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Nigeria identity politics and the 2023 presidential election

By Chukwuemeka Obi
25 June 2022   |   4:00 am
Nigerians rarely vote for economic reasons. The chief consideration for voting by a major chunk of the Nigerian voters is identity - the voters are much more concerned about whether the candidate shares the same cultural and religious history as them than about the economy.

PHOTO: Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

Nigerians rarely vote for economic reasons. The chief consideration for voting by a major chunk of the Nigerian voters is identity – the voters are much more concerned about whether the candidate shares the same cultural and religious history as them than about the economy.

Nigeria is not yet a nation; hence our patriotism lies with our ethnic and religious groups. Interestingly, those who accuse the colonialists of amalgamating ‘incompatible’ groups together never accused them of introducing the religions that have made them incompatible.

Members of ethnic or religious groups in Nigeria experience a pyrrhic victory when a member of their group achieves a significant political feat. In their thinking, they have become associate power holders, because someone they identify with is now in power.

The 2023 election is promising to be an intense campaign on identity politics. The three major candidates, Atiku Abubakar, Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Peter Obi are from the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria from which the construe WAZOBIA was created and since independence has been locked in a bitter war of superiority.

Unfortunately, in their constant battle, the voices of the minority groups have been sealed. Never to be heard. It appears that Nigeria is now the sole property of the big three and other minorities exist only to grab up as many crumbs as they can from the table of the big three.

This takes me to the crux of the matter
The Vice-Presidential ticket has now become the next line of battle for the political parties since the INEC timeline for primaries ended. Usually, the combination is a Muslim/Christian and a Christian/Muslim ticket with the three major ethnic groups taking the turn of the dominant religion in their zone, except for Jonathan who came from the Ijaw ethnic group and has to be transformed into an “Nnamdi” to gain the sympathy of a major ethnic group. So far in this current race, only Atiku Abubakar the PDP flag bearer has picked a Vice Presidential candidate, with a Christian Okowa who, unlike the members of his Ika group, accepts that he is Igbo, perhaps for political expediency.

The APC is in a dilemma. Nigeria is not used to a Muslim in the South running for President, except for the MKO Abiola miracle. The normal thinking is that a Christian from the South will always pair with a Muslim from the North or, the other way round. In 2023, the APC presidential candidate Bola Tinubu changed those dynamics, putting the party in a causality dilemma. In all these, no one thinks of the minority groups; their voice has been dwarfed in the cacophony of the struggles of the big three. If Nigeria believes in equity and power balancing, like many want us to believe then, the minority groups must also be factored in this power-sharing arrangement and there is no better time to factor this than in the 2023 presidential election.

For Tinubu’s VP, Boss Mustapha, the present Secretary to the Government of the Federation, is a choice he cannot afford not to make. Mustapha is a lawyer with over 30 years of experience with proven expertise in privatization, commercialisation and liberalization of public companies/corporations and government parastatals, as well as debentures, guarantees, mortgages, bonds and loan syndications. Mustapha was formerly the Chairman of the Yola branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). He was also an Executive Member of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the defunct Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF), which contribution to infrastructure across the country is yet to be matched by any government agency in recent times.

Beyond these, Mustapha is from the Kilba (Hoba) minority ethnic group in Adamawa State, Nigeria. He is a born-again Christian, attending the Lutheran Church of Nigeria. The point many observers have missed is that the 2023 election will be decided by the minority groups in Nigeria as the big three go for each other’s jugular. Coincidentally, the North is a bastion of Nigeria’s ethnic minorities.

All argument so far by the APC has been on running a Muslim-Muslim ticket to curtail the influence of Atiku Abubakar, a Fulani Muslim from swallowing up the Northern votes. Some are definite that a Northern Muslim is the pawn that will slow the anticipated Atiku’s hurricane in the North. I see it differently. A Christian can. Atiku’s North East has a significant Christian population and a Christian candidate from the North East will galvanise this minority group to deliver up to 45 per cent of the votes in that zone to the APC.

The North Central is also free for grabs, as the zone with the highest number of minority ethnic groups in Nigeria, it is likely to identify with one of its own and support the party that was magnanimous in thoughts to accept that equity without factoring the ethnic minorities is no equity. I have no doubt that the aggregation of other ethnic minorities into one political block in this game of identity politics will be the game changer and the APC must take advantage by picking a Christian from the North.

A Boss Mustapha’s selection as the VP for the Tinubu ticket will galvanise the substantial Northern Christian population and other minority groups in Nigeria into action – if not for anything, to identify with those like them who have been forgotten in the Nigerian ethnic fight for supremacy. It would be a double win for the APC if Boss Mustapha is drafted as the running mate to the APC standard-bearer, Bola Ahmed Tinubu because with one political stone the party would have given the North East (a region so traumatised by insecurity for the last one decade) a sense of belonging and also elevate the ethnic and religious minorities in the North to a prominent pedestal in the Northern political equation. Also to his credit, Boss Mustapha was a founding member of the ACN, the forerunner of today’s APC.

It is time for the North to show conclusively that in truth, it is one big and indivisible North by giving way for the Northern Christians to enjoy the feeling of power that the Northern Muslims have enjoyed for so long. And when all potential options for this VP slot are laid on the altar of competence, political sagacity, and unquestionable loyalty, no one is more suitable for that role than SGF, Boss Mustapha who has always shown excellence, cool-headedness and an extraordinary sense of urgency in any role he has been assigned. The Boss Mustapha route is one the APC Presidential flagbearer, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu needs to and must take to solidify his chances of being the Next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is that simple.

Chukwuemeka Obi, a political analyst writes from Awka