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Nigerian Christians Explain High Stakes of 2023 Presidential Election

Facing persecution and economic decline, seven leaders share perspectives on a vote that will “make or mar” the future of a religiously divided nation.
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Nigerian Christians Explain High Stakes of 2023 Presidential Election
Image: Michele Spatari / AFP / Getty Images
A man opens the gate of Labour Party candidate Peter Obi offices in Abuja on February 23, 2023, ahead of the Nigerian presidential election scheduled for February 25, 2023.

Christian leaders in Nigeria are convinced: The outcome of Saturday’s election is crucial.

Against a backdrop of widespread insecurity, persecution, and corruption, on February 25 a record 93 million registered voters will decide the presidency of Africa’s most populous nation. And for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1999, no candidate has a military background.

One contender is a Christian.

Christianity Today interviewed seven Nigerian Christian leaders, and five directly declared support for their fellow believer, Peter Obi. None indicated any other candidate. And of the 18 candidates seeking office, Obi is one of only three projected to have a realistic chance.

But with no clear frontrunner, Nigeria may face another presidential first—a runoff election. In a nod to the nation’s ethnic diversity, a first-round winner must claim 50 percent of the overall tally as well as at least 25 percent of votes in 24 of 36 regional states.

The West African nation of about 220 million—nicknamed the Giant of Africa—contains roughly 370 ethnic groups, speaking 520 languages.

Each leading candidate represents one of the three largest groups. Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is a Fulani Muslim from Nigeria’s north. So is outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari, who at age 80 is completing his second of two constitutionally limited four-year terms.

Bola Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim from the southwest, represents Buhari’s All Progressive Congress (APC). The incumbent party won elections for the first time in 2015 when Tinubu, the former Lagos governor, offered his considerable political heft. He now openly proclaims it’s “his turn” for the presidency.

The PDP and APC are traditionally Nigeria’s two strongest parties.

The third candidate is Obi, an Igbo Christian from the southeast. A political free agent formerly with the PDP, the Catholic politician joined the then-minor Labour party last May just prior to the primaries. Now he is riding a wave of youth-led popularity, with many seeing in him an alternative to an aging political class.

Beyond the ethnic, regional, and political aspects to the race, there is also the religious: Nigeria is roughly divided 50–50 between Christians and Muslims. All these factors contribute to making this year’s contest far different than the norm. And unwritten rules that in the past attempted to ensure social cohesion have been discarded.

The presidency is understood to rotate geographically between the majority-Muslim north and majority-Christian south. But this election the PDP decided instead to stick with five-time failed candidate Abubakar, perhaps in part to seize the traditionally unified voting bank of northern Fulani peoples that helped bring Buhari to power.

More painful to Christians is the failure of the APC to nominate a split religious ticket. In choosing Tinubu as a southern Muslim, the party feared losing the northern vote and assigned a northern Muslim as his running mate. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN)—which represents Protestant, Pentecostal, Catholic, and independent churches—pledged to oppose the Muslim-Muslim ticket, outraged at the breach of religious-political protocol.

Rather than submit to political machinery, Obi struck out on his own. Beside disrupting what had been an emerging two-party system, he also represents the political ambitions of the Igbo.

Following a series of military coups in the 1960s, many Igbo were driven from their homes in northern Nigeria. And in fleeing to their heartland in the southeast, some pronounced the creation of an independent republic. The resulting civil war from 1967–1970 killed thousands; some say the election of an Igbo president would represent a moment of national healing.

The government has made strides to ensure a transparent voting process this year by instituting biometric safeguards on voter identity. But at least 23 officials are being investigated for alleged roles in illegal registration, as authorities scrubbed 2.7 million names from the list.

Additionally, past elections have been impacted by violence and many fear repetition. There have been more than 125 attacks on federal election offices, with 280 polling stations closed in insecure areas. Already one senate candidate has been assassinated, a Labour politician in the Igbo-majority southeast state of Enugu.

Meet the Candidates

Obi’s campaign does not focus on ethnicity but on competence and youth. At age 61 he is the youngest of the main candidates, and his supporters label themselves “Obidients” in reference to the social movement that has rallied around him outside of traditional political structures. Both as a businessman and as former governor of the southeastern Anambra state, the philosophy graduate earned a reputation for thrift and left behind a budget surplus while investing in education and paying salaries on time.

His critics point to his name being mentioned in the offshore accounts investigation known as the Pandora Papers—though Obi was never charged—and a likely inability to govern smoothly if victorious, since he lacks a political base in the halls of government. The Labour party has only two representatives in the House, one in the Senate, and zero governors in the states. To assist in the north, he has chosen a Muslim vice president from the northern Kaduna state.

At age 70, Tinubu also promotes his competency and justifies his Muslim vice presidential choice by saying it reflects the principle that religion should not be a factor in politics. With a Christian wife ordained in a leading Pentecostal denomination, Tinubu downplays any fears of sectarianism. Once exiled for his pro-democracy activism among those who helped lead Nigeria away from military rule, he is credited with generating growth as governor of Lagos, the economic capital, and aims to replicate this success on the national stage.

His critics say that despite increased revenues, Lagos lagged in infrastructure development while political patronage distributed the spoils. Twice cleared on corruption charges, Tinubu was also named in a US Justice Department report about heroin trafficking, though he settled via fine without an establishment of guilt.

At age 76, Abubakar is relying on his long political history while campaigning on a platform of reuniting a divided country—noted by his Christian vice presidential partner from the southern Delta state. An oil sector businessman and former vice president under Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian who served as president from 1999–2007, Abubakar led that administration’s economic team and instituted a series of successful reforms. Charitable, he established the American University in his northern Adamawa state, which offered scholarships to some of the Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram jihadists.

His critics say it will be difficult for Abubakar to unite a nation when his controversial geographic candidacy divided his own party. Also accused of cronyism, he is named in a US Senate report for transferring “suspect funds” but faced no trial, while accusations have never been proven in Nigeria. And many Christians are concerned that in transferring power from one Fulani to another, Muslims will continue to dominate the nation’s top offices. Husband to four wives and 28 children, Abubakar controversially deleted a tweet condemning the mob murder of a Christian university student accused of blaspheming Islam.

“My vote is for Peter Obi,” said Emiola Nihinlola, president of the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary (NBTS) in southwest Nigeria, citing Obi’s performance as governor. “There are good reasons to fear that a Muslim-Muslim presidency will lead to greater discrimination of Christians.”

“My preference for president is one whom I have identified as a transformational political leader,” said Yusufu Turaki, professor of theology and social ethics at the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) Seminary in the north-central Plateau state, without naming his choice. “He must have a moral and ethical character, and human and social skills.”

“I support Peter Obi because he seems to be the least controversial of the three, and the one least likely to pursue an Islamization agenda,” said Tee Joseph, affiliated with a seminary in Lagos, using a pseudonym to shield his institution amid a climate of political violence. “Tinubu may get emasculated by northern Muslims while the real power will reside in the vice president.”

“It is ok for Christians in the PDP to honor their party allegiance, and the Muslim-Muslim ticket shouldn’t disqualify lower-tier APC candidates completely,” said Gideon Para-Mallam, founder of the Para-Mallam Peace Foundation and a leadership catalyst with the Lausanne Movement. “But this election is a referendum on good governance, and here Obi’s appeal has become irresistible.”

“I support the Labour party because Obi is a younger person with vision,” said Samson Auta, an Assemblies of God Northern Nigeria member serving as northwest regional coordinator for the Interfaith Mediation Center (IMC), “even though he is unlikely to win the election.”

How Will Christians Vote?

Is Auta correct? While Nigerian surveys are often qualified as suspect, Obi has been leading in many—though amid a large percentage of undecideds. Seeking to take this into account, the data and intelligence company Stears studied profiles and peripheral answers to judge that in the case of high turnout for Election Day, Obi would win by a large margin. Otherwise, Tinubu polls comfortably ahead.

In 2019, only 35 percent of the electorate participated, and only twice since 1999 has turnout exceeded 50 percent. Much rests on the youth, as the 18–34 age bracket makes up 84 percent of the 10 million new registered voters and 40 percent of the total overall.

Much also rests on Christians, as a fourth candidate with substantial support in the northern state of Kano—where last month the governor met with clerics who promoted the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC as a “jihad”—may further divide the religious vote.

But Nigerian Christians are also divided, having many members in the major parties. Some sources attributed this to historic heritage, others to corruption or political ambition. But Auta estimated his fellow believers would vote 40 percent for Abubakar, 30 percent for Obi, and 20 percent for Tinubu, with the rest dispersed across smaller parties.

Para-Mallam was more hopeful for Obi, estimating 30 percent of the Obidients are Muslim. He thinks Christians would give Obi a minimum support of 60 percent, then 30 percent to Abubakar and 10 percent to Tinubu. But some leaders remain in the camp of the APC, including a few prominent members of CAN.

While most sources found only individual pastors directly endorsing Obi, they also praised the role of the church for promoting political participation this election cycle. Despite what some described as a “cumbersome” registration process, most found the government to be a neutral actor and said Christians have extensively mobilized.

“There is greater political awareness and readiness to vote now more than ever before, because of the sufferings experienced under this administration,” said Samson Ayokunle, vice president of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), praising also the role of the church in mobilization. “And as the former president of CAN, I stand with my organization against the Muslim-Muslim ticket, in hope the citizens will elect God-fearing figures.”

“If anyone has not registered, it is from personal apathy only,” said Okike Offia, Nigeria country leader for the Navigators. “Pastors and churches have played a very significant role in voter education and mobilization.”

“The Nigerian church has suddenly woken up to the reality of a well laid Islamization agenda, and will certainly not vote for APC, even though they have not publicly endorsed anybody,” said Joseph. “They are likely silent supporters of Obi.”

“Christian unity is assumed, but not factual,” said Turaki. “Political parties have divided us by ethnicity, religion, and region, but this election has given Christians the best potential opportunity to unite their political choice.”

“Religious politics will move Nigeria backwards,” said Para-Mallam. “Muslims have practiced it—first quietly, now louder—while we have been late to the game. But Christians have to give a better example.”

“Christians are learning what it means to be responsible citizens of a nation through political participation,” said Nihinlola. “The church is trying to correct the wrong perception of the past, when politics was considered a dirty game.”

The Key Issues

Asked to list up to five important problems facing Nigeria, five of seven sources cited corruption. Six named insecurity, and an additional six identified the economy. These square with popular perception and global indices.

Afrobarometer polled Nigerians and found an astounding 90 percent say their country is moving in the wrong direction. Poverty encompasses 60 percent, while Nigeria ranks No. 150 of 180 nations in corruption and No. 143 of 163 in national peace. On Open Doors’ World Watch List, it ranks No. 6 of the top 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution.

Analysts say, however, that the main candidates have offered similar rhetoric on these topics—all pledging to reverse course. Some Christian sources say Obi has been a clearer and more focused voice.

“Corruption is like an octopus with many hands that hold a nation hostage,” said Turaki. “Nigeria needs fearless and bold politicians who can address this monster.”

“No Nigerian is safe anywhere,” said Offia. “You neither can sleep in peace at night, nor travel to conduct legitimate business as you could in the past.”

“Unemployment and hyperinflation constitute the pain points most people face,” said Joseph. “I think many will vote against the ruling party because of it.”

The Real Issues

But most sources believed most Nigerians would vote instead according to primordial understandings of identity. Some included Christians among them. Others mentioned an ongoing currency crunch as the government removes paper bills from circulation in favor of a cashless economy, as either a curb on vote buying or a manipulation in favor of the parties with funds.

“Real issues have been shipwrecked in the high seas of political propaganda, with ideologies almost non-existent,” said Para-Mallam. “In Nigeria, parties matter, but to a lesser extent.”

“For Nigeria, specific issues do not carry much weight, as they are usually subsumed under broader ethnic, religious, and regional concerns,” said Turaki. “True national politics cannot develop unless the problem of ethnocentrism is tackled head-on.”

“Unfortunately, most Nigerians will likely vote according to traditional party affiliation and ethnicity,” said Nihinlola. “But it is not certain if there will be vote buying in this election, although citizens are hungry and poor.”

“Every informed and well-meaning Nigerian will vote according to the issues,” said Offia at the Navigators. “But there are those who benefit from the current arrangement, who will go according to religious and regional divides.”

“Most Nigerians will vote based on what they believe will give them the most space for freedom,” said Auta, “to ensure that life can be lived without intimidation or injustice.”

Christians in Crisis

Many sources explained the likely Christian voting patterns in these terms, even as it reflected a religious divide. Many see the cause as existential, and some as politically intentional.

A recently released report by the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Africa tracked killings and abductions in Nigeria over the past three years. Counting all deaths related to terrorism, religious tension, and the conflict between herders (predominantly Muslim) and farmers (predominantly Christian), it remarked that both faiths have suffered terribly.

But Christians suffered more. The ratio between faiths was 2.8 to 1 for killings, and 1.6 to 1 for abductions. But if counted proportionally to the religious demographics in the areas of conflict, the ratios increase in disparity to 7.6 to 1 and 6 to 1, respectively.

The departure from a balanced ticket plays into these fears, as does the possibility of a Fulani succeeding a Fulani. Buhari was prominently named by several as a factor in, if not the instigator of, religious bias.

“The outcome of the elections will certainly impact the level of persecution Christians are experiencing,” said Nihinlola. “If a faith balance is followed in all regions, it should reduce.”

“A Muslim-Muslim presidency will definitely mean more officially endorsed persecution,” said Offia. “The Islamic agenda will be pursued vigorously. The indicators are there and all who have eyes can see it.”

“Neither the APC nor the PDP can be trusted when it comes to Fulanization or Islamization. Neither of the two is healthy for Nigeria,” said Owalalu. “Only a Labour Party can assure that there will be no persecution of Christians in Nigeria.”

“Abubakar as vice president had a history of promoting Christians to high positions in the government, so he is not feared as a Muslim bigot; Tinubu was similar in Lagos,” said Para-Mallam. “But I still fear Islamization can come through democratic processes, and Christians feel safer with Obi.”

“The systemic use of political position to advance Islam or appoint more Muslims to positions of power by the executive arm of government has created more awareness of the need for religious balancing,” said Ayokunle. “If we make the mistake of electing Islamists or corrupt people into power again, the future might not be palatable for Christians.”

Restructuring or Status Quo?

Will it be palatable for anyone? Nigeria is a federal republic with three branches of government, balancing the responsibilities of the central authority with the states. But many sources complained that not only is religious balance disturbed in recent politics, but that the presidency and legislature have grown too powerful vis-à-vis the regions.

Some propose a political restructuring—a few, partition.

Rejected by Buhari, proposals differ and the issue was not a main topic of debate in the election. But the general idea rests in the devolution of authority from the capital of Abuja—perhaps organized around the six major geographical areas.

Yes or no, many see this election as an inflection point: toward greater social cohesion, or more entrenched division.

“Restructuring is about justice and equity,” said Auta. “We have seen agitations and counter-responses between the north, east, and south of the country, which if not properly addressed will worsen.”

“Restructuring will ensure true federalism, and a united Nigeria is far better than several new states,” said Joseph. “But it is at best an elitist matter for a crooked political class, and will not address corruption, the bane of the country’s progress.”

“The 1999 Nigerian constitution was created based upon two contradictory ideologies: liberal democracy and Islamic theocracy,” said Turaki. “The consequences are the ravaging Islamic jihadist groups in the north, and the separatist movements largely in the south.”

“South Sudan is not a viable model for Nigeria,” said Nihinlola. “We have yet to recover from the civil war, and more blood may be shed in the process. And some regions have almost equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, so Balkanization will not solve religious tension.”

“There should be a deliberate rotation of the office of president among the six geopolitical zones in the country,” said Ayokunle. “This would douse the agitation for secession, and every constituent group would have a sense of belonging.”

Eyes of Faith

While Christians have their belonging in Christ, all citizens are part of the nation. But the believing lens is greater—even as this election sets many on edge.

Ayokunle is skeptical: Political behavior has been crude, the government has not resourced the process properly, and violence may scare many away from the polls.

Nihinlola is fearful: Politicians are desperate, and the ethnic, religious, and political divisions are greater than ever before.

Turaki is cautiously optimistic: Despite some hitches, the government has made great effort to ensure the process is open to all.

Joseph is cynical: People are frustrated, while frayed nerves may set the nation on fire, potentially disturbing the elections altogether.

Auta is concerned: Last-chance politicians and ethnic ambitions may spark violence, despite the best efforts of the IMC to put early warning systems in place.

Para-Mallam is nervous: While Obi has momentum, social media popularity and social movement excitement don’t always translate into political results.

Offia is peaceful: This election is a wakeup call to a church that has neglected its responsibility, but God is about to do something significant, one way or another.

But what is it?

“As a Christian I am hopeful,” said Ayokunle. “The God we call upon for the success of this election can cause our government to address all of the above concerns.”

“The church must emphasize the dismantling of structures of injustice and corruption, promoting inclusiveness in government,” said Para-Mallam. “If Christians can do this while in office, it will convince Muslims to vote for them.”

“We are crying for God’s mercy,” said Nihinlola. “We are praying that Christians and other citizens will embrace righteousness and justice to exalt the nation, and that God preserves the gospel, the Christian faith, and the church in the land.”

“The sovereignty of God is over Nigeria,” said Turaki. “Social upheavals often generate human fears and anxieties, but those who trust in the Lord are calm and hopeful.”

“God allowed the current president to be a King Nebuchadnezzar, to force us to repentance,” said Joseph. “Our prayer is for God to take away his fury, forgive our sins, and restore Nigeria.”

“With fervent prayer and submission to the will of God, may we choose the right person—and not from our selfish interest,” said Auta. “This faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see.”

“This is a make or mar election,” said Offia. “If we get it right, Nigeria will blossom and flourish. If we get it wrong, it means our cup of suffering is not yet full.”

January/February
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