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AFTER A TRAGEDY

Amid a horrific killing at a church, Nigeria’s president ponders his successor

A campaign banner for the 2019 elections showing Muhammadu Buhari and Yemi Osinbajo
Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
One of these two wants to be Nigeria’s president in 2023
  • Alexander Onukwue
By Alexander Onukwue

West Africa correspondent

Published Last updated

Gunmen went into a Catholic church in Owo, a town in Ondo state, southwest Nigeria, during a Pentecost day Mass on June 5 and killed at least 50 people, according to reports and the lowest fatality estimate from lawmakers and eyewitnesses.

Sunday’s horrific killing was the deadliest at a Nigerian church in a decade, recalling similar tragedies in 2018, 2012, and on Christmas Day in 2011.

But a few hours after it happened, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari, his vice president Yemi Osinbajo, and other members of their All Progressives Congress (APC) party were photographed relaxed and amused around colorful dinner tables. APC begins a convention in Abuja on June 6 to choose its candidate for next year’s presidential elections. Buhari wants to pick his successor and has plainly told governors of the 22 (of Nigeria’s 36) states where APC reigns to back his choice.

The fast forward from a mass killing to a party convention is a picture of Nigeria in the last seven years; a country that trudges on from one tragedy to another, politicians jostling for power in the belief that there will always be a country to govern and resources to exploit.

Buhari will handover an unsolved mass killing problem

It is not clear who Buhari will pick this week. Osinbajo, the vice president, is in the race. Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state who was very influential in enthroning Buhari and Osinbajo in 2015 and 2019, is running too and has said it is his turn to lead Nigeria.

One thing is clear however: Whoever becomes president, whether from Buhari’s party or the opposition, will inherit a crisis of mass killings at Nigerian churches.

The menace predated Buhari’s presidency and was almost always carried out by Boko Haram, the terrorist group. But it has continued under Buhari, with cattle herders responsible for the killing of at least 15 people in 2018. One estimate puts the number of Christians massacred in Nigeria since 2015 when Buhari became president at 11,500. Herders account for 64% of that.

Mass killings by terrorists have also targeted Muslims, particularly in northern Nigeria. Since 2009, an estimated 30,000 Muslims have  been killed in “collateral and revenge killings,” the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (a Nigerian non-governmental organization) said.

Turning point or campaign opportunity?

In the aftermath of the Owo tragedy, Buhari said Nigeria will “never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome the light.” The statement was made through a media aide. The president has not spoken directly on the issue.

That leaves the field open to his aspiring successors to stake a claim to being able to console grieving Nigerians in times of pain. Osinbajo’s team has published an empathetic tweet. Tinubu’s team has published a video of him riding in a bus and looking out wistfully through the window, with the governor of Ondo state by his side.

Which is to say that this mass killing, like many before, may soon be subsumed by the prevailing political theater of the moment. The police have promised an investigation, like in previous cases. But besides that one time when law enforcement killed the mastermind of the killing of 23 people going home after New Year’s eve church events, Nigeria tragically moves on like nothing happened.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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