In the aftermath of INEC’s declaration of APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the winner of the February 25 presidential election, a broad range of Nigerians from a certain demographic category have been squirming in a confused welter of bruised emotions.
I can relate to their psychic trauma because I experienced it in 2016 when Donald Trump was declared America’s president. I was in distress for a whole week. But some people are exulting in Tinubu’s victory for reasons that seem immaterial, even inane, on the surface, but which are significant and symbolic, nonetheless.
I was personally indifferent to, and invested no emotions in, the outcome of last Saturday’s election because it was as predictable as tomorrow’s date. The PDP that faced off APC in 2019 was fractured into four feuding, mutually annihilating factions to fight APC in 2023, which has remained more or less unchanged. What could go wrong with that?
Atiku Abubakar’s PDP, Peter Obi’s Labour Party, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso’s NNPP, and the G 5 governors were all in a united PDP in 2019. In 2023, they not only splintered, they sabotaged each other with more ferocity than they confronted APC. Only the wildest stretch of Pollyannaish fantasy would expect a more or less united APC to be defeated by a fragmented opposition.
Nonetheless, I want to transcend the outcome of the election and explore the emotional universes of the people who are deeply hurt by Tinubu’s victory— and of people who revel in it— because the election, more than any that Nigeria has had since 1999, was more about the emotional politics of identity and representation than it was about anything else.
Tinubu is a fatally flawed personality. Not even his most ardent supporters deny that. But it isn’t just his personality that triggers the anxieties of people who are upset by his victory. It is the public script of his representational politics, which is that he self-identifies as a Yoruba Muslim.
Since outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, has ruled for eight years, if Tinubu rules for another eight years, it means Nigerian Christians would be shut out of symbolic representation at the top of the presidency for 16 years at a stretch.
But it gets even worse. If/when power returns to the North (since Tinubu is from the South), it will most likely go to a northern Muslim, possibly for another eight years. That would be 24 unbroken years of Muslim domination of the Nigerian presidency.
Many people won’t admit this, which is fine, but it is the prospect of this reality that animates the passions and emotional investments of many Nigerian Christians in the outcome of the election, and why they have a hard time coming to terms with Tinubu’s win. But let’s face it: Christians have a valid and legitimate reason for their anxieties.
If the situation were reversed, Muslims would feel and act exactly the same way—perhaps worse because we have been habituated to dominating the presidency. Imagine for a moment that Olusegun Obasanjo handed over power to a northern Christian (say Theophilus Y. Danjuma) who chose an Ijaw Christian from Bayelsa as his running mate.
Imagine again that they went ahead to win the election and would, in theory, rule for another eight years after which the presidency would go back to the South where a Southern Christian is certain to win the nomination of the party and possibly rule for another eight years.
The possibility of Muslims being excluded from the presidency for 24 years at a go would be sure to activate visceral identity politics among northern Muslim voters. That’s precisely what we’re seeing from Christian voters, and it’s entirely reasonable.
In fact, Buhari’s political rise in the Muslim North— and the evolution of his fanatical, religiously tinged support base—was inspired by the sense of alienation that most northern Muslims felt by Obasanjo’s in-your-face public displays of born-again Christian religiosity and his appointment of Christians to positions that Muslims dominated in the past. So, in more ways than one, Obi and Buhari are the products of the same politics of religious identity.
Obi and Buhari also share the same qualities of self-righteousness, pretence to austerity, populism, hyperbolised or fictive past “achievements,” and weaponisation of mass anger against the Establishment that they are, in reality, a part of.
There is one more thing they share: the delusion, buoyed up by the delusionary tyranny of echo-chamber self-affirmation, that they can win a national election through appeals to a narrow religious constituency and that any outcome that defies their quixotic expectation is the consequence of rigging.
Like Buhari in 2003, 2007, and 2011, Obi can’t get 25 per cent in nearly half of the country’s voting population because the reason for his wild popularity in one half of the country is the precise reason for his revulsion in the other half.
Like all past elections, last Saturday’s election was obviously marred by inexcusable irregularities, made even more inexcusable by the fact that INEC spent stupendous amounts of money to integrate improved high-tech protections against electoral malpractices. But even if the conduct of the election were faultless, the outcome would more or less be the same.
The best possible outcome for Obi in the election was for him to marginally win the popular vote— both because three Muslims divided the Muslim vote and because Obi’s supporters were more energised than others— but fail to be declared winner because he fell short of getting the required spread in about half of the country.
In a runoff with Tinubu, Obi would be severely trounced because most Atiku and Kwankwaso voters would gravitate toward Tinubu since the election was about identity and, historically, candidates who rile up a narrow primordial base of the electorate without tact never win a national election. It took Buhari’s intentional and strategic transcendence of his northern Muslim base to win a national election in 2015.
I hope Obi can learn from that. Some of us his early supporters who saw merit in electing someone from the Southeast in the interest of national integration found that we had no place in his exclusionary political universe where he is the hero that must be worshipped and the messiah that must be “obeyed,” where uncouth, vituperative, intolerant, mouth-breathing automatons reign. He ran the Christocentric version of Buhari’s Islamocentric pre-2015 campaigns.
Like Obi’s supporters today, Buhari’s supporters always said he wasn’t declared president—even when he appealed only to northern Muslims—because he was “rigged out.” Yes, the elections were often rigged, no doubt, but even without rigging, a snowball had a better chance of surviving in hell than Buhari or Obi winning a national election with their offputtingly fervent subnationalist appeals. Smart, strategic politicians don’t play politics of identification with a narrow group to a crescendo if it can become a major political liability with other groups among the electorate.
Nonetheless, in spite of my souring on the naively exclusionary electioneering of Obi, I am crossed at people who are gloating over his defeat. He represents a constituency that is legitimately apprehensive about the possibility of their decades-long symbolic exclusion from the orbit of power. This needs to be addressed with sincerity. Anthropologist Margaret Mead shows us that empathy, that is, the capacity to inhabit other people’s mental worlds and imagine their pain, is the beginning of civilization.
But I also recognise that there are people for whom Tinubu’s victory is liberating and redeeming not because of Tinubu as a person but because of what he embodies. He is the first ever southern Muslim to be Nigeria’s president or head of state. Most people thought this wasn’t even in the realm of possibility because of the notional expectation that the South would always be represented by a Christian and the North by a Muslim. By becoming president, Tinubu has also opened the possibility of a northern Christian president in the future.
More than that, he is the first Yoruba person from outside Ogun State to be in the upper echelon of political power in Nigeria. All the notable national Yoruba political figures—from Chief Obafemi Awolowo to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, from MKO Abiola to Ernest Shonekan, and from Oladipo Diya to Yemi Osinbajo—that Nigeria has seen are from Ogun State.
Tinubu was born in Osun State but identifies as a Lagosian. There are people for whom this is important, and I respect their feelings, too.
Well, I hope Tinubu and Shettima will come to terms with the enormity of the tasks before them and not repeat the mistakes of the Buhari regime.