Muslim Expected to Lead Nigeria Next

The minarets of the national mosque and the tower of the main cathedral soar to equal heights over Nigeria's capital, neither eclipsing the other.
( [email protected] ) Jan 13, 2007 08:26 PM EST

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) - The minarets of the national mosque and the tower of the main cathedral soar to equal heights over Nigeria's capital, neither eclipsing the other.

Religious leaders engineered the parity of spires to promote unity amid sectarian violence unleashed at the end of military rule in 1999. Just as deliberately, after eight years of rule by an elected southern Christian, all the main political parties have nominated northern, Muslim candidates for this year's presidential race.

While there are some accusations the Christian-to-Muslim hand over stems from corrupt deal making, there's also a sense that even a crude check on long-term dominance by any regional or ethnic group may be better than a free for all.

"If I have my chance, I'll try to do good by you. If you do my people bad, I'll do bad for you," said Innocent Ike, 25, a Christian who works in a bookstall selling Bibles. "Now we all do good works for each other."

The 140 million people of Africa's most populous nation are roughly split between a Christian-dominated south, once controlled by Europeans, and a Muslim north, where Arabs traveling across the Sahara Desert established their footholds. Followers of traditional religions make up a small minority.

Religious and ethnic intermarriage is common, and many communities boast both mosques and cathedrals. But religious violence has flared frequently since divisions largely tamped down by military regimes flourished in a budding democracy. In February, clashes between Christians and Muslims left at least 127 people dead in several Nigerian cities, violence provoked by the worldwide uproar over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Religious identity is so sensitive that Nigeria's secular government didn't include it on a census taken last year. Detailed results released this week showed northern states with 75 million people to the south's 65 million — findings promptly rejected by state governments across the south.

After decades of military rule, the April 27 presidential elections is meant to be the first time an elected leader hands power to another in Nigeria. Incumbent Olusegun Obasanjo is prevented from running again by term limits.

Most of the military regimes were led by Muslim northerners, since Britain largely staffed the pre-1960 independence army from the north. Ahead of the 1999 elections, political leaders reportedly brokered an agreement that brought to power a consensus Christian candidate, Obasanjo.

"After the end of rule by northern Muslims ... quite a number of people even in the north believed that the northerners had made a hash of things and it was time to have a southerner in charge," said Junaid Muhammad, a former lawmaker.

Muhammad, a northern Muslim himself, said the parties' recent turn toward the north is smart politics.

Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party nominated a largely unknown official from the north for president, Umaru Yar'Adua, the governor of Katsina state. Yar'Adua, who is seen as the front-runner because of his party's dominance, has chosen a southern Christian, Goodluck Jonathan, as his running mate. The current vice president is Muslim.

"We have respect for the Muslim religion and Christians and for nonbelievers and we try to accommodate all to ensure the country remains one," said John Odey, a spokesman for Obasanjo's party.

Nigeria's largest opposition party, the All Nigeria Peoples Party, has nominated former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari for president. A smaller opposition party has also chosen a Muslim candidate, though the two opposition parties are expected eventually to settle on a single candidate.

For some, the Christian-Muslim back-and-forth is a sign of political immaturity in a young democracy.

"What we lack is a true system, there's manipulation. The real voice of the people is not expressed," said Yahya Hamza, a 42-year-old civil servant and a Muslim. "I'm not interested that our leaders be Muslim, pagan, Christian. What matters most is the quality of leadership."

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