More than meets the eye

The personal archives of Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, a Nigerian pro-democracy activist, suggests that same-faith presidential tickets are not necessarily about religious domination.

A computer generated image of a young Hausa man exploring archival records. Generated by Artificial Intelligence via Midjourney.

Can there be a label more reviled in Nigeria today than  “Muslim-Muslim ticket?” This refers to when both the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of a political party are followers of the religion of Islam.

“Zoning,” by contrast, is when a party agrees on balancing slots for the contest of top posts between members of different ethno-religious groups in the country. Most Nigerian voters support a political party based on their ethnic and religious identities; hence the parties’ likelihood to share presidential and vice presidential slots along the dominant Muslim/Christian, Northern/Southern divisions.

First introduced by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in 1977 as a strategy to win the 1979 general elections, the logic of zoning birthed NPN’s Muslim-Christian ticket, which beat the all-Christian ticket of the leading opposition party, the United Party of Nigeria (UNP). Since then, zoning has become a ritual in Nigerian politics.This explains why in the run-up to the recently concluded 2023 presidential election, the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) was not only condemned by Christian citizens, but also blamed for the potential fracturing of the country along religious lines.

The massive support among young people garnered by Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) was as much a protest against the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC as it was a longing for diversity. The APC opted for a Muslim-Muslim ticket only after the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the second of Nigeria’s two largest political parties since the return of democracy in 1999, chose a Muslim candidate. This propelled many Christian voters to line up behind Obi, who is a Christian.

The 2023 Muslim-Muslim ticket win for the ruling party, harkened back to the 1993 presidential election for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), whose members were mostly opponents of the then Federal Military Government (FMG) under General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (also known as IBB). TheSDP’s all-Muslim ticket of 1993 was, however, arrived at after myriad political realignments in which many Nigerian leftists transitioned from radical and pro-democracy activism to strategizing wins for bourgeois parties.

From protest to strategy

The Nigerian left that emerged during the First Republic (1960-66) and Second Republic (1979-1983) was a movement of political protest, pro-democracy activism, and populist governance. Warming up for the Third Republic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, activism and protest were not enough. The yearning for a civilian takeover was, of course, on the lips of the average citizen, especially against the backdrop of the anti-populist, liberal economic policies of the Babangida regime. Nigerians were, however, unlikely to reject a reactionary party, unless they saw a credible alternative. The radicals’ mission for the Third Republic, from the start, had been to create such an alternative.

“Our objective is the progressive and socialist reconstruction of Nigeria,” Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa, the founding father of an unregistered political party, the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), declared in a May 1989 letter to founding member Comrade Richard Umaru. Alongside other political parties, such as the People’s Front of Nigeria (PFN) and Peoples’ Solidarity Party (PSP), the PLP was created by young radicals and intellectuals in 1989. The creation of these parties was in tandem with the FMG’s lifting of a ban on political activities on May 3, 1989, as part of its transition program announced in 1987. Alas, the government refused to register these and other political parties, which were accused of being parochial. Instead, the government formed two political parties, the SDP and National Republican Convention (NRC). The NRC was designed as a center-right party, resembling the US Republican Party, while the SDP stood slightly to the left like the US Democratic Party.

The SDP came to be infiltrated by a contingent of radicals from the unregistered PLP, PFN, PSP and the Nigerian Labour Party, who got into direct competition with what Balarabe Musa, a former governor of Kano State, slammed in an early 1991 interview with local news outlet The Democrat  as SDP’s “notorious clique of conservatives.”

The determination of the radicals to be self-assertive created factions in the party. Consequently, the SDP got dragged into a serious crisis of interest as the party prepared ahead of elections (Governors and State Assembly, as well as National Assembly) held in 1991 and 1992, respectively. The SDP’s performance in the 1991 and 1992 elections was dwarfed by an internal crisis within the party. A report in the Daily Times on January 27, 1993, pointed to a looming danger: “A cursory look at the results (of the National Assembly elections),” wrote Gershon Amuta, “will show a clear victory for the SDP which won a majority of the seats in both houses of the National Assembly.”

“However, a more critical examination of the results,” Amuta added, “would indicate a hung-legislature because if this were a presidential election, the NRC would have won, having scored (as in all past elections) a majority of the total votes cast nationwide.” The SDP had to ensure internal cohesion in order to avoid an imminent failure in the presidential election initially scheduled for December 1992, but postponed to June 12, 1993. The party equally needed internal unity so as not to give the military government a reason to terminate the transition to democracy; there were insinuations that Babangida was not willing to give up power, and that his transition program was designed to fail from the outset.

Consequently, a Unification and Reconciliation Committee was formed under the chairmanship of Professor Femi Agbalajobi. And through its efforts, compromises were made. The PLP faction, for instance, was persuaded to abandon its protest against the SDP’s omission of state-driven economy and multi-party politics in its principles. Instead, members of the party who began as radicals tilted towards becoming strategists. They brought to their new, united home some valuable insights and initiatives that were desperately needed to win presidential elections.

One of these was the creation of the Strategies Committee in early 1993. Chaired by Professor Jerry Gana, the committee was made up of progressive politicians as well as radical intellectuals. That this committee’s membership was crowded with Nigerian socialist activists suggests that they gave-up their political independence to strategize for an official party to win elections.

The most critical issue the committee decided on in its three months of existence (from January to April 1993) was the zoning of the top party and government positions along the six geo-political zones in the country: the Northwest, Northeast, North-central, Southwest, Southeast and South-south. In one of its meetings, the committee observed that the “factors considered (in zoning of positions) include, reward for the performance of each zone, danger in the neglect of any zone, danger in the over-pampering of any zone, need to consolidate against opposition and look forward to winning the presidency.” Based on the committee’s suggestions, the position of National Party Chairman was given to the South-south. Even before the committee was set, the positions of Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives had already been zoned to North-central and Southeast, respectively.

In the party’s first presidential primary, in September 1992, Shehu Musa Yar’adua and Olu Falae were the leading contestants, but the elections were canceled by the government and both candidates were banned from running again. According to a February 1993 report in a local newspaper Newswatch, the Strategies Committee recommended that “the Southwest and Northeast be left to do battle for the party’s presidential ticket with the losing zone running for the vice-presidency.”

Chief MKO Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim from the Southwest, contested and won SDP’s presidential nomination, defeating Babagana Kingibe and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. The party was now sure that the vice-president would come from the Northeast. But why did they choose a Muslim, even when there were Christians in the region?

In a 1993 document titled “An Analysis of the Major Ethnic and Religious Considerations in the Selection of Chief MKO Abiola’s Running Mate,” members of the Strategies Committee, Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa, Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, and Bala Usman motivated for a Muslim-Muslim ticket, which was eventually adopted by the party. That the trio were themselves Muslims could mean they were protecting their own parochial interests. The document justified the Muslim-Muslim ticket on practical grounds, acknowledging that Nigeria’s “constitution and political practice provides that all ethnic and religious communities be given a sense of belonging” in the distribution of party and government offices. Hence, the argument that the top positions in the SDP must be judiciously zoned along “the practically accepted division of Nigerian ethnic and religious” mapping, namely the Igbo, who are mainly Christians; the Yoruba, constituting Muslims and Christians; the Hausa-Fulani-Kanuri-Nupe, predominantly Muslims; the southern minorities, mainly Christians; and the northern minorities, made up of both Muslim and Christians.

At the time when the document was written, four of the five top posts were already occupied. Only one of those four was held by a Muslim, and the authors argued that it would inflame the passions of the Northern Muslim population if the party chose a Christian vice-president, even if he was from the Northern Hausa-Fulani-Kanuri-Nupe group.

The document identified ten states where the choice of a Christian vice-presidential candidate would “ adversely affect the party and reduce its chances of victory, to the extent that it may not get 25% of the votes in the States.” These were Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Niger, Kebbi, Sokoto and Katsina. These ten states were noted for their massive voter turnout in previous elections and were considered crucial in deciding the outcome of the presidential elections. The authors—Rimi, Balarabe and Usman—noted that 37.3 percent of the total registered voters in the country were from the ten states. They warned that the SDP could not afford to alienate such a large proportion of voters over religious balancing of the top five federal posts. Moreover, the NRC candidate, Bashir Tofa, could use the religious imbalance in the SDP’s zoning of party and government offices to mobilize support in those Northern states where the Muslims form the majority.

The authors recommended that: “MKO Abiola’s running mate should come from the Kanuri ethnic group in the Hausa-Fulani-Kanuri-Nupe grouping and should be a Muslim.” Kingibe, a Kanuri Muslim, was eventually chosen as Abiola’s running mate.

The Muslim-Muslim ticket was able to win the 1993 presidential election, and by extension the recently concluded 2023 presidential election. But, beyond the winning of elections, are there really times when same-faith tickets are better for democracy? In essentialist terms, the choice of a same-faith party ticket in a setting that practically reduces the electorate’s choice of candidates to options produced by oligarchic parties is a direct repudiation of the popular power that democracy represents. Unless a choice of co-religionists is determined by popular support it could be harmful to democracy, especially if that means alienating a segment of the electorate to mobilize the support of a majority.

Nigeria’s electoral process is, in this regard, anti-democratic. Democracy is not confined to an empty shell of periodic elections in which competing parties deploy every possible means to win. It is about the general underlying quest for an egalitarian society.

Unless the recently elected all-Muslim ticket of the APC is able to actualize good governance and make the rule of law a comfortable platform for all citizens to relate and interact, regardless of faith or creed, the logic behind same-faith ticket becomes a Machiavellian strategy of winning power by deception.

This piece was produced by a winner of the grants competition for writers, researchers and activists, by the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) Abuja. The grant is part of a wider project on the digitization of Nigerian heritage funded by the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA-Nigeria), and the French Embassy of Nigeria.

About the Author

Umar Aminu Yandaki was a writer with HumAngle media, Abuja, before he moved to Nigerian Federal Civil Service.

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