11/02/2015 12:14 GMT | Updated 13/04/2015 06:59 BST

Us and Them in Nigeria

I wonder how many people in Nigeria, come the elections postponed until 28 March, will vote solely according to rational preferences, or choose a candidate who seeks to represent the interests of all the country's diverse communities? Or how many in the UK will comply in May with the grand fantasy of classical economics that we are all individuals making rational, self-interested choices. The downside of being essentially social is that our decisions are influenced by social factors and pressures that come in many shapes and sizes. In Nigeria they don't come bigger than the perceived demands of ethnic and religious identity.

Much of the country's political history has been an attempt to escape from this trap, and has thus far often failed. A Presidential candidate has to balance his Party ticket with a Vice-Presidential nominee of a different ethnic group and religion to have any hope of winning. Complex alliances across country and region are required to take the prize of Aso Rock, the seat of government in Abuja.

Solidarities grounded in ethnicity and faith do not always win over other criteria: who might prove less corrupt, who might distribute oil wealth more widely, even to the poor, who might perform the minimal requirement of a functioning state, the provision of security to its citizens?

Nonetheless Nigeria has always held the fearful possibility of identity politics turning into religious politics, if not nationally but over wide regions where one religion finds itself in a minority. It was resisted during the Biafran War when some of the Biafran leaders tried to present the conflict as between Muslims and - Catholic - Christians. But can it be resisted so easily in Nigeria's crisis today in which, according to where people live, the word "minority" in practice carries more weight than "citizen".

There is no a priori reason why religious identities should be "us and them". The sacred scriptures of Islam and Christianity contain clear evidence that both Prophet and Messiah relativized insider versus outsider distinctions. The King of Abyssinia welcomes and protects the new Muslims, and the Prophet shows comparable hospitality to Christians. A Samaritan, the traditional enemy of the Temple cult in Jerusalem, dealing with great charity with a mugging on the Jericho Road, is lauded by Jesus. The insider turns out not to be the religious elite of Judaea or even a charitable Jew

But fear and anger are a powerful motivator to circle the wagons. Inter-communal violence after elections, or sparked by such events as the introduction of Shari'a Law huddud provisions (criminal law added to already existing civil law) leave an immediate legacy of burnt out churches, mosques and homes, and a long-term legacy of insecurity, distrust and a predilection for conspiracy theories. Ethnic and religious solidarities, the default position given the government's failure to protect, are not inherently irrational.

In the face of these violent forces "responsible citizenship" as a virtue seems a wishy-washy if not utterly naïve concept. Citizenship implies equality of treatment and equality of opportunity. Even in better functioning democracies we find the financial crimes of the rich treated as forgivable lapses and "mistakes", or subject to "deferred prosecution agreements", those of the poor as criminal offences subject to immediate prosecution and penalties. What chance in states where the minimum structures of democracy, free and fair elections, are a huge achievement against all odds?

Is Nigeria condemned indefinitely to pork-barrel politics based on identity, political power equals economic power equals the immiseration of the majority? That is up to Nigeria's citizens led by the thousands who will vote for social justice and integrity as the qualities they seek in their political leader irrespective of religion or ethnic group or regional base.

Those who use religious solidarity as a means of political mobilization, those who play on fear and resentments rather than a better future for Nigeria, are playing with fire. They should be named and shamed. Voters should penalise them, journalists should challenge them, and the country's intellectuals and universities should immunize their students against the ploys and tropes that sow division and destruction. The alternative, "us and them", loser loses all, winner creams off the oil wealth, not only spells disaster for Nigeria but future heartbreak for all Africa.