On December 14, 2018, the nation watched with rapt attention the five vice presidential candidates on a debate platform beamed to Nigeria and the world. There was a grand exchange of knowledge and ignorance, logic and illogic and the fatuous attempt at public deception through false statistics peddling. But we enjoyed the exchanges and the feeling that, for a few hours, those who run our affairs or desire to do so in a vice presidential capacity were answering our queries. We expected that on January 19, 2019, when the big masquerades, the presidential candidates, were billed to take the debate podium, we would get a full flowering of their views on the Nigerian condition and their thoughts on how to make this beleaguered country better, much better, than it is now. In aviation parlance there is something called “No show”, meaning that the passenger did not show up for his flight.
On that day, only the three new faces in presidential politics, Kingsley Moghalu, Oby Ezekwesili and Fela Durotoye, showed up. Candidates Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar were missing from the podium. Buhari said he was busy with governance and that the debate collided with some other matters of state.
His second reason was that he has been appearing at other platforms and dishing out information on the performance of his government. On the other hand Abubakar appeared at the debate venue briefly and disappeared when he learnt that Buhari was not coming. Both men showed enormous disrespect to and disdain for Nigerians. This debate was announced several weeks earlier and the alleged clash of schedules was an unacceptable excuse because this is an important national event that takes place only once in four years. Yes, candidates contesting elections always use various platforms to market themselves and their vision. Such platforms include town hall meetings, campaign rallies, interviews on radio, television and newspaper and campaign documents, including party manifestoes. But nothing beats the reach of a television platform where the debate is fed to most television and radio stations in Nigeria and abroad. If Buhari arrogantly ignored the debate, Abubakar should have done himself a favour by honouring his party and wooing Nigerians with whatever ideas he had for making “Nigeria great again”. Whoever advised him to walk away did a great disservice to him because that was a golden opportunity for him to crack the whip on Buhari’s back. Atiku’s proverb about not shaving a man’s head in his absence is grossly inappropriate here. If you can shave a man’s head in his absence go ahead and shave it. He missed a gilt-edged opportunity to slaughter his major opponent and to let Nigerians know that he respected them for offering him an opportunity and honour to speak to them. Such remarks would have resonated very favourably with Nigerians.
Historically, many of Nigeria’s presidential candidates have been serial debate dodgers. In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP refused to square up with Olu Falae of the APP/AD coalition. In 2003, Obasanjo (PDP) refused to debate with Buhari of ANPP. In 2007, Umaru Yar’Adua (PDP) refused to debate with Buhari of ANPP. In 2011, Goodluck Jonathan did not agree to face Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). In 2015, Buhari of APC refused to have a debate with Jonathan of PDP. The excuse, we learnt, was that the questions to be asked at the debate had been leaked by the organisers to Jonathan. That allegation was, however, unsubstantiated. In general, it appears that those who refuse to participate in debates are those who always believe that victory was already in their pockets and they had no need for a debate. But in most democracies debates are a desideratum. They provide the best opportunity for candidates to market their programmes and for voters to assess them properly. In a two-hour television debate, it is possible for the viewers to measure the candidates’ temperament, comportment under pressure, knowledge, discipline, ability to convey their vision clearly and convincingly. In the United States, debates count for much because undecided voters use the performance of the candidates at such platforms to decide on whom to vote for. When President George Bush (senior) was contesting for a second term as U.S. President, he kept looking at his watch during the debate with his opponent Bill Clinton. Polls conducted after the debate showed that many Americans felt offended that Bush was arrogant and impatient (by looking at his watch) and felt that the debate was unimportant. Many of them voted against him on that account. He lost the election. Such apparently minor gestures may count in America but may not be of much consequence to Nigerians. But even if the candidates believe that they do not need debates to win elections, they should respect the fact that Nigerians want these debates and want to see how their leaders will grapple with their various problems. Yes, it is true that politicians have other platforms through which they deliver their messages. One of them, which seems to be the favourite of the politicians is rallies where there are always huge crowds. Most of those fellows at the rallies are hired while some of them are party supporters. If you are talking to party supporters you are merely preaching to the converted. Those who are hired are the same fellows who attend the rallies of all the other parties for a fee to give the impression of a mammoth support for the party in question. This charade goes on all the time and no discerning analyst is deceived by these mammoth, tumultuous crowds. What they are looking for at those rallies are wrappers, rice, salt, cash, which you can give the generic name “stomach infrastructure.” Those rallies go on forever with singers, drummers, acrobats on display and just a few minutes for speeches, which people hardly hear or listen to. Those are not the venues for making seminal statements of policy and they are never made on those occasions. One-on-one interviews on radio, television or newspapers have limited coverage because they are restricted to only the medium in question. So, the long reach of a television debate that is widely covered on several platforms is a candidate’s best friend, although it can also be his worst enemy.
Why do Nigerian leaders dodge debates? They do so because they have no respect for the people they rule or want to rule. They do so because they see themselves as the people’s bosses, the lords of the manor. They do so because they are arrogant and disrespectful of their people. They do so because they have no real interest in the trappings, ethos, the culture, the antecedents and the spirit of democracy as it is practised in countries from which we borrowed the system. In America, no presidential candidate would fail to show up for a debate at elections and hope to be voted for. Here the candidates ignore the debates because they think they can win the elections by hook or crook, debate or no debate. But there is a lot to be gained by both the debaters and the country. The television debate at which Dr. Kingsley Moghalu, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili and Mr. Fela Durotoye appeared was quite revealing. They all showed intelligence, knowledge, a mastery of the major issues that afflict Nigeria and possible solutions. Those who have reacted to their views praised them for their grasp of the lay of the land and the road to salvation. It is unlikely that any of them will win the election but we now know that, with them around, the reign of the gerontocrats will not be long. We have the hope that, if all of them stay in the trenches, the country stands a chance of having people at the apex of governance whose views are knowledge-driven and who can lead Nigeria into modernity. They are the leaders of the future. So, the public may begin to feel that, despite the deficiencies of today, there are good prospects of their being overcome tomorrow by a new generation of leaders who are likely to hug diversity, inclusivity and new knowledge as the tools for a country that is hungry for greatness. That is still some kilometers away.
For now, we must persuade the presidential candidates of APC, Buhari, and PDP, Abubakar, to commit themselves to a debate before the February 16 election. They owe themselves, their parties and the voters that. No excuses for absence are good enough. It is not about them and what they are comfortable with. It is about the country they are leading or want to lead. They have no right to tell Nigerians that they do not want to get involved in a debate for whatever reason when Nigerians say they want them to square up against each other and put their visions on the table. Buhari will be running the race based on his record in the last three years plus as well as his vision for the next four years.
Abubakar will account for his tenure as Vice President and also give us an insight into an Atiku presidency, if he wins. Those are the things Nigerians want to hear in a structured debate format free from rabble rousing, heckling or cheering. The Nigeria Election Debate Group is registered for the purpose of such debates. Together with the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), they have enough credibility despite the crass partisanship of some BON members to earn the respect of contestants. Nigerians must insist that the debate culture be accepted by all those who seek to run our affairs because that is a viable way of knowing who we want to entrust our destiny to. Anyone who refuses to show up at a properly organised debate is simply showing disrespect to Nigerians and the office he seeks to hold. And Nigerians should pay them lack in their own coin.