Playing the "Religion Card" Is Dangerous for Nigerian Elections


Playing the "Religion Card" Is Dangerous for Nigerian Elections

26 Nov 2014

A recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) examines the likely motivations for violence in Nigeria's upcoming elections. 

Nigeria's Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence highlights the increasing importance of religious identification and rhetoric by political leaders. It identifies four main issues facing the upcoming elections. These are:

  • Tensions within and between the two main political parties, including the mergence of the All Progressives' Congress (APC) as a credible rival to the ruling Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP)
  • The unresolved abandonment of a system alternating the presidency between the north and south
  • Boko Haram's stated intention and increased capacity to disrupt and carry out violence around the elections
  • The inadequate preparations by the government and electoral commission to prepare for the elections, and the incapacity (through bias and incompetency) of the security forces to ensure security

These elections will be the first since the return to civilian rule in 1999 where there is a genuinely national rival political party to the PDP. However the acrimonious relations between Nigeria's two main parties – which differ more in terms of the personalities and motivations of the elite politicians than in policy and governance style– is an indication of the potential for violence among supporters; particularly after the elections and should there be a runoff. The report calls for religious leaders to create public forums across religious and ethnic lines and establish communication channels as a contingency should violence break out.

The report goes into detail about the dynamics and influences religion will play in the elections. Under military rule there was very little reliance on religion as a political tool. Since the return to civilian governance in 1999 that has changed, and religion has never been as important to elections as it will likely be in February. The two main political parties openly describe the other as the Christian (PDP) and Muslim (APC) parties.

"Tensions... suggest the country is headed toward a very volatile and vicious electoral contest"

President Jonathan is more overtly Christian and closer to Christian leaders than any previous president. He has, as president, led pilgrimage to Israel, made a habit of publically worshipping at different churches in Abuja each month and made a presidential visit to Pope Francis. PDP members in turn have labeled the APC "Nigeria's Muslim Brotherhood" as many of its most prominent members, including the two foremost leaders (Muhammadu Buhari and Bola Tinubu) are Muslim. President Jonathan and other members of the PDP have also accused APC politicians of, at various times, sympathising with, financing and even being members of Boko Haram.

The precedent of presidential power alternating along religious lines has trickled down to other areas of government. ICG reports multiple instances where leaders and constituents argue that since a current, or even a current and previous, governor is of one religion, the governor elected in February must be of another. The report specifically mentions Lagos and Taraba states.

"The Boko Haram crisis is only a microcosm of the country's deeper malaise"

In the Middle Belt also, where so many socio-economic fault lines coincide with religious ones (Christian, indigene farmers who are often Barome ethnic group live alongside Muslim, Hausa and Fulani, settler herders), there are very real fears that political manipulation of religious affiliation and sentiments could inflame already simmering and widespread violence.

In the three states (Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe) under a state of emergency since May 2013 there are worrying signs that Boko Haram can effectively prevent elections in the entirety or considerable areas of those states. Boko Haram is carrying out and intensifying an effective three-pronged strategy of bombing urban areas, scorched-earth tactics in rural areas, and spectacular assaults on military and police bases. The ICG report states that by September 2014 Boko Haram controlled twenty-five towns across the three states; they controlled over 20,000 sq km of territory (equivalent to that of Wales in the United Kingdom, or Maryland in the United States); they had overrun at least five local government areas in Adamawa state alone; and had surrounded, threatened to occupy, and successfully carried out multiple suicide bombings in the Borno state capital Maiduguri.

In addition to elite political struggles and Boko Haram's continued insurgency, there is rising communal violence in many northern states and escalating criminality in the Niger Delta – especially in President Jonathan's home state of Bayelsa – that could impact on the elections. The widespread availability of firearms, in escalating influx across borders, is also a worrying trend ahead of the elections. The report cites the Nigerian Customs Service seizing seven times the number of firearms (ranging from pistols to assault rifles) in 2013 compared to 2012. Seizures continue daily in 2014.

Key Findings
  • There are already instances of targeted intimidation, harassment, violence, and assassination that have stated or implied political motivations. These are likely to increase and escalate.
  • The Boko Haram insurgency has increasing capacity to disrupt the elections, potentially disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters in the three states where they conduct most operations.
  • If elections cannot be held in the three northeastern states under the state of emergency it could render the elections constitutionally invalid. This is due to the condition that a president must win not only the majority of votes, but also at least 25 percent of the vote in two thirds of Nigeria's thirty-six states.
  • The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega, began warning back in December 2013 that unless the insurgency and state of emergency had ended before the elections, they could not take place in those states.
  • While military leadership has on multiple occasions reaffirmed subordination to civilian leadership, widespread disaffection among lower and mid-level ranks with how the military leadership and Nigerian government are handling the insurgency, combined with electoral violence may alter positions toward the legitimacy of civilian government.
  • Inter-communal violence, especially between herders and farmers, in the Middle Belt and central northern states has resulted in at least 900 deaths in the first seven months of 2014. In the South, PDP and APC politicians are returning to old habits of arming their supporters to protect themselves and intimidate the competition.
  • Kidnapping of high-profile individuals and family members as well as organised violence in the waterways of the Delta are increasing.
  • Rivers, Kaduna, and Kano states are highlighted as at particularly high risk of electoral violence.

The full ICG report can be read here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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International Crisis Group