Every political architecture periodically undergoes transformation, else it turns anachronistic. Underdeveloped countries need such changes most. Our country is one of such. Expectedly, from time to time, one or two things are being added to the electoral process in the bid to sanitize the process and make outcomes very credible.
The 2023 general elections are by the corner: the Presidential and National Assembly polls will be held in February, to be followed in March by the Governorship and State Houses of Assembly elections. For the country, poor governance style has been a big issue and the root cause to this can be found in lack of rigour in the leadership recruitment process. Many hold the view that citizens don’t have the chance to properly interrogate candidates on manifestos authored by others for them. So the question of debates has been on the card.
The citizens have within the last 12 years welcomed the idea but its implementation has continued to raise dust. The antics of the political class has not been helpful in this regard at all. If they are not criticizing the option, they avoid it. We saw that in 2011 and worse in 2015 when the main opposition figure Muhammadu Buhari refused to make himself available. In 2019, he ventured to attend only when Nigeria Television Authority, the government- owned corporation offered to host. The anchor person was a sympathetic hand, Kadaria Ahmed.
Questions have surrounded the debate option. Since then till now, it has been doubtful if we will continue with it until last week when Arise Television decided to take the bull by the horns, by staging the first presidential debate for the 2023 election. It was a good move but like many had anticipated, it raised old antics and the same old questions over sponsorship, partisanship and making sure candidates attended. In the Arise outing, candidates of two major parties, People›s Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC) didn›t attend. PDP sent the vice presidential candidate, an act that was challenged.
Now we deal with the issues thrown up by the various efforts so far. The first would be about the idea and its relevance to our democratic practice. Some have said it is alien and offers no useful purpose, it can’t sway the people off their traditional loyalty to parties. This position is hollow and has no force of reason to it. It is within the range of base emotion very pupolar in underdeveloped settings where as a result of hunger and dislocation thinking is seen as a very hard exercise.
Debate is not alien to many African cultures where communalism exists. In those places, ideas are debated rigorously before implementation. It could differ in feudal setting but those are very few. Political debate is good and very relevant to the quest for proper transformation of our space. One of the hindrances to proper development flows is the flawed process where barely educated candidates subvert the system and get to power before they begin to think of what programmes to do. The vacuum is filled by scavengers ready to seize the opportunity for self agrandisement.
One Permanent Secretary described the trend as «adviving to gain.” This has done bad things to our country, foisting very harsh economic, political and even social policies on a people without their consent. One could recall when the Buhari Administration which is still in power put out a policy that pastors in churches who have spent over 10 years on the post should retire. In a setting where religion is a time bomb, citizens ought to know before voting such positions in advance. This is the opportunity debates offer.
The concern over sponsorship is germane and this will also throw up questions of legalism. In western counties, especially America, where the idea of debates started and has grown, it is not a constitutional matter but a convention in those societies, and it is as strong as law. You fail to abide, you pay a big price. Our orientation is different, sorry to say, very terrible, nothing serious bothers us. We want nice things to happen to us but we are not ready to walk in the paths that will take us there. So legislating or making debates constitutional is required and urgently too.
Establishment of a debate commission should not be out of place as part of search to instil confidence and kill partisanship. It must be kept out of government control. Fear of partisanship is one of the reasons candidates run away from debates. The other is incapacity. In the organised outings in the past, we saw traces of partisanship. Kadaria Ahmed who anchored the one President Buhari attended was a critic of the President Goodluck Jonathan Administration. At about the same time she ran a programme on Channels Television that was clearly designed to switch loyalties and take Buhari to power.
In the one organised by Arise last week, it would seem it was a hatchet set up, especially the way the anchor person carried on. At one time he told the Labour Party presidential candidate: “You may have to call your supporters to order.” In there was subtle stereotyping and innuendo.
The spokesman of the PDP sat directly behind the anchor person and was allowed to ask a question. The anchor tried to tell lies when he told the audience the presidential candidate of PDP will arrive the country and meet the meeting but the running mate who stood in for him disclosed that everyone knew he won’t come since all that was discussed. These shouldn’t be. There ought to be standards. Debates should be between identified groups.
We saw persons try to be clever by half, by the insistence that there is no difference between the president and the deputy. It may be joint ticket but not joint power. We all know this fact, and Nigerians went for the jugular over this when a lady in the audience said: «If they are one why is Osinbajo, who is the Vice President, not acting for President Buhari who has been away to Britain for two weeks running.” It is time we do away with shenanigans in our affairs. Development is no cheap walk.
Debates can change the course of elections. In America, Richard Nixon in 1960 was a better candidate than John F. Kennedy, he lost after a woeful appearance in the debate. An orator but he failed to carry his message across. After the outing, voters said he looked pale meaning he was sick. In their estimation it would be a terrible mistake to hand a sick country over to a sick president. They also were of the view that he dressed poorly. They didn’t vote for him. Check our circumstance and see for yourself. Let those who dodge debates be written off. Yes!