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Tinubu-Shettima: Who’s afraid of a Nigerian-Nigerian ticket?

The presidential ticket of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) as represented by former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu at its head,…

The presidential ticket of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) as represented by former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu at its head, and former Governor of Borno State, Senator Kashim Shettima at its tail, can be described in one sense and one sense only: a Nigerian-Nigerian ticket. Every other description is discriminatory and bigoted.

The barrage of criticisms, or rather plain mischief, that have trailed the emergence of Shettima as Tinubu’s running mate, under the label of a ‘Muslim-Muslim’ ticket is therefore an explicit—and dangerous—manipulation of religion for political purposes towards the 2023 elections. This rank intolerance and bigotry is framed in three ways in the Nigerian mainstream and social media.

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First, many invoke dark religious labels like “satanic”, “demonic”, “evil”, and so on, to represent an issue that emerged through a democratic process and is purely in the realm of politics. For example, the Youth Wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria (YOWI-CAN) in the 19 Northern States and Abuja described the Tinubu-Shettima ticket as an “evil and satanic plot to Islamize Nigeria”, but they were merely following the unguarded rhetoric of a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawan, who described the APC presidential platform as a desperate “resort to a satanic” agenda by Tinubu and his advisers, never mind that Lawal himself was the insider of all insiders throughout the consultation processes that led to the decision.  

Buried in the specific use of these labels—satanic, evil and demonic—in this election is the idea that the APC ticket is an attempt to “Islamize” Nigeria, whatever that means. This argument has long been in the making. It was put forth long before the selection of APC’s running mate in a communique on June 15, 2022 by the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), a leading press association. HURIWA “warned” political parties against a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket because it will, in their own words, “conform to President Muhammadu Buhari’s pro-Islamic government to push for the full Islamization of Nigeria”.

A third rhetoric of bigoted reaction to the APC presidential ticket is to represent it as being “insensitive” to Nigeria’s diversity or as a “threat” to Nigeria’s peaceful existence as one country. In the words of the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, for example, “when you decide that only one religion will produce the major actors, excluding others who will become like strangers, it would not be fair and just. For the sake of religious sensitivity in a place like Nigeria, it is good that we have a balance so that we become like one big family” .

In other words, if you have two people of the same faith on a presidential ticket, you are threatening Nigeria’s balance as one big family, never mind that, by the same logic, if we already accept everyone as a bona fide member of the big family, then it shouldn’t matter whichever two people a ticket throws up. And of course, all these characterizations of the Tinubu and Shettima ticket—as satanic, as an Islamization agenda, and as a threat to peace—have been widely and wildly used in attacking both APC as a party and Tinubu as a presidential candidate across both mainstream and social media over the past two weeks.   

But these characterisations of the APC ticket are a classic form of hate speech. By focusing solely on the religious identity of Tinubu and Shettima and by framing that identity as evil and threatening in a plural society like Nigeria, the critics are merely doing hate speech and nothing else. As the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines it, hate speech is “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

It is fine for anyone to raise issues with the APC presidential candidate and his running mate, but to make their religious identity the sole issue for questioning and to frame that identity as satanic is simply to do hate speech because no political candidate in Nigeria, in the past or at present, can be reduced to only their religious faith. In fact, it is perfectly fair and fine to raise the issue of a sense of inclusion or otherwise that the ticket might elicit, but not to call it a threat to peaceful co-existence merely because of the religious identities of Tinubu and Shettima. And it is a sad irony, and a sadder commentary on Nigerian political culture, that we are still worried about these issues when we like to proclaim “secularism” as Nigeria’s most desirable political order. Secularism means religion doesn’t count.  

The Tinubu-Shettima ticket is squarely a Nigerian ticket and nothing more. Both men are Nigerians. The positions of President and Vice President are jobs open only to Nigerians under our constitution and the electoral law. No one else, regardless of their faiths, can apply. Any two Muslims from Uganda, Indonesia or anywhere else outside of Nigeria are automatically disqualified, and would not even dare apply. Therefore, even to frame the APC platform as a “Muslim-Muslim ticket” is a disservice to the Nigerian constitution and a repudiation of the citizenship of both men.

Moreover, the democratic processes that throw up both men as the APC’s presidential flagbearers also deeply reflect the same Nigerian demographic and geopolitical diversity that some people claim is being threatened. Given Nigeria’s very complex demographic reality, it is only natural that you will someday have two Muslims or two Christians on the same presidential ticket, as we have had many times since the 1950s, but who yet represent very different geopolitical inclinations on the ticket. This is the simple truth about the APC presidential ticket. And it is nothing other than the reality of Nigeria’s diversity. It is no threat, it is no Islamization agenda, and there is certainly nothing satanic or evil about it, except by those who lavishly peddle these into our politics. And since history has not yet ended, the same political processes might throw up two Nigerians who happen to be Christians tomorrow on the presidential ticket of any party, and the heavens will not fall.   

To describe it in any other way is like saying Nigerian-born Kemi Badenoch cannot become British Prime Minister, a position she is now aspiring to be, and to the pride of all of us, because she is black, or because she is of African descent, or because she was born here in Nigeria. Of course, no one in British politics has raised any one of these questions because what matters is her British citizenship, which she duly holds. But the more crucial point is that had anyone in Britain done so, you can guarantee that it would be shot down by the media and the leading politicians and civil society groups in that country, including, I am sure, the Church of England.

This is where, in my view, the Nigerian media and our Christian religious leaders, who are the active promoters of this needless controversy, have failed Nigeria on this issue, with the notable and commendable exception of the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Reverend Matthew Hassan Kukah. My advice to the APC and the Tinubu campaign team, from a strategic point of view, is that any time someone in the media raises the question of a so-called “Muslim-Muslim” ticket, ask them: are you afraid of a Nigerian-Nigerian ticket? Pacification and explanation will not work.