Nigeria elections: Fear of violence as religious divisions at risk of intensifying

Muhammadu Buhari is expected to get much of the Muslim vote, while current President Goodluck Jonathan is hoping to stay on for a second and final term.Reuters

An increasing focus on the religion of candidates for the Nigerian presidential elections could prove to be dangerous in a country already divided along sectarian lines.

Sources told Christian Today that religious tensions are rising in the lead up to the elections on February 14.

Current president Goodluck Jonathan, from the south of Nigeria, is running for a second and final term. Jonathan is a Christian and told a rally in November last year that he made the decision to run only "After seeking the face of God". Though there are 11 candidates in all, his main competition is Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim candidate from the north of the country.

There is reason to be concerned about an outbreak of inter-faith violence. The two candidates ran against each other in the 2011 elections, with Jonathan winning over 58 per cent of the vote, and Buhari just under a third. Buhari claimed that voting had been rigged, and his supporters began targetting Christian communities in widespread attacks that left an estimated 800 dead. "People were murdered, women were raped and this ultimately sparked retributory violence in areas such as the southern part Kaduna State where Christian communities were larger," a regional expert who wished to remain anonymous told Christian Today.

With Jonathan and Buhari pitted against one another once again, this year's race is being depicted as Christian v Muslim for presidency; a potentially dangerous narrative. "The rhetoric employed by some politicians has not helped to allay fears; supporters of both camps have at times used unhelpful language and there have already been a few violent incidents," the expert said. While many Nigerians will look beyond the religion of the candidates, "politicians make use of whatever they can to swing votes and some have and are [using] religion to secure votes".

"This is particularly so in the north of the country, where [the] poor and unemployed can be swayed easily to cast a vote in a certain way, not only out of religious duty, but also financial inducements."

However, others suggest that religious tensions are not as prevalent as during the last election. Tearfund's country representative for Nigeria Danladi Musa, who is based in Jos, told Christian Today that insecurity, particularly in the North East where Boko Haram are holding ground, is the biggest issue for voters.

"People are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who will address the security concerns of Nigeria at this moment," Musa explained. "Many Christians in Nigeria are divided as to who to vote for. Some are saying not much has been done in the way of addressing security issues in the country and so would like to have a change, and see whether a new president will address [those]. And then the other group are concerned about the situation of Christians, and want their interests to be protected, and so some will vote through that kind of sentiment."

The anonymous source said that there is a prevailing feeling in the mainly-Muslim northern parts of Nigeria that they ought to be in control of the country, which is contributing to an anti-Christian sentiment. She said it's an unhelpful way to frame the debate, as it polarises the issue and is ultimately divisive.

"Debating on sectarian lines at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented insurgency that is itself based on religious sectarianism is dangerous and will not assist in producing the post-electoral unity that is needed to combat this appalling threat effectively," she said.

Terrorist group Boko Haram has garnered support through its determination to eradicate Nigerian democracy and replace it with an Islamic state guided by Sharia law. The latest statistics suggest that violence associated with the organisation resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 civilians in 2014. Its deadliest attack to date occurred in January 2015, when up to 2,000 people were killed in Baga, Borno state.

Christian Today's source said the rise of extremist Islam in Nigeria has its roots in sectarianism. "Boko Haram is a symptom, albeit a virulent one, of the chronic, systematic marginalisation of non-Muslim populations that has occurred in Shari'a states for many decades," she said.

"This marginalisation was regularly underlined by episodic and orchestrated violence. Boko Haram emerged from this environment, but has now become a threat to all within that environment and to Nigeria as a whole."

Musa added that Boko Haram is not the only security issue that poses a threat to Nigeria. There is an ethnic-religious conflict gathering support in the middle of the country, where Christians and Muslims are fighting. Many people have been killed, and many more displaced, he said.

"It's a complex situation and not so simple to explain," Musa explained. "There are lots of factors involved – economic, political and of course religious. These interplay to bring about conflict. The issue here is that each group [Christian and Muslim] tries to protect its interests, and there is much suspicion, and so that leads to conflict. Sometimes there is the feeling that one religion wants to outplay the other one and take advantage, and so once one group feels that way, then some turn to violence to protect their interests."

Goodluck Jonathan has been criticised for his government's slow reaction to increasing inter-religious tension. Despite security measures being put in place, Boko Haram continues to spread. There are almost weekly reports of terror attacks carried out by the group. Most of the Chibok schoolgirls they kidnapped in April 2014 have not been freed. 

So who will win, and will there be any improvement post election? Though he won by a wide margin in 2011, it's likely that Jonathan will face stiff competition from Buhari this time around. A retired Major General, Buhari previously ruled Nigeria from 31 December 1983 to August 1985 after taking power in a military coup. He is now the leader of the All Progressives Congress party (APC), made up of four parties which merged to take on Jonathan's People's Democratic Party. "It looks like it will be very tight," Musa said.

However, Nigeria under Buhari would not necessarily see an improvement. "There is no clear idea what he will be like. His previous record does not inspire confidence; he came to power in a coup and was ousted by one," the anonymous source said.

"He has not been part of a democratic government and some of his previous utterances have caused him to be labelled a religious bigot. These include supporting the unconstitutional introduction of Shari'a in northern states and saying it should be rolled out throughout the land."

Though he has since denounced the group, Buhari has also previously insisted that Boko Haram was fighting for justice, and blamed their rise on the prevalence of Christian militants in the south.

"Some feel he has changed; others remain wary. We can only pray that if he is elected, he will be able to unite the nation behind the effort to bring peace to the north-east and end the insurgency, and will live up to the expectations of his supporters, which include ruling with equity and ending corruption," the source said.

Whatever the outcome, fear remains that election time for Nigeria is likely to be a time of insecurity, and prayers are needed.

"Our prayer is that the election will be free and fair, and that none of the candidates will allow their followers to resort to violence to protest the outcome of the elections," Musa said. "That's the concern. But we are hopeful that many Nigerians will accept the outcome."