A university professor in Nigeria analyses the socio-political context before the 25 February presidential election.
This is the second part of an analysis article about the presidential election in Nigeria to be held on 25 February 2023. Read the first part here.
Security and the economic situation are two of the factors that any Nigerian will consider when deciding how to vote. Despite being seen by many as the emerging economic power in Africa (called to replace South Africa), the economic situation in Nigeria presents imbalances and a lack of guarantees. On the one hand, it is the African country in which the most emerging companies have been financed in 2022, with more than 1.2 billion dollars of investment.
However, although Nigeria’s large oil reserves attract many investors to the country, the Abuja government has not been able to avoid the impact of inflation, which in January 2023 put the annual rate of change of the Consumer Price Index at 22%, five points higher than in December 2022.
The rise in the cost of living has also affected Nigerian society, which is experiencing a cash crisis in its own currency, the naira, which has forced the government to allow the circulation of old banknotes.
Added to this are the difficulties faced by the young population in accessing employment. They will be decisive in the election results, as they represent more than a third of the 93.4 million voters. At the beginning of 2021, according to the National Institute of Statistics of Nigeria, the youth unemployment rate stood at 53.4%.
Security and violence are the other key factor. For example, in the Zamfara State alone, there were 1,090 kidnappings in the last quarter of 2022, according to The New Humanitarian. In 2021, Evangelical Focus also reported on the mass abduction of 140 pupils at Bethel Baptist School in Kaduna State.
Although religion is a factor in the elections, the candidates have shown little sign of changing the situation of religious persecution experienced by part of the country’s Christian population. In this sense, President Buhari’s second term in office has been marked, for example, by mass demonstrations by Christians asking the government for security and kidnappings of Christians, such as that of the Bethel school in Kaduna or that of the head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria.
From the north, the Christian university lecturer who agreed to answer questions for this website said that it is true that there has been persecution against Christians in Nigeria, “it has been going on for many decades, particularly in northern Nigeria”. “Christian indigenes cannot get appointments or scholarships from northern state governments controlled by Muslims. Christians cannot get land to build their churches. Christians cannot teach Christian Religious Education in the public schools of some northern states, even though it is part of the curriculum. And sometimes these ethnic crises grow more and more religious so that it is not just members of the other ethnic group that are targeted but particularly Christians”, he explains.
However, he adds, “I still think that the majority of our problems in Nigeria are more ethnic-based than religion-based”.
The Christian leader underlines that 60% of the victims of jihadist organisations operating on Nigerian territory are Muslims and insists on the ethnic factor. “From my perspective, most of the other conflicts we have experienced, especially in the middle belt, are ethnic, political and religious, in that order”, he points out.
“The well-known farmer-herder conflict is between Fulanis, the herders, against the local farmers, most of whom belong to smaller ethnic groups and are Christians. These conflicts often result in burning churches or mosques but one must remember there is little secularism in this part of Africa. A church or a mosque is simply the symbol of that other part of society. So, to the outside world, when a church is burned, it is viewed as persecution of the church. However, in my perspective, this is just a continuation of an age-old crisis. For hundreds of years the Fulanis have been fighting with the local farmers when their cattle get into the farms of the local population. A local farmer will shoot a cow and the Fulanis will retaliate by attacking the village of the farmer and the revenge attacks escalate and never really go away”, he sums up.
The situation of insecurity in exercising the right to religious freedom with guarantees has led groups of Christians to consider self-defence and to arm themselves. The Secretary General of the Nigeria Evangelical Fellowship, James Akinyele, explained in an interview published in Evangelical Focus how this phenomenon has been growing in recent years.
“Yes, there are pastors and churches that arm themselves”, confirms the university professor working in Northern Nigeria. “One of my colleagues went to a meeting of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria a few years ago and a good bit of the discussion was about getting guns to protect their churches. There were even code names for certain guns. A double-barrelled shotgun was called a ‘King James’. I have personally been very concerned about the radicalization of some pastors by these crises”, he explains.
“I don’t have any personal knowledge of who and who does not have arms among Christian leaders but I think it is fairly common knowledge that many churches have armed themselves. And I think it is fairly common knowledge that many people have weapons in their homes, even though it is illegal. I think the majority of the gun holders would view them specifically for self-defense”, he elaborates.
Although neither the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) nor any other umbrella organisation of Christian denominations in the country has ever publicly advocated the use of guns, he notes that “some Christians, including some pastors, appear to be falling back on their old traditional practices of the use of arms and retaliation rather than the more peaceful approach taught by Jesus”. “There is a common argument in Nigeria that the church in north Africa was lost to the Muslims. Some Muslim leaders have publicly declared that they will not be satisfied until the dip their swords into the Atlantic Ocean, having conquered all of Nigeria for Islam. Some Christians believe that the southward push of Islam must be stopped right here in the middle belt and it must be stopped by force if necessary”, he adds.
That is why the issue of security is closely linked to the religious reality in this 2023 election. “There is a sense in the community that because the government cannot protect them, they will have to protect themselves. That would certainly be one of the motivators for getting guns. That is only one small step away from the argument that since the government will not provide justice in society, they will take things in their own hands and make sure that justice is meted out to perpetuators of ethnic and religious violence”, he concludes.
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