Nigeria's Presidential Election: Will the Muslim Challenger Defeat the Christian Incumbent? by Debra Erickson

Reports from Nigeria

By Debra Erickson|March 5, 2015

Out of a region usually granted just one story at a time, reports from Nigeria have multiplied in recent months, and little of it is encouraging.

Presidential elections scheduled for February 14 were postponed six weeks by the government, ostensibly due to security concerns over the activities of the terrorist group Boko Haram in the majority-Muslim northeastern area of the country.

However, echoing a sentiment widely expressed in the African press, The New York Times reports that the likelier reason is that incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan’s advisers hope the delay will halt the momentum of his challenger, former military head of state, retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari.

A sitting president has never lost an election, and Jonathan defeated Buhari once before in 2011. Yet Jonathan’s widely perceived incompetence, particularly in dealing with Boko Haram, has made Buhari—whose administration imprisoned thousands without due process in the 1980s—seem a viable alternative.

The stakes of this election are high; not only could any indication of vote-tampering bring violence to the streets, but Nigeria must also contend with over a million people internally displaced by Boko Haram and the potential economic devastation of the global fall in oil prices.

As Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy, the election could well have implications beyond Nigeria’s borders, as John Kerry’s recent visit there attests.

Created when European nations carved up the continent amongst themselves, Nigeria is a state divided by language, ethnicity, and religion. Britain’s colonial policy of indirect rule served to reinforce existing ethnic and regional tensions, giving the less Westernized, less developed North a majority in the national assembly and enabling Northerners to dominate national political office, generating resentment and even fear among  the more urban and generally better-off Southerners.

Granted independence in 1960, from 1967-1970 Nigerians endured a violent and devastating civil war when the Southeastern states attempted to secede and form the independent state of Biafra. Since that time, federal policies to encourage pan-Nigerian nationalism have existed alongside ongoing ethnic, regional, and religious divisions. (The large Northern city of Jos in particular has seen periodic outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims.)

Although Nigeria has three dominant linguistic-ethnic groups, each of which cluster in one of the country’s three regions (North, South-East and South-West); it is evenly divided between two dominant religious groups—the North is predominately Muslim, the South primarily Christian.

A constitutional democracy, the country is decidedly pluralistic, but not secular. From gas-station mosques to televised New Year’s Eve Christian “Crossover” services, religion is omnipresent.

The federal government sponsors both Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Jonathan himself has made multiple trips to Israel’s holy sites, accompanied by state governors and other political leaders.

In the North, the British left intact a system of traditional Islamic rulers who maintain a quasi-independent political authority over Muslims and Christians alike. In some Northern states, sharia law is in effect for Muslim citizens.

When Muslims citizens erected a National Mosque in the new federal capital city, Abuja, Christians banded together to build the National Ecumenical Center adjacent to it, so the imposing Mosque did not stand alone. Ordinary Muslims and Christians can live side-by-side in relative harmony, yet there is a real sense of competition between the two religions, particularly in the political arena.

Nigeria’s religious divide mirrors other differences within the country: the South has better infrastructure, better schools, vastly more economic resources (stemming from the oil wealth of the Niger Delta), and, crucially, better security.

This is a change from pre-oil days, when the North’s agricultural activity was the nation’s primary economic engine. Since much of Nigeria’s fifty-five year history as an independent state is within living memory, these differences resonate down to the present.

Consequently, political fortunes have been closely linked to economic and religious realities.

Jonathan is a Southern Christian whose constituency is largely Christian. Continuing the legacy of many prior occupants of the office, his government is riddled with corruption and mismanagement. Government resources have disproportionately flowed to the South; and as Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani recently wrote, Southerners can be just fine with that.

So despite his poor record, due to his religious affiliation Jonathan has the vocal support of many of Nigeria’s influential megachurch pastors, and thus the likely support of their many parishioners. In Nigeria, people of all faiths trust the word of their “Man of God,” as we’ll see below.

Jonathan’s opponent, General Buhari, on the other hand, is a Northern Muslim who served as head of state from 1984-85 following a military coup. Although his administration has been criticized for its overzealous disciplinarian tendencies, Buhari is a fierce opponent of corruption.

Unlike many of Nigeria’s former leaders, Buhari did not leave office a wealthy man, and this reputation for honesty and reform-mindedness appeals to a populace hungry for an alternative to a government many regard as ineffective and out-of-touch.

To balance the ticket and reassure Southern Christians that a Buhari government will be for all Nigerians, he selected the respected university professor, lawyer, and pastor Yemi Osinbajo from the Southern state of Lagos as his running mate.

Buhari is especially attractive to those in the North whose needs have been largely ignored by the Jonathan administration, and yet the disruptions caused by Boko Haram may prevent large numbers of Northerners from voting.

Jonathan’s inattention to the needs of the North may also have bolstered Boko Haram’s effort to establish a separate state in the North governed by a strict interpretation of sharia: there are reports that Boko Haram has been offering food and rudimentary services to people in the territory it now controls.

While these efforts do not currently appear to outweigh the brutality of their tactics, they open a door for recruiting those who see no other future. And while Boko Haram may be brutal, it can claim the banner of Islam in a way that Nigerian Christians (like Jonathan) cannot.

The lack of reliable public services in many parts of the country, from electricity and water to education, has empowered another religious group in Nigeria: Pentecostal prosperity preachers, who promise people that God will give them not only what they need, but all they want.

Their influence appears to have played a role in Nigeria’s fight against Ebola: in Lagos state, one of the best-governed regions of the country, Nigeria’s patient zero reportedly arrived last year “in search of a cure from one of the so-called miracle pastors.”

Fearing an influx of patients going to church rather than the hospital, local political leaders warned those same pastors not to get involved—even threatening jail time for those claiming to have cured the disease—but rather to let public health officials do their jobs. The pastors largely complied.

Because of their effective containment efforts, Nigeria suffered only 20 cases and 8 deaths, far fewer than any other affected country.

This upcoming election may be seen as a struggle between those who envision a better Nigeria—the Nigeria of Ebola success—and those who would prefer the status quo, unequal and unstable as it may be. In a nation divided almost evenly between North and South, Muslim and Christian, the election is likely to be close.

As tensions continue to mount and the political game plays out, the future of over 170 million Nigerians is at stake. Can democracy deliver on its promises to this highly religious, highly diverse country? 


The Editorial Board. "Nigeria's Miserable Choices." New York Times, February 16, 2015, Opinion Pages.

Nwaubani, Adoabi Tricia. “The Karma of Boko Haram.” New York Times, February 22, 2015, Opinion Pages.

Oguntola, Sunday. “State-Sponsored Pilgrimages Under Review in Nigeria: A third of the country’s 90,000 religious pilgrims this year were Christians.” Christianity Today, December 5, 2012, News.

Nossiter, Adam. “Boko Haram, and Massacres Ruled by Whim.” New York Times, February 5, 2015, Africa.

Allen, Nathaniel, Peter M. Lewis and Hilary Matfess. “The Boko Haram insurgency, by the numbers.” Washington Post, October 6, 2014, Monkey Cage Blog.

Tukur, Sani and Abdullahi Garba. “Fayemi, Pastors laud selection of Osinbajo as running mate to Buhari.” Premium Times, December 19, 2014, News.

Ross, Will. “Ebola crisis: How Nigeria’s Dr. Adadevoh fought the virus.” BBC News, October 20, 2014, News Africa.

Phillip, Abby. “Nigerian Official warns pastors and healers to stop making false Ebola-cure claims.” Washington Post, July 31, 2014, Worldviews.

Cocks, Tim. “Insight – Nigeria races to halt Ebola spread in overcrowded Lagos.”Reuters, August 12, 2014, UK.

Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud

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Author, Debra Erickson, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is an independent scholar based in Madison, WI. She has taught at several colleges and universities, most recently in the Religious Studies Department at Siena College.