By Dare Babarinsa
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), came into the limelight 30 years ago.
He was one of the young men and women who flocked around Chief Moshood Abiola, Nigerian President-presumptive and winner of the 12 June 1993, presidential election. Tinubu was elected Senator on the platform of Abiola’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), to represent Lagos-West in Abuja.
He was a dapper dresser; handsome and precocious. He was fearless and daring. When Abiola went to see (then Chief of Defence Staff) General Sani Abacha on the November 1993 night the military toppled Chief Ernest Shonekan, the Head of the Interim National Government, he took the young Tinubu with him. The Abiola-Abacha parley was held at the Flagstaff House on the Marina in Lagos.
It is now Tinubu’s turn to face the turbulence of a Nigerian presidential campaign. One of the issues he must resolve quickly is that of choosing a running mate, who will share the ticket with him. He may either choose from the North Central (Middle-Belt) or the North East. The current President, Muhammadu Buhari, is from the North-Western State of Katsina.
Tinubu is facing the same dilemma that Abiola faced – whether to pick a Muslim or a Christian candidate. Some people are even suggesting that he can pick a Muslim Vice-President from the North West, the strongest zone of the APC, notwithstanding that Buhari hailed from that zone. It was also a difficult choice for Abiola in 1993.
At the Jos convention of the SDP (Social Democratic Party) to choose the party’s presidential flag bearer, Abiola had entered into an agreement with the People’s Front faction of the party, headed by Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (rtd.), to pick the young Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a prosperous former Custom officer, as his running mate. With the presidential ticket in his kitty, Abiola reneged on his agreement with the Yar’Adua camp and decided to search wider. Yar’Adua and his team felt betrayed.
Three men had contested for the SDP presidential ticket: Abiola, Atiku and Babagana Kingibe, a smooth-talking former diplomat, who was the founding Chairman of the SDP. Kingibe gave Abiola a run for his money, and it was only the combined force of Abiola and Yar’Adua, who were also business partners, that was able to stop the Kingibe blitzkrieg on its track.
Kingibe was down but not out. He now wanted to be Abiola’s running mate. He had the support of most of the SDP governors, who had their tickets to run when Kingibe was the chairman of the party.
When Abiola met his friend, General Ibrahim Babangida at the new Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, the dictator warned him that he must pick neither Atiku nor Kingibe. Babangida warned that the military would frown at a Muslim-Muslim ticket and on that condition alone, the two men were not qualified to be vice-presidents. He suggested that Paschal Bafyau, the bland President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, should be picked. Abiola said he would think about it.
Abiola’s personal choice would have been Commodore Dan Suleiman, a former military governor, but he was opposed by many top SDP leaders, because of his military background. Atiku was not acceptable too to Babangida because he was seen as a surrogate of Yar’Adua. Abiola rejected Bafyau ultimately because he said Bafyau was not a political force in his native Adamawa State despite his national stature as the NLC president. In the end, Abiola settled for Kingibe despite the dire warning of Babangida that he must not pick Kingibe. Moreover, Abiola had now settled for a Muslim-Muslim ticket contrary to the admonition of Babangida. It was a fatal attraction.
Now Tinubu is facing the same temptation 29 years after Abiola fell into it. Many people are clamouring that in the choice of a running mate, religion does not matter. Kaduna State Governor, Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, a Muslim, has weighed in that it does not matter whether the Vice-President is a Christian or a Muslim. What is important is the competence and suitability of the candidate. El-Rufai reminded us that he broke the old tradition in Kaduna State, which has at least 40 per cent Christian population, by having a Muslim Deputy-Governor and went ahead to win the election and heaven has not fallen.
However, under el-Rufai’s watch, thousands of citizens, mostly Christians, have been killed by suspected Islamic terrorists. Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, former Governor of Abia State, reminded us also that Oluremi, the wife of Tinubu, is not only a Christian but also a pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. What else would the Christians want when the First Lady would be of the Christian faith?
The truth is that comparing Abiola’s era with now is ancient times. Things have changed dramatically for the worse and non-Muslims have been made to bear the brunt most of the time. The recent massacre in Owo, when armed men invaded a Catholic church on a Sunday morning during worship, was most likely perpetrated by Islamic terrorists. For more than 20 years, Nigeria has been battling one form or the other of Islamic terrorism. We now have Boko Haram, herdsmen, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) terrorists and other traders of terror. How can the Christians and people of other faith feel comfortable when there is no one to represent them on the presidential ticket?
For more than seven years, President Buhari, a Muslim, has presided over the affairs of Nigeria, assisted by a Christian Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo. Despite the presence of Osinbajo in the power loop, that has served as cold comfort for the Christians in Plateau, Kaduna, Benue, Taraba, Kogi, Ondo and other places, where they have been forced to bear the brunt of Islamic terror. What would have been the situation if Osinbajo too is a Muslim and yet he would be sent to churches and Christian communities to deliver those routine condolence messages from the President?
It is an obtuse excuse that there are not many Christian leaders who could be vice-presidents in the whole of Northern Nigeria. The Secretary to the Federal Government, Boss Mustapha, is a Christian. There are several Christian governors and many other leading citizens who could creditably occupy the post of Vice-President from the North.
Some people make the mistake that the condition existing in Yorubaland is what exists in Nigeria. It is not. Yorubaland is the exception rather than the rule. About 30 years ago, Christians were trying to get permission to build the first church in the centre of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. For many years, this was not allowed until the new military governor, Colonel Mohammed Buba Marwa, waded in and ensured that the church was built.
Yorubaland is decidedly different. As of today, all the governors of the South West are Christians with the notable exception of Governor Gboyega Oyetola who is a Muslim.
Herbert Macaulay, the father of Nigerian Nationalism, was a Christian. His father was an Archdeacon of the Anglican Church and his grandfather was Ajayi Crowther, the first African bishop. Yet his greatest support base was among the Muslim faithful of Lagos. Aare Azeez Arisekola-Alao, the leader of the Muslim laity in Yorubaland, contributed to the building of many churches in the South West.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian of the Baptist faith, ensured that a mosque was built in his Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, Abeokuta. When Muslims in Ede, Osun State, was having problems in building the Central Mosque in the town, they invited a Christian clergyman to help them in keeping the account and ensure that the mosque was completed.
Let us hope that the rest of Nigeria would become like Yorubaland in the nearest future. It is not so now. Therefore, Tinubu would have to deal with the reality of the moment. He should resist the temptation of taking a leap in the dark. The move would be fatal to his historic quest for power and would become an unnecessary but dominant distraction to his campaign for power.
Babarinsa is a seasoned editor, columnist and author. He is Chairman/Editor-in-Chief at the Gaskia Media Limited. This article was first published in his weekly column in The Guardian on Thursday