Religion has unwittingly been incorporated into Nigeria’s practice of democracy and has become one of the most important sources of polarization in the country’s politics.
Since the colonial era, Nigeria’s extremely volatile political structure has been defined by a Muslim-dominated north and a southern region where Christians are in the majority.
The latest trigger to the age-long tension between the Christians and Muslims in Nigeria has come from a leaked phone conversation allegedly between the Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi and a Nigerian preacher and founder of the Living Faith Church Worldwide, David Oyedepo.
In the audio which was leaked to the public by People’s Gazette, Obi referred to the elections as a “religious war” and seemingly solicited the help of Oyedepo in spreading his campaign message to Christians in the South-west and parts of North-central.
Prior to the release of the audio recording, Obi had strived to maintain both religious and ethnic neutrality and recently challenged ex-Governor of Enugu state Chimaroke Nnamani, to provide proof of his allegations of ethnoreligious bigotry against him.
“I have been on record to have insisted severally throughout the country that I should not be voted for based on any ethnic or religious link, but to be considered based on character, capacity, and compassion.
“I will also like to challenge anybody including, my dear elder brother (Nnamani) to show anywhere in my public appearance where I in any way portrayed ethnic, or religious bigotry,” Obi said.
TheNewsGuru.com (TNG) recalls that during campaigns preceding the presidential election on February 25, the Labour Party flagbearer had warned against attempts by his traducers to ascribe religious or ethnic colouration to the ‘Obidient’ movement, saying that it would not see the light of the day.
While the leaked audio sparked controversy on microblogging sites such as Twitter and Facebook, LP’s Presidential Campaign Council (PCC) spokesperson, Kenneth Okonkwo, said the context of the conversation was aptly put by Oyedepo when he reiterated that all Nigerians had an equal stake to the country.
“H. E. Peter Obi was simply urging the Bishop to help him push this message of (an) equal stake of all Nigerians in the Nigerian project to his people and the Christendom,” Okonkwo said.
However, the PCC spokesperson for the All Progressive Congress, Festus Keyamo, reacting to the leaked audio said: “I think the real culprit here are the so-called ‘men of God’ who allowed themselves to be used by an unscrupulous politician to seek to inflame religious passions in our dear country in the name of politics”.
Keyamo added: “As for Peter Obi who declared an election a ‘religious war’ in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country like ours,…his dream to be Nigeria’s President one day has just died a natural death”.
A 2006 Pew research revealed that religion and not nationality was the way in which most Nigerians choose to identify themselves.
In the survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 76 per cent of Christians said that religion was more important to them than their identity as Africans, Nigerians or members of an ethnic group.
Among Muslims, the number naming religion as the most important factor was even higher at 91 per cent and while 52 per cent of Muslims surveyed believed the government should take steps to make Nigeria an Islamic country, a significant 42 per cent minority of Christians said the government should make the country overtly Christian.
Also underlying these sharply divergent desires is the deep distrust each group feels toward the other and the tension between followers of the two dominant religions has become an even more consistent feature of Nigerian politics.
Religion is also perceived to exert a powerful influence on the country’s public life and President Muhammadu Buhari has often been criticized for skewing appointments and employment in favour of the Muslim north.
Although Nigeria has never conducted a religious census, the former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, noted in 2021 that because religion was so central, disputes over water and land or ethnic rivalries often assume a religious colouration, and politics has proven to be no exception.