In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, requiring that projects financed with federal funds “take affirmative action” to ensure that hiring and employment practices are free of racial bias. Kennedy’s foundational action laid the foundation for Kennedy’s Vice President and successor to sign the sweeping Civil Rights Act in 1964, which prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, colour, religion, or national origin.

Today in Nigeria, some (not all) leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) are trying to roll back the hand of the clock on a local variation of affirmative action. Rather than ensure that the choice of a Vice-Presidential candidate by a party’s flag bearer is free of religious bias, they are arguing that the choice must be biased in favour of their own religion, namely, Christianity. In particular, they are opposed to the choice of a Muslim running mate by the flag bearer of the All Progressives Congress, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, himself a minority Muslim from the South, a predominantly Christian region.

Tinubu’s insistence that the choice of former Governor, now Senator, Kashim Shettima of Borno State, is based on his sterling qualifications-experience, competence, ability, vision, and readiness to work as a team player-mean nothing to CAN.

It also does not matter to CAN that the region from which the choice is being made is predominantly Muslim. There are nineteen states in the North, only 4 or 5 of which have a sizable Christian population. Of these Christian states, three are dominated by the Peoples Democratic Party with PDP Governors. Is CAN saying that the voting sensibilities of the remaining 14 or 15 Northern states, mostly APC states, do not matter? It also does not matter to CAN that the leading opposition candidates from the North are Muslim. If Northern Muslim voters follow CAN’s my-religion-only logic, they may all vote for the opposition Muslim candidates from their region. But the voters are much wiser than that. Above all, CAN seems to overlook the critical fact that Tinubu is a politician looking for a running mate that shares his vision of the country, not a Pope looking for a Camerlengo (Deputy).

CAN’s position on what has come to be known as the Muslim-Muslim ticket comes with far-reaching implications for identity politics and our democracy. First, it sets up a we/they dichotomy between Christians and Muslims, thus stoking hatred by reifying religious difference. By implication, it also sets up the predominantly Muslim North against the predominantly Christian South.

Second, CAN ignores the separation of Church and State, enshrined in the nation’s constitution, by openly bringing religion to politics. Some priests have even gone as far as urging church members to register and show evidence of their voter’s card, while others are openly canvassing for votes against a Muslim-Muslim ticket.

Third, the timing and intensity of CAN’s opposition to a Muslim-Muslim ticket accentuates the political orientation of its action. The critical question is: Why is it now that Tinubu chose a Muslim running mate that CAN is screaming and protesting on the streets? Where was CAN when the PDP flouted their party’s constitution and elected a Muslim flag bearer to succeed another Muslim, who would have completed eight years in office by May 2023? What sympathy did CAN extend to Governor Nyesome Wike, a Christian, who cried out against such injustice? Where was CAN when a Bishop was killed and a Christian student stoned to death by fellow Muslim students both in the North?

Why didn’t CAN demonstrate on the streets, like they did recently against Muslim-Muslim ticket, when over 40 church goers were massacred in cold blood inside a church on Pentecost Sunday just over a month ago? Or did CAN shelve protest at that time, because the Vice-President was a Christian Southerner, a pastor, and a member of CAN? Perhaps CAN realised then that the Vice-President actually holds no formal power but has now forgotten about that in the case of Shettima!

What is getting clearer and clearer from CAN’s opposition to a Muslim-Muslim ticket is its political undertone. In this regard, CAN’s opposition manifests major characteristics of a negative campaign. First, it is a diversionary campaign intended to achieve at least three related goals: (a) stoke the fear of neglect among Christians who may share their views; (b) aggravate existing religious fault lines in the country by setting up Christians against Muslims; and, above all, (c) put the APC ticket on the defensive, by diverting attention away from major national issues, such as security, economy, education, healthcare, youth employment, gender equity, and so on.

The second characteristic of negative campaign manifested in the CAN strategy is repetition for emphasis. CAN opposes every step Tinubu takes on the running mate issue, from announcing the name of the candidate to unveiling him officially by the party. CAN even imitated the political strategy of carrying a mock coffin in one of its protests as it was done against former President Goodluck Jonathan during the 2015 campaign.

What is really striking about CAN’s actions is how much they chorus, or are being chorused, by other political parties contesting for the office of President with the APC candidate. This is particularly true of the PDP, which would lead one to ask whether CAN is working for that political party.

To be fair, CAN has every reason to be agitated about the killings of Christians, including Bishops and priests as all Nigerians should. It will be unfair, however, to present such information to the world as if Muslims are not killed by the same criminals. Indeed, the data on killings since 1999 show that more Muslims than Christians have been, and are still being, killed, especially in the North.

There is no magic formula in a Muslim-Muslim ticket that will worsen security just as there is no guarantee that a Muslim-Christian ticket will improve it. Indeed, we have had a Christian-Muslim or Muslim-Christian ticket since 1999. Yet, the security situation in the country has been getting worse and worse. What CAN really needs to do is to negotiate security measures with all the candidates and note the one that has the best plan.