Three unanticipated, barely perceptible, but nonetheless significant and potentially seismic shifts are happening in the presidential race, which are confounding attempts to predict the outcome of the presidential election. The shifts are in the changing patterning of the fortunes and political coalitions of the presidential front-runners.
APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu is suffering a deep, organic, almost irrecoverable depletion of his political goodwill in the Muslim North among everyday voters as a direct consequence of his failed, politically ill-advised attempts to recite the fatiha on three different occasions. The North’s Tinubu-supporting APC governors will have a hard time reversing this.
In the aftermath of Tinubu’s fatiha misadventures, videos of which have gone viral and have become grist for the mill of preachers, there is a growing consensus among ordinary voters in the region that Tinubu isn’t the Muslim he said he is, that he is either a munafiq or a Christian. In Islam, a munafiq (i.e., a religious hypocrite who pretends to be a Muslim) is worse than an unbeliever. Whether or not this conclusion is warranted or justified is beside the point. I am only stating the prevailing sentiment among everyday folks there.
I personally want a country where the doctrines people choose to subscribe to—or choose not to subscribe to—don’t determine their qualification for political office. There is absolutely no relationship between faith—or lack thereof—and competence. In fact, overly religious people, on average, tend to be dangerously inept phonies.
But it’s undeniable that religion is shaping up to have an outsized influence in mapping the contours of this presidential election. For instance, Tinubu’s erstwhile edge in the Muslim North was anchored on the notion that he was a Muslim who chose to “honor” his religion by damning consequences and choosing another Muslim to be his running mate. Voting for him was framed as a political “jihad” in sermons. No one preaches that in mosques these days, and people who did in the past are now objects of stone-cold derision.
The biggest beneficiary of the diminution of Tinubu’s religio-political capital in the Muslim North is PDP’s Atiku Abubakar about whom northern Muslim voters had been lukewarm at best. Atiku’s opposition to sharia in the early 2000s at a time it was both literally and politically suicidal to do so for a Northern Muslim had been held against him, particularly by the conservative clerical establishment.
He had also once repudiated the honorific West African Muslim title of “Alhaji” in a press statement and said he preferred to be addressed simply as “Vice President Atiku Abubakar.” That rankled many northern Muslims. Plus, his cosmopolitanism and associational politics had caused him to be labelled as “a southerner in northern skin,” to borrow the phrase of a Kaduna-based friend whose identity I’ve chosen to conceal.
In spite of the best efforts by APC’s northern governors, Atiku’s acceptance is on the upswing in the Muslim North in a dramatically incremental manner not because of anything he has done or said but because he is the only other option for voters in the region after Tinubu.
Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso may marginally win the plurality of votes in Kano, but there’s a sense everywhere else in the Muslim North that he is merely a petulant “spoiler” on whom people won’t “waste” their votes. Obi barely registers a presence in the minds of most Northern Muslim voters and is generally seen in an unflattering light.
Tinubu has detected the phenomenal transmutation of his political fortunes in the Muslim North not because Muhammadu Buhari and the Aso Rock cabal (who frankly now have zero political capital) are machinating against him but because of his fatiha debacles. In response, he has chosen to change tack and go full-on Yoruba nationalist.
In campaign stump speeches in Yoruba in the Southwest, Tinubu has been increasingly recoiling into his ethnic shell. For example, on Thursday in Osogbo, he said to a mammoth crowd: “Omo oko ni wa, a kii se omo ale [We are sons of our fathers; we are not bastards]. Awa la gbe won de be [We put them in power]. Awa l’a maa ro po won [We are the ones that will replace them].” That was clearly a dig at Buhari and his inner circle.
On Friday in Ekiti, he repeated the ethnic nationalist themes that have now become his customary style of campaigning when he speaks in Yoruba to a Yoruba audience. “This election is yours. It is the election you will use to liberate yourselves,” he said. “They want to turn us into servants. We are not servants.” That’s obviously not the language you would expect of the candidate of the ruling party.
The trope of slavery and servitude is an emotionally persuasive dog whistle in Yoruba nationalist politics. It evokes images and sensation of “Fulani domination” without mentioning it, and galvanises a united ethnic front, particularly because Buhari and his cabal are against him, and Atiku, his closest challenger, are Fulani people. In other words, Tinubu’s latest campaign style is straight out of “Yoruba Nation ” playbook.
A Yoruba friend who helped me translate Tinubu’s stump speeches said Tinubu “is actually preparing the West for a resistance.” And he may be successful because, at least on the surface, his grievance is valid. He and the Yoruba supported Buhari and his “Fulani” people to ascend to power on condition that their gesture would be reciprocated after eight years.
Now it’s payback time, and Buhari and his “Fulani” people are reneging on their pledge and want to hand over power to one of them from a different political party. You may question the merits of this argument, but it seems to be gaining traction in the Southwest even among people who previously despised Tinubu.
If what seems to be happening in the Southwest turns out to be true, this is bad news for Peter Obi who has anchored his entire presidential campaign on galvanising Christian grievance over the faith’s exclusion at the top of APC and PDP’s presidential tickets. Ayo Adebanjo captured the Christian nationalist impulses in Obi’s popularity on Friday when he said, “If Obi loses, a Christian southerner may never be president again.”
Of course, that’s an inaccurate, off-the-wall claim, but it was strategically calculated to mobilise the Christian vote for Obi against Tinubu whom Adebanjo and his associates have a personal beef with. Nevertheless, Tinubu’s seeming rejection by Northern Muslim voters who now question his Muslim faith on account of his inability to recite the most recited chapter of the Muslim holy book is buying him sympathy from Yoruba people who didn’t care for his politics.
Increasingly, even Yoruba Christians are reassessing their rejection of Tinubu’s “Muslim-Muslim” ticket. It isn’t what they thought it was. This will potentially cut into the “Christian” vote that the Obi campaign had been banking on. But it was always a politically risky strategy to rely on the religious solidarity of Yoruba voters because ethnicity is historically a stronger force in Yorubaland than religion.
How these changing dynamics will impact the outcome of the election is still up in the air.