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 Haram.
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 state.
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 month.
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 candidate.
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