Nigeria’s Time Of Uncertainty By Prof. Jacob Olupona

With the presidential election looming on
February 14, Nigeria is at a crossroads. The outcome of the election will have
serious implications both for the country
itself and for how it is viewed around
the world. This election is taking place at
a very difficult time, when after almost
14 years of rule by the country’s
dominant party, the People’s Democratic
Party (PDP), Nigeria faces frightening
challenges on many fronts: the recent
precipitous decline in oil revenue, the
growing lack of confidence by the
general public, and the ongoing menace
of the militant Islamist group Boko
Once a local terrorist group, Boko Haram
has assumed a larger regional and even
national presence. Almost a year ago,
the group kidnapped some 200 school
girls from Chibok in northeastern
Nigeria, and the country’s authorities
have yet to account for these abducted
girls. Since the kidnapping, Boko Haram
has carried out several terrorist attacks
and have kidnapped many more women
and children.
The onslaught of Boko Haram against
the masses of poor Nigerians, both
Christians and Muslims, has exposed the
gross ineptitude of the Nigerian
authorities. Many observers agree that
the massive corruption among senior
state officials has rendered the military
inept. The ability of Boko Haram to
challenge the territorial integrity of
Nigeria, especially in the northeastern
states of Bornu, Adamawa, and Yobe, as
a sovereign nation-state, has clearly
revealed the extent of the crisis of the
Although it is wrong to call Nigeria a
failing state, there are significant signs
of decay and destruction
unprecedented in its history. Nigeria is a
nation of about 180 million people–the
largest population of Black Africa. Its
wealth and natural resources, not to
mention its human resources, are
unparalleled on the continent. Yet
Nigeria remains economically one of the
most disadvantaged countries worldwide.
According to the United Nations Human
Development Index, it ranks 152 out of
187 countries in terms of economic and
social development. In addition to the
uncertainty about its future,
particularly due to terrorism, it faces
unprecedented corruption and violence
in all sectors, resulting in a serious
decline in infrastructure, education,
employment training, health systems,
and quality of life.
Those familiar with Nigeria, however, are
amazed by the resilience of its people
and their capacity to endure and to
hope for a better future. One of the
cardinal factors that give its people
hope is the vibrancy of its faith
traditions, which have accrued
unparalleled influence in national life
as well as in the individual and
collective psyche.
Nigeria’s religious triple heritage–
Islam, Christianity, and traditional
religion–fascinates outsiders and even
Nigerians themselves. The vibrancy of its
evangelical, Pentecostal, and
charismatic churches, its gorgeous,
imposing mosques and its colorful,
festive religious ceremonies are central
to Africa’s identity.
But in addition to expressing the
cultural richness of the Nigerian peoples,
religion is also largely responsible for
their divisiveness.
That religion has entered into politics
and governance is not new; it is as old
as the history of the nation itself. What
is new in the current dispensation is the
extent to which religion dominates
national life. The myth of the secular
Nigerian state that purports to separate
the institutions of religion from those of
the government has failed to translate
into reality. Indeed, there is evidence
to show that Nigeria’s troublesome
religious conflict, especially in the
northeastern and Middle Belt states,
will negatively affect the election next
Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the
oil rich Niger Delta region, is the
incumbent presidential candidate for
the PDP. During his pilgrimage to Israel
months ago, he stated that it was
necessary to “seek the face of God in
Jerusalem” to prepare for the looming
combat between him and his opponents.
General Mohammadu Buhari, the
nominee of the recently formed
opposition party, the All Progressives
Congress (APC), is a Northern Muslim
who briefly ruled as a military head of
state in the early 1980s. He has
promised to put a stop to the
uncontrollable corruption, address the
serious security threat of Boko Haram’s
insurgency, curb the country’s economic
decline, and curtail religious conflict in
Northern and Middle Belt states.
Although Buhari initially expressed
interest in a Muslim running mate for
the presidential election in February,
strong opposition from Christians around
the country forced APC leaders to chose
Yemi Osinbajo, a distinguished law
professor, Pentecostal pastor, and
highly respected former state attorney
general as the party’s vice presidential
It is certain that in the forthcoming
election, religion will play a dominant
role. As a result, there is increasing
speculation as to the allegiance of
evangelical and Pentecostal leaders. Will
they galvanize a Christian vote to
support Goodluck Jonathan, who has
declared that he had gone to “Israel to
seek the face of God,” or will they
support Buhari, who–though a Muslim
from the north–has been courting
southern and Middle Belt Christians?
And would Buhari enjoy the
overwhelming support of his stronghold
in the Muslim north where Jonathan’s
PDP continue to dominate in state
houses, state legislatures, and the
federal legislature? It may be too soon
to know where the dye will be cast.
The dynamics of the Nigerian election
defies current political theories that
claim that ethnicity trumps religion in
politics. What we see here is how religion
may be competing with ethnic affiliation
to determine the future of Nigeria
through the electoral vote. One thing
that is clear is that Nigeria deserves a
change for the better and that the
religious affiliation of the voters will be
central in an unpredictable way to what
happens on February 14 and after.
Boko Haram’s insurgency has led to the
displacement of thousands of eligible
voters in the predominantly Muslim
northeast states of Bornu, Adamawa,
and Yobe. One cannot help but ponder
what the implications might be if a
Northern Muslim with a strong base in
the core Muslim north loses the
presidential election to an increasingly
problematic Southern Christian
incumbent next month.
Although it is uncertain what the
election will bring, one has every reason
to be optimistic that the change that
Nigeria deserves may begin to appear
after the election, but there are no
quick fixes, and the deeply embedded
corruption and the menace of Boko
Haram will not suddenly disappear after
February 14.

Jacob K. Olupona
Professor of African Religious
Traditions, Harvard Divinity School, and
Professor of African and African
American Studies at Harvard University

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