This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard. Emily is a researcher for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation working on their Religion & Geopolitics resource (religionandgeopolitics.org) in London, England, and a former research associate for the CFR Africa program.
The All Progressive Congress (APC) announced December 11 that Muhammadu Buhari would run as their candidate for the presidency. Buhari, a devout Muslim from the North, was military head of state from 1983-85. The election will be a rerun of 2011, pitting Buhari against the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.
In anticipation of the political contest between Jonathan and Buhari, Dr. Ahmad Gumi, a prominent and controversial Muslim cleric wrote an October 18 open letter to Jonathan and Buhari cautioning both, in his capacity as a religious leader, not to contest the elections. Muslims, Gumi argues, see Jonathan as Nigeria’s pro-Christian president, who “has tainted [the governing Peoples’ Democratic Party] as a Christian Association of Nigeria party” and who, in a time of unprecedented crises, will be seen by the predominantly Christian south as preferable to his probable opponent Buhari. For his part, Gumi claims Buhari, whom he endorses as “incorruptible,” should not contest the elections because he will always be seen and mistrusted by Nigerian Christians as an Islamist, whether the label is valid or not. Gumi counsels fielding any candidates other than these two, believing they will be the political lightning rods for a brewing religious storm.
On October 21, Gumi released a second letter, this time directly addressing retired general Buhari. This letter has a distinctly pastoral character to it, beginning with a hadith tradition from the Prophet discussing timing and character of leadership. The conclusion of the story being that these elections are not the time for Buhari, and Buhari is not the man the nation needs at this time. He maintains that Buhari’s popularity will divide Muslims, and the nation will suffer for providing Buhari the opportunity to once again seek election to be head of state. Security will be the main issue in these elections Gumi argues, “Nigeria now needs peace and stability first. Then we talk of good governance later even though it’s the source of the predicament we are facing.” Buhari, widely respected in the North for his anti-corruption campaigns, is running on an anti-corruption platform, not a security platform.
Gumi also warns against Buhari running because Jonathan and his political allies have painted Buhari as a radical Islamist, and Christian leaders in the south are painting Jonathan as “their only Savior.” Religious affiliation, Gumi warns, will be used to win allegiance and gloss over deficiencies in governance.
Far from presenting himself as the “security vote” candidate however, Jonathan’s campaign launch speech barely touched on security issues. Of the 112 numbered points in Jonathan’s speech, he had moved on from security by point six. Development, infrastructure, education, and freedom of speech instead are the foundations of Jonathan’s campaign. This evasion is a worrying sign that Jonathan fails to take seriously the defeat of his soldiers, annihilation and enslavement of his people, and annexation of his territory.
Mark Amaza recently published a discussion of Buhari’s chances, concluding that they are not very promising. Combined with Zainab Usman and Oliver Owen’s recent analysis of the power of incumbency in Nigerian elections, the prospects of any candidate other than Jonathan look dire.
Gumi is not the only one to advise the political candidates. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo warned against presidential and vice-presidential candidates for parties being chosen from the same religion, a likely a reaction to Buhari, who indicated he is considering choosing a fellow Muslim as running mate. Jonathan recently announced he will run alongside his current (Muslim) vice president, Namadi Sambo.
Given the obvious current challenges Nigeria faces, candidates have been warned by politicians and religious leaders alike not to run and not to capitalize on easy crowd pleasing tactics such as politicizing religious differences in lieu of intelligent governance. Time will tell if Jonathan, Buhari, and their political operatives will heed this advice.