The most populous country in Africa will witness its first civilian-civilian democratic handover of the presidency on Saturday when the outgoing Christian president of Nigeria will likely be succeeded by one of three Muslim candidates in the country plagued by years of Christian-Muslim strife.
President Olusegun Obasanjo’s election in 1999 ended 15 years of almost completely military rule. There are no Christian candidates among the current presidential front-runners, but Christians are said to favor Umar Musa Yar’adua of the People’s Democratic Party who is thought to be more sympathetic than the other candidates, according to Open Doors USA.
The other candidates are vice president Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party.
Christians in Nigeria and abroad have raised concern about the effect of a new Muslim president on religious freedom in the country, especially after recent shocking persecution events.
"If there's a Muslim-elected president – and the two leading candidates are both Muslim - Christian rights in that country will continue to suffer," Open Doors USA president Car Moeller told Mission Network News. "We know that Nigeria is the home to some of the largest and fastest growing churches in Africa. However, there's also a great deal of persecution going on in the northern states."
A Christian teacher was recently brutally beaten and burned alive by her students in a Muslim dominated northern town. Two days later in the same town, an evangelical church was burned.
Nigeria’s population of 135 million is nearly equally divided between Muslims and Christians, with Muslims primarily settling in the north and Christians in the south. Since democracy was restored in 1999, there have been at least 15,000 deaths due to religious, communal or political violence, according to BBC.
Yet Obasanjo remains hopeful that Saturday’s election will move Nigeria one step closer to setting up a strong democratic nation. The president along with the country’s citizens hope the federal election on Saturday will turn out better than last week’s state election where accusations of vote-rigging, fraud and violence marred the event. At least 21 people were killed throughout the country last weekend and many fear a similar scenario will take place on Saturday, according to The Associated Press.
"Let us seize the high tide of history," said Obasanjo, according to AP. "Never have we progressed this far in our democratic journey."
"I appeal to all Nigerians to exercise their civic responsibility of voting peacefully, diligently and without indulging in any malpractices."
The Nigerian federal election will be keenly watched by the world which depends on the country’s oil being that it is the world’s sixth biggest oil exporter and Africa’s biggest oil producer, according to Agence France-Presse.
"The world is watching us and we cannot afford to disappoint ourselves, our friends and the world," said Obasanjo on Friday, according to AFP.
Nigeria’s 61 million registered voters will elect their next president and more than 300 lawmakers in Nigeria’s federal legislature at 120,000 polling centers on Saturday.
The new government will take power on May 29.