As tensions rise ahead of elections in Nigeria, some fear the country’s unity will face a new test and divisions will be exacerbated by a vote which sees a Christian presidential candidate from the south, Goodluck Jonathan, facing stiff competition from Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim candidate from the north.

It is not their first face off but is likely to be by far the most closely contested. But to what extent will voters pay attention to the religion of the candidates?

“If the Christian leader does not have what it takes to provide good leadership I will not vote for him merely because he is a Christian,” says Arome Okwori at his home in Jos where the Christmas decorations still twinkle.

“However, I will make a choice between that Christian leader and a Muslim leader who may not guarantee freedom of religion… so to that extent I may lean to the Christian leader but that is not how it should be,” the father of two young children adds.

He says he knows many other Christians who fear that Mr Buhari has a hard-line Islamist agenda and wants stricter implementation of Sharia – Islamic law is already in place across the north.

“Gen Buhari believes in the secular nature of Nigeria,” says Lai Mohammed, a spokesman for his All Progressive Congress (APC) party. “He is not a religious bigot. He is not a fundamentalist. That is mischievous talk.”

There are Nigerians, and by no means only Muslims, who say President Jonathan is too close to some of the hugely popular “super pastors” who have grown rich from their Pentecostal churches.

Nigerians are notoriously religious and the voting patterns will once again no doubt look very different in the predominantly Muslim north compared to some areas in the south where more Christians live.

“You can never divorce the religious sentiment from a typical Nigerian,” says Khadijah Hawaja Gambo, a white veil framing her face.

“But the way things are going people are beginning to downplay the role of religion in deciding who you vote. I hear people talking a lot about credibility,” she says.

The Muslim mother of six adds that she wants a leader who can end the insecurity in Nigeria and “take the country back to where it used to be with people co-existing peacefully, not the kind of Nigeria we are seeing today”.

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