Editor’s Note: The below is a guest post by my colleague Ibrahim Hashim. He argues that the victory of a “Muslim-Muslim” ticket in Nigeria’s recent presidential election is a strong indication that the country’s population, rather than being approximately half Muslim and half Christian, is in fact majority Muslim. For my own part, I think Nigeria is quite likely a Muslim-majority country, and I think one can reach that conclusion based simply upon the broadly accepted ideas that the north has an overwhelming Muslim majority while the southwest has a considerable number of Muslims living there. Ismail also points to key demographic trends, namely high birthrates among Nigerian Muslims, especially in the north. I differ somewhat with Ismail when it comes to the question of whether the election results give us much of a sense of the country’s wider religious demography (I think considerable fraud likely occurred) – but I agree with him when it comes to the sense that the victory of the “Muslim-Muslim ticket” is a marker of some underlying demographic shifts. Meanwhile, Ismail’s remarks about what Islam may mean (or not mean) to President-Elect Bola Tinubu are very apt – and the empowerment of Tinubu as an individual does not necessarily mean that Nigerian Muslims have been empowered as a group. – Alex
At first, I was not comfortable with the idea of a “Muslim-Muslim ticket,” which the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party had issued to Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Kashim Shettima as its presidential candidate and running mate respectively. I held this view for several reasons some of which were equally articulated by various analysts, commentators and opinion writers. Like many thousands of Nigerians, particularly Muslims, I also believed that the Muslim-Muslim ticket was a necessary, expedient winning strategy rather than an intrepid move toward the triumph of Islam in a pluralistic country that has been suffering from demographic competition.
In 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari became the flagbearer of the APC, there were indications that Tinubu (a major stakeholder in the political merger that culminated in the sweeping victories of the APC during the 2015 elections) had a strong zest to be picked by Buhari as the latter’s running mate. But the old general refused to do so, obviously to carry along Christians and canvass their support and secure their votes; no farsighted politician would risk hurting the sensibilities of even a small number of voters let alone a big population that once claimed to possess demographic supremacy in the country’s entire population. A Muslim-Muslim presidency was thought – by the Christian population but in fact by many Muslims as well – to be a permanent impossibility in Nigeria’s political arena.
Christians, who are a minority in Nigeria as has been proven now beyond doubt, had been regarding a Muslim-Muslim presidency as a unique Muslim utopian vision and a fruitless attempt of flying a kite either to see how high it would go in the sky or to gauge the direction of the wind. Thus, Nigerian Christians never hid their opposition to the development and spared no effort to fight the bid. In 2023, churches became platforms for homilies on Christian unity and for the mobilization of support and strong, formidable religious support and solidarity in favour of the Labour Party’s candidate, Peter Obi, the only Christian who contested against three Muslims (Tinubu; former Vice President Atiku Abubakar; and former Kano State Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso) in the race for the highest political office in the land. The defeat of Peter Obi as portrayed in the milieu of Christians was interpreted as the fall of the rising Christendom and the failure of the Christian cause in Nigeria. Therefore, not minding the huge irrecoverable costs of putting their eggs in one basket, Christians gathered their voting strength on their own candidate and wholeheartedly threw their support to Peter Obi.
Although like their Christian counterparts, Muslims had also used religious infrastructure to mobilize support for Tinubu and framed casting votes to him as a “political Jihad,” it was understandably impractical since Muslim votes must be inevitably split between the two other contenders, Atiku of the People’s Democratic Party and Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party. After all, many northerners were yet skeptical of Tinubu’s nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and he was certainly viewed in many quarters as an ethnic champion and a pursuer of Yoruba agenda, rather than as a devout Muslim. Added to this, the fact that Tinubu’s wife (and an acclaimed pastor for that matter) and the majority (if not all) of his children are said to be Christians, some northern Muslims felt that Tinubu’s victory should in some form be considered as the triumph of Christians.
In the run-up to the 2023 presidential election, the Muslim society in northern Nigeria which, as always, largely relies on the discourses of the clerical establishment in the region, became extremely divided as which of the three candidates Muslims should support. Scholars who were loyalists to northern governors, some of whom were/are among their political appointees, had preached in favor of Tinubu and cast his election as a necessity that Muslims must accept. Other scholars, most of whom were independent and largely young, openly campaigned for Atiku and warned northerners against voting for someone outside their region. The majority of scholars, however, seemed to take a neutral position and advised that Muslims could vote any of the three candidates since each of them is a Muslim. Ironically, this neutral position was popularized and voiced loudly by the outspoken Izala, the Salafi group which in the past used to explicitly campaign for Buhari and make it a religious obligation upon all Muslims to vote for the old general. It appears that Izala decided this time not to openly side with any of the candidates since some people have been launching attacks on the group for asking them to vote for Buhari, but then the group failed to criticize Buhari’s weak leadership. It was even argued that Izala (whose top figures are friends and loyalists to some northern governors) was inwardly supporting Tinubu’s candidacy but it was afraid of the protest and condemnation of its followers and the larger Muslim public. Thus, it decided to exhibit outward neutrality.
Ultimately, the Muslim-Muslim ticket carried the day and, I would argue, reflects Muslims’ numerical majority in Nigeria. And here is why:
Out of 23,377,466 total valid votes cast, 17,275,933 represent the voting strength of Muslims who divided their votes for the three Muslim candidates. No analysis of the results of this election can ignore the possibility of overlaps of votes between Muslims and Christians in favor of each of these three candidates. But cross-over voting was arguably minimal and each candidate might have likely gained from it – the Muslims who crossed over to vote for Obi, and the Christians who crossed over to vote for Tinubu and Atiku, may have partly canceled each other out. So the outcomes of the elections have solidly reflected the religious affiliation and sociopolitical orientation of the voting population. After all the mobilizations in churches and social media platforms, including the voluminous circulars disseminated to all chapels and chapters by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and sister bodies, the results of the election show that Peter Obi had merely scored 6,101,533, less than 27 percent of the whole valid votes cast.
The results of polls, of course, do not map precisely onto the demographics of Nigeria’s population as a whole; reported turnout was low, and there were accusations of fraud, although the seriousness of these accusations has been debated. Yet election results are crucial for arriving at some useful hints about the country’s overall religious demography. The basic fact is that Nigerian Muslims tend to have more children than other groups in the country. Many factors have combined to contribute to the rapid increase of Muslims and give them numerical edge over their counterparts. The Muslims, who still retain the age-old culture of growing extended families, have a prevailing polygamous lifestyle and have not, to a large extent, assimilated to the western childbearing orientation. Research has shown that Muslim women have a higher fertility rate than non-Muslim women. According to the data of the Nigeria‘s National Population Commission, as of 2008, birthrates per woman in the North West and the North East – heavily Muslim-majority zones – stood as 7.3 and 7.2 respectively, while in the South it was less than 5 children per woman.
In terms of how demography plays out in politics, Nigeria’s democracy has since 1999 been characterized by zoning and rotation between the two major regions and religions (North and South and Islam and Christianity). And although many politicians have adopted zoning and rotation in the spirit of carrying everyone along, rotation based on faith is not necessarily equitable or representative vis-à-vis the population. For instance, Muslims in Gombe State account for about 75 percent of the population yet the state has been electing a Muslim and Christian governor and deputy governor for over two decades. In Kaduna State, until 2019 when Governor Nasir El-Rufai chose a Muslim deputy governor, the state has been pairing a Muslim and Christian for these two powerful ranks. Other examples can be confidently cited and it is Muslims who make the most concessions. In states like Plateau and Benue, however, which although having a sizable population of Muslims (perhaps more than 40% in Plateau and more than 25% in Benue), no Muslim has ever been selected as deputy governor since the return of the present democratic dispensation in 1999.
Politicians do not toy with the matter of votes, but they also adapt to changing political realities and sometimes the calculations about what makes for electability in one election no longer apply in the next contest. 2023, in other words, is not 2015. The 2023 presidential election will go down in history as a solid testimony establishing the fact that Muslims can determine their political fate and can win election of the highest political office in the land without needing to have a Christian on the ticket. And going by the case study of Plateau and Benue states, one may be justified if he alleges that had it been that it were Christians who possessed similar numerical strength of Muslims, no one could guarantee that they would concede the position of vice president to the Muslims.
Meanwhile, the effects of the election continue to reverberate in the country. Many Muslim northerners who did not vote for Tinubu are now identifying with his success. I suspect that there are two major reasons for this. One is that the opposition of Nigeria’s Christians for the Muslim-Muslim presidency is conversely reawakening Muslims to consider the election as a political triumph of Islam. Secondly, if not because Christians are counting the outcomes of the election as a sheer loss based on faith grounds, Nigerians are jubilating that the election is marking the end of Buhari’s leadership and putting a halt to the pains of Nigerians over his draconian policies. After all, there are solid indications that the Naira redesign policy will either be eradicated completely or chiefly reviewed once Buhari is gone.
Despite the foregoing arguments, a question that may yet beg for an answer is, does the faith of a president necessarily ensure that his coreligionists will enjoy the dividends of democracy better than those with whom he does not share his faith? No clear-cut answers can be supplied to this question. Tinubu, ironically, appears to be only a nominal Muslim, as shown by his seeming inability to correctly recite or translate the first chapter of the Qur’an – a chapter whose recitation is essential to the correct performance of daily prayers. Yet Tinubu has, by picking a Muslim as his running mate, audaciously accomplished what many other Muslim politicians could never mull over, let alone try. If Tinubu’s victory points to Muslims’ demographic majority, that victory does not necessarily mean that Islamic values will now be more thoroughly represented in the land’s high office.
Ismail wrote from Souss, Southern Morocco, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.