(News investigators) The candidates of Nigeria’s leading political parties in the February 25 presidential election risk jail terms if probed and eventually prosecuted over the contents and directions of their campaigns in the run-up to the fiercely-fought electoral contest.
A review of the campaigns of Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) and Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) indicates that the candidates engaged in either ethnic, sectional or religious-motivated pitch for votes ahead of the election, in what is a clear violation of Nigeria’s electoral law.
In April, Peter Obi’s secret telephone conversation with David Oyedebo, a highly influential Nigerian pastor, and founder of the Living Faith Church, was leaked. In the audio, Peter Obi was heard declaring the 25 February presidential election a religious war and Mr Oyedepo was heard replying “I believe that” repeatedly.
Before that telephone conversation on the eve of the presidential election, Peter Obi had been serially accused of campaigning along religious lines, targeting churches with thousands of followers. He denied the charges but his political steps proved the contrary.
In June 2022, for example, Mr Obi asked Nigerians to “take back” their country during a campaign visit to the ‘Men of Valour’ conference, organised by the Revival House of International Church (RHOGIC), Abuja.
At the conference themed ‘Navigating the Corridors of Power, the Church, and the Politics’, Peter Obi described Nigeria’s political space as an “asylum”, urging Nigerians not to allow the status quo to continue.
But Peter Obi is not alone in the deployment of religious, sectional or ethic sentiments for political campaigns. The two other leading presidential candidates, Bola Tinubu of APC and Atiku Abubakar of PDP, also adopted similar patterns of campaigns.
Like Peter Obi, like Bola Tinubu
Mr Tinubu’s June 2022 “emilokan” outburst shocked many Nigerians. Ahead of the presidential primary election of the APC, the former Lagos governor addressed delegates at the Presidential Lodge in Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital. He said it was the turn of the Yoruba— and therefore his turn — to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari.
He said: “If not for me that led the war front, Buhari wouldn’t have emerged; he contested first, second and third times and lost. He cried on television that he won’t contest again. I went to his home in Katsina, I told him you would contest and win, but you won’t joke with the matters of the Yorubas. Since he has emerged, I have not been appointed a Minister; I neither get nor request a contract. This time, it’s Yoruba’s turn and in Yorubaland, it’s my turn.”
At the event, Mr Tinubu alluded to a Robert Ogunde’s song, titled ‘Yoruba Ronu, a 1964 musical orchestra charging the people of the southwest not to politically betray one another. The historical allusion and Mr Tinubu’s outburst appealed to many Yoruba voters who then decided to rally around their tribesman rather than any other politician from another tribe.
The northernisation of a political campaign by Atiku Abubakar
Speaking at an interactive session of the Arewa townhall policy dialogue in Kaduna, in October 2022, a former vice-president of Nigeria and PDP’s presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, said northerners needed a president like him, who hails from the north.
Mr Abubakar urged northerners to trust him with their votes because he is one of them and therefore the most qualified to be president.
“I have traversed the whole of this country,” he said.
“I know the whole of this country. I have built bridges across this country. I think what the average northerner needs is somebody who is from the north, who also understands the other parts of Nigeria and who has been able to build bridges across the rest of the country.”
He added that “this is what northerners need. He (northerner) doesn’t need a Yoruba candidate or an Igbo candidate. This is what the northerner needs.
“I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of northern origin.”
‘Nothing wrong with campaigning along the religious line’
Amid the controversy over Peter Obi’s telephone conversation with Mr Oyedepo, a chieftain of the Labour Party and a professor, Pat Utomi, said there was nothing wrong with campaigning along religious lines.
He said elsewhere, political parties are sometimes established to appeal to the interests of the people of a certain religion. Mr Utomi said this in a short interview with the African Independent Television (AIT).
He further argued that every politician appeals to religious sentiments, stating that no politician seeking power has not gone to religious leaders for endorsements.
Breaching the 2022 Electoral Act, risking jail terms
But contrary to Mr Utomi’s claims, campaigning along ethnic, sectional and religious lines is a clear contravention of Nigeria’s electoral law and violators can be jailed if prosecuted.
According to section 92(3) of the Electoral Act 2022, “places designated for religious worship, police stations, and public offices shall not be used for political campaigns, rallies, and processions; or to promote, propagate, or attack political parties, candidates, or their programmes, or ideologies.”
Again, Section 97 of the same law forbids campaigns based on religion or tribe, stating that “any candidate, person or association that engages in campaigning or broadcasting based on religious, tribal, or sectional reason to promote or oppose a particular political party or the election of a particular candidate commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction — (a) to a maximum fine of N1,000,000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both; and (b) in the case of a political party, to a maximum fine of N10,000,000.”
When campaigns were about to kick off in 2022, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) warned candidates seeking offices to avoid campaigns in religious spaces or colouring their electioneering with inter-faith division.
Reading out sections of the Electoral Act, Festus Okoye, INEC national commissioner in charge of publicity, said offenders risked imprisonment. Mr Okoye noted that the Act already has provisions for sanctions for violators, urging parties and candidates to adhere to the law and prioritise it.
It remains to be seen if INEC would be able to muscle the necessary political will to prosecute Atiku Abubakar, Bola Tinubu, and Peter Obi for violating the Electoral Act in their campaigns.