Nigeria: Religious Leaders and Elections

Photo/Commonwealth Secretariat


Nigeria: Religious Leaders and Elections

Ian Linden

02 Oct 2014

As Nigeria's election cycle begins, Ian Linden looks back at the elections in 2011, and the violence that occurred after the polls closed, and he looks forward at the role religious leaders can play in mitigating violence and promoting national unity.

In five months Nigeria is scheduled to hold its presidential elections. In a country of 175 million people, elections are fraught with danger. Existing regional, ethnic, socio-economic and religious tensions have created fault lines that the passions and manipulation of electioneering will exacerbate. The religious identity component of the country's divisions is also today becoming no less strong than the ethnic. They are in fact often overlapping; political candidates will usurp both these identity markers. Violence is tragically almost certain.

This looming violence in the name of religion, or using religion as a rallying point, puts great demands on religious leaders. They have to respond to more than the terrorism in the northeast where they seek to counter the narratives of Boko Haram. The danger that Christian-Muslim tensions will explode in communities nationwide into interreligious violence during and after the elections is real. Will religious leaders be able to use their authority to reduce it?

Tensions have been building since the last election cycle in 2011, which sparked the highest levels of election violence since the return to civilian rule in 1999. In 2011, Boko Haram capitalized on these tensions to escalate their own insurgency against the Nigerian state, adapting and incorporating the grievances of the post-election violence, especially in the north, to expand their own recruitment.

By way of background; there was an unwritten political contract between Nigeria's political elites – that the presidency would alternate between a Muslim and a Christian every two terms – which broke down in 2010 when then-vice president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian former governor of oil-rich Bayelsa state, took over from Muslim president Umaru Yar'Adua who was dying barely three years into his first term. In 2011 Goodluck went to the country and won a full presidential term for himself.

In the run-up to elections in 2015, the potential for violence is even greater and is not restricted to combatting Boko Haram in the northeast. It is near certain Jonathan will stand again in February 2015.* Should he win, he would serve a total of nine years in office. Many Muslims feel cheated of "their turn" to have a president in office. Conflict is increasingly "religionised". This demands a common counter-narrative from a united Christian and Muslim leadership to combat sectarian (religious and ethnically based) rhetoric and violence. There are however hurdles to be overcome for religious leaders to carry out their responsibilities.

Prominent Muslims supported President Jonathan and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2011 elections against widespread opposition to Jonathan among the northern population. Boko Haram propaganda and terrorism was able to further undermine traditional religious leadership in the wake of the 2011 elections, presenting itself as the only legitimate opposition to the federal government. In the years leading up to the current election cycle, it has sharpened existing Christian-Muslim tensions. The danger is that by 2015, in some parts of the country, religious differences might become, or appear, coterminous with political affiliation.

Government attempts to portray Boko Haram as a foreign import, and thus having nothing to do with the state of Nigeria's institutions, has not cut much ice internally. The Boko Haram insurgency, while ideologically similar to ISIS in the Middle East, is home grown and has deep roots. As many religious leaders are well aware, Boko Haram is born of a bitter sense that the Nigerian political elites, Christian and Muslim alike, are acting as a corrupting, almost-colonial, presence. The ideology draws on a salafi Wahabi mind-set which sees only its adherents as true Muslims. This results in takfir – rejection or excommunication – of all who do not pledge allegiance – baya – to their increasingly well equipped war bands and leader.

Looming violence in the name of religion puts great demand on religious leaders.

These ideas have often found purchase in a discourse about corruption and injustice in the northern states. Boko Haram has also strengthened its support and recruitment base, and built itself up as an opposition to the federal government and seemingly complacent religious leaders through basic support of its fighters. The provision of women for "conversion" and "marriage" to young recruits, who would otherwise be unable to afford a bride-price, is an important recruitment tool. So too is one meal a day and the bounty attendant on owning an AK-47.

Boko Haram is now emulating the ISIS model of declaring a caliphate but exerts negligible governance beyond the threat of violence. Mobile forces in large convoys of vehicles take small towns, raise the black flag, appoint an emir, occupy houses, kill all fighting age men who refuse to join, coerce women into forced conversions and marriages to their troops, garrison the town and move on to take the next one along federal roads that have been abandoned by Nigerian security forces. Churches are routinely burnt down. Only one road to Maiduguri, a town of some one million people filling up with displaced people, remains open, its military airfield served by a generator. Power to the city was cut off three months ago. Religious leaders will need to rebuild and maintain their legitimacy to counter these threats. To spread an effective counter-narrative to Boko Haram, religious leaders must be considered authoritative by their constituents or their messages will not be heard.

Religious tensions and violence around the election cycle are not just a Nigerian Muslim issue however. Tensions have also emerged within Christian communities. One reason why the Catholic Church last year temporarily suspended its membership of the prominent Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) was the worry that this important national body was becoming politicised by its Pentecostal leadership. The Catholic Church has since returned to full membership of the national body.

Religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, are now in dialogue and working together to prevent violence whether religiously motivated or otherwise. Cardinal John Onaiyekan and the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, have for many years combined their efforts to create a formidable leadership for peace and national unity. Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president of both the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria and of CAN is currently promoting a series of Christian-Muslim dialogue meetings on the theme of "Think Nigeria", in association with Mohammed al-Amin, a professor at the Nigerian Defense Academy.

Today, against a sectarian narrative that Muslims are killing Christians, religious leaders are beginning to set the more truthful counter-narrative that terrorists are killing Muslims and Christians. As they "think Nigeria" and work together for peaceful elections, their leadership at this critical time will be strengthened. In default of any other voices of comparable authority and trust, government will ignore this force for national unity at their peril.

* Note: The elections dates have now been postponed until 28 March and 11 April 2015.


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