Religion and the Nigerian Election
Murtala Ibrahim on the role of religion in the recent Nigerian election
Nigerians are very religious people. In fact, a BBC survey conducted in around 2003 found Nigeria to be the second most religious country in the world after India. Religion has crept into the public sphere and dominated political discourse since the 1970s. Intense competition between Muslims and Christians in the political arena has complicated the role of religion in the public domain, and this competition sometimes degenerates into deadly conflict and bloodshed. Politicians in the country exploit the religious sentiment of the people in order to score political points off their opponents or wear religious garb while secretly looting the public treasury.
In the recently concluded elections, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) sensing defeat by the opposition APC party resorted to using religious politics in its campaigns in order to scare the electorate away from the APC. Whenever they went to a Muslim state they would tell them never to vote for the APC because it is a Christian party – based on the fact that the vice-presidential candidate is a pastor.
When campaigning among Christians, they would tell them that the APC is a Muslim party that has a hidden agenda to Islamize Nigeria. They often say that the APC is the political wing of the dreaded Boko Haram. The president runs from one big church to another giving them huge amounts of money to campaign for him. Some pastors tell their congregations that they have to save Christianity in Nigeria and that voting for the opposition will spell the end of their faith.
This kind of campaign that makes religion a political tool was successful in all the previous elections, but this time around it failed dismally. Its failure marks a watershed in Nigerian history; it is, in fact, a peaceful revolution that took place without any significant violence. It indicates the triumph of pragmatism over sentiment and identity politics. The deep hatred and animosity that has defined Muslim–Christian relations over the years and manifested in their voting patterns has been miraculously undermined.
This peaceful revolution has been made possible by the colossal failure of the incumbent government. This government has allowed monumental levels of corruption to flourish with impunity and, as a result, billions of dollars have been misappropriated from the public coffers. For instance, when the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) drew the president’s attention to the fact that twenty billion dollars had not been remitted by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to the Central Bank’s account, he was sacked by the president. The government had given the notorious terrorist group Boko Haram free rein to kill and displace thousands of people for about six years before it decided to act just two weeks prior to the elections.
As a result of this bad governance, many people decided that they would not continue to allow their religious sensibilities to be manipulated by selfish politicians who are only interested in enriching themselves. The election shows that Nigerians have now decided to make obsolete Karl Marx’s famous remark that “religion is the opium of the people”.