of the top four candidates in the 2011 polls were all muslims (Ribadu/ACN, Buhari/CPC, Shekarau/ANPP), the greatest beneficiary of a religious vote in 2011 was Goodluck Jonathan. It is revealing, that of all the Presidential and Vice Presidential contestants that participated in the 2011 polls, only one of them – Goodluck Jonathan – was allowed to the podium of the largest Christian gathering in the world, the annual Holy Ghost congress at the Redemption Camp, an event that brings together close to 2 million church goers from all across Nigeria.
Fast forward to 2014, and much has changed. Goodluck Jonathan and Buhari are now the only major presidential contenders. Gone too is the unprecedented goodwill that brought Jonathan good fortune in the 2011 elections. By turning his back on the masses by brought him to office; by insulating himself from the Nigerian people and responding to well-meaning criticism with the insensitive barks of garrulous spokesmen; by encouraging corruption at an unprecedented scale, and playing politics with the most sensitive security menace that the Nigerian nation has faced in over four decades, Jonathan has frittered away probably the broadest coalition ever assembled for a political cause in Nigeria.
With six continuous years as Nigeria’s President, counting from his elevation to the position of Acting President in February 2010, Jonathan can no longer blame anyone for his failures. The Boko Haram insurgency has raged on, unabated. Jonathan himself claimed that there were people in his government that supported Boko Haram – yet almost three years on, there have been no arrests or prosecutions of the sponsors and supporters of the sect. The Nigerian economy has languished, and for all the macroeconomic growth that the government has touted, the Nigerian economy might have to undergo austerity measures in 2015. The callous removal of fuel subsidies in 2012 and the obscene levels of corruption within the Jonathan administration have eroded the image of the president as someone who understands the challenges of the masses. The breath of fresh air that Jonathan and the PDP famously promised in the 2011 elections has become an odious and putrid stench of corruption and ineptitude that now threatens to drive him from office.
In addition to the loss of confidence that Jonathan and the PDP are faced with, the leading opposition parties – the CPC, ACN, sections of APGA and the ANPP – have coalesced into the APC. Jonathan’s and the PDP’s considerable electoral and political advantages have been severely diminished. One area in which the opposition APC and its candidate for President continued to lag was in the perception of their platform as one which has an Islamic bias. Buhari’s prior statements and unguarded utterances on the issue of religion; the APCs poor history of religious diversity for elected officials on their party platform and their failure to quickly quash talk of a possible Muslim-Muslim combination at the top of the party ticket did not help matters. Buhari’s naïve talk, as recently as four weeks ago, of the irrelevance of religion in politics by reference to the Abiola – Kingibe ticket of 1992 showed that the General had some learning to do about the nation he seeks to rule. While it is true that it was only 20 years ago, that Nigerians took to the polls to elect the all muslim Abiola – Kingibe ticket, the reality is that this occurred in an age of innocence. The political climate of 1992 had not been polluted by the politically motivated sharia crises of the early 2000s, and the sectarian Boko Haram insurgency of the last decade.
It is likely that no prior Vice Presidential pick has been as important in Nigerian Presidential politics as Professor Osinbajo’s selection to the APC ticket. The choice has effectively blunted the claims that the APC has a sectarian bias. The choice of Professor Osinbajo is a deft strategic move in other regards. No platform in Christianity in Nigeria has as much political visibility as the podium of the redemption camp of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). Few religious leaders in Nigeria command as much attention and respect as Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the RCCG. Osinbajo is a respected Pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, and a very well-known figure in National Christian circles. Osinbajo has also established strong relationships across the length and breadth of the country through his unrelenting efforts towards enhancing the quality of governance and restoring integrity to public service. Since Osinbajo’s candidacy was announced, he has already received public announcements of support from some prominent Northern Christian leaders, helping to shore up support within a constituency that Buhari lost by huge margins in the 2011 elections. Osinbajo also brings to the table a strong understanding of politics, law and the economy.
With the shambolic state of Nigeria’s economy and the open looting of the national treasury, Buhari’s anti-corruption message and reputation for probity is starting to take on a new appeal. His message, which was ahead of its time in previous elections, is finding resonance now. Buhari has also grown to understand the expectations of a political leader better. He seems to have come to a realization that everything that a leader says and does, matters. Buhari has become more mindful of his language and more forceful in his denunciations of Boko Haram. While the Boko Haram crisis is a complicated issue, one fact is clear – A Buhari/Osinbajo government should be more decisive in dealing with the crisis. For Buhari, the crisis has taken on a personal dimension – his statements on the sect have made him a target. For Osinbajo, there could be a self-interested angle as well – the Redeemed Christian Church has suffered more than most other religious institutions from the Boko Haram crisis. The RCCG has a presence in every Nigerian State, and in many, if not all, of Nigeria’s 774 local government areas. A number of their pastors and churchgoers in the insurgency riddled North Eastern axis of the country have lost their lives to the crisis. In Buhari, Nigerians will have an experienced military General, who understands the importance of being decisive in the face of an enemy, having a well-equipped and motivated army, and excising politics from security matters. The APC’s well-deserved reputation as a party of action, with accomplished administrators like Babatunde Fashola and Adams Oshiomole is also adding to its appeal. Nigeria can do with tested and tried performers and achievers for a change.
The APC still has a lot of work to do in winning over Nigerians. For all its faults, the PDP has managed to present itself as a party that offers a broad platform on which all Nigerians – regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds have been able to find a place. The APC is starting to demonstrate that it is ready to lead at the center. Its poor history of religious and gender balance, facts which the PDP has duly exploited, are being addressed. In Lagos state, the choice of Akinwunmi Ambode, a highly competent recently retired Christian civil servant as the APC’s gubernatorial candidate, over long term party stalwarts indicates that the party is aware that an albatross of religious bias still lies around its neck. Interestingly, Ambode the APC’s Lagos Gubernatorial candidate, is also a member of the RCCG. As the APC must have hoped, Osinbajo’s choice has silenced most of the religiously based criticism of the party, and refocused the 2015 elections on weighty issues and matters of consequence.