Debate is a vital, far-reaching and inexpensive means of campaigning and earning the voters admiration before the election. It is identical to an interview session wherein the employer (electorate) assess the job seekers (contestants) suitability for the job. In developed nations, candidates save debate dates and prioritise attendance over other political activities or duties. Participating in debates is not based on self-determined conditions or wish. It is an essential responsibility. Absence at debates is a political suicide that can break the backbone of a candidate’s political career or end it. In such climes, reeling out manifestoes, the implementation methodology and facing public scrutiny is not construed as rendering favour to the people, but a solicitation of it. The reverse is the case in Nigeria.
After returning to democratic rule in 1999, our political consciousness has increased, but our political culture remains undeveloped. On political consciousness, individuals were once upon a time begged to contest for top political offices, but people now struggle hard to become councillors. Lagging behind, our political culture has not developed swiftly as the consciousness. Candidates still discount political debates since participation and performance are inconsequential on election results. The electorate are responsible for this. Top on most persons’ candidate suitability checklist is the ethnoreligious connection and political affiliation. Debate and manifesto assessment is rated unimportant. This emboldens candidates, especially that of the dominant parties to dishonour debate invites. Such is the case witnessed at the just concluded presidential debate organised by the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) and the Nigeria Elections Debate Group (NEDG).
Five presidential candidates, out of over 70 were opaquely selected to debate. The five selected candidates are Obi Ezekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Fela Durotoye of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN), Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and Kinsley Moghalu of the Young Progressive Party (YPP). Ezekwesili, Durotoye and Moghalu turned up for the debate, Atiku put in an appearance, but declined to participate, in fulfilment of his earlier alert that he would not participate if Buhari did not show up.
Atiku’s refusal to debate diminished the admiration his visit to the United States earned him. Nigerians were initially impressed he returned from the US few hours to the debate and made it to the venue on time. His inner circle and political strategists miskicked the ball when they made Buhari’s decision determine their action. Atiku contends that he withdrew from the debate because Buhari “who is at the helm of affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies.” This argument holds no water. What if Buhari is a first-term contestant and not incumbent seeking reelection?
Atiku shouldn’t have stormed out of the debate without participating. His action mirrors an applicant excluding himself from a job interview because a particular candidate is not present. Such action will, almost certainly, not earn the applicant the job. In this case, Atiku had the confidence to act in such a manner because the employer (the electorate) has not made debating a winning determinant like the other employers in developed nations. Avoiding the debate because Buhari is absent is a disregard to the Nigerian populace who have stayed tuned to hear how Atiku intends to ‘get Nigeria working again.’ It was also an unnecessary attack on Buhari’s right of choice. Buhari’s absence shouldn’t make Atiku desist from presenting his policies to the populace. Atiku took such action because non-participation in debates has no effect on electoral votes.
Atiku’s seems to have acted based on concerns other than Buhari’s absence. He apparently left to avoid being humiliated by other candidates. He may also consider debating with presidential candidates who can’t earn half a million votes a waste of time and disrepute to his person. Such reasoning and ego are prevalent in our polity. Moghalu, Ezekwesili and Durotoye’s weak political structure humbled them to participate. They would have most likely behaved like Atiku or Buhari if they were in their shoes.
Nonetheless, it is un-presidential for a president not to attend a presidential debate. Buhari lost a golden opportunity to convince Nigerians that he is fit to continue being president. Avowing that busy official and political schedules clashed with the debate is an untenable excuse, especially when many people are casting doubt on his mental ability and had predicted his non-participation.
Defending Buhari’s absence is encouraging wrongdoing. Shuttling the country to a campaign is good, but debating is a better means of reaching more people, including the electorate, Nigerians in the diaspora, and the international community. Other programmes should have been postponed if the president considers it important to take part in the debate. If it were to be his personal electoral duties such as the submission of the nomination form, collection of return certificate, or swearing-in ceremony, would he be absent?
The APC and Buhari’s inner circle allegedly prevented him from participating in the debate in order not to further expose his intelligence deficiency. The Aso Rock cabal is handling Buhari like the late President Yar’Adua. They are encouraging him to stay in office despite being aware of his deteriorating health. One can only pray that Buhari doesn’t end like Yar’Adua because of the greed of a few persons. Buhari means well, but his ability to function effectively can’t increase, it will decrease further as he ages.
Atiku unrelentingly challenging Buhari to debate – and the President’s abysmal performance at public functions lately – made his team prevent him from attending the debate. This decision is irrational but wise. Buhari lacks communication skills and the ability to speak on crucial issues offhand. He would have probably made a mockery of himself if he had debated with persons like Moghalu and Ezekwesili.
Aside from Buhari and Atiku, presidential candidates will continue to boycott debates because the majority of the voting population don’t cherish or know the importance of debates. The real Nigerian voters are largely the less-educated people comprising artisans, traders and thugs who neither watch television nor surf the web. Most of those clamouring for debate are the (social media) elite who do not have a voter’s card. As long as this trend persists, candidates will continue to shun debates and rather rely on handing out freebies and stomach infrastructure to win elections.
The three candidates respected Nigerians by participating in the debate, but Nigerians won’t reward them with their votes. Debate and brilliance don’t win elections in Nigeria, political structure and financial strengths do. Moghalu performed better than Ezekwesili and Durotoye, but the three are all winners, the losers are the absentees – Buhari and Atiku. But then, the obvious truth is that one of the absentees will eventually win the election. Other political parties are too syndicated or ethnic fixated to win the presidential election in a plural nation like Nigeria. The less-dominant parties must unite into a strong force if they wish to beat the APC and PDP in 2023. 2019 Presidency belongs to either APC or PDP.
Nevertheless, Nigerians need a robust party other than the dominant APC and PDP. The difference between both parties is that between six and half-dozen. Castigating one for the other is a waste of time as none of them can transform Nigeria.
We must also abolish all the sociopolitical anomalies that breed inefficiency. Anomalies have turned Nigeria into the Durkheim (1893) propounded state of anomie. If civil servants retire when they’re sexagenarian, why should a septuagenarian contest for president? If Nigerian graduates need to serve the nation for one year before they can secure government jobs, why should school certificate be the minimum academic requirement to become president? So long as this anomaly remains unrectified, the less-credible and incompetent ones would continue to occupy crucial leadership positions. The debilitating effect is a continuous rise in the political consciousness to grab power, and a political culture that accommodates underdevelopment, poverty and inefficiency.
Political scientists need to further research factors that’ll compel candidates to participate in debates. Measures such as tackling illiteracy, encouraging political participation, and initiating a robust voter education exercise will improve Nigerians’ ability to assess a candidate’s competence via debates. The ability to take decisions without primordial sentiments will usher in a high-political standard that’ll transform the political culture. Attitudinal change is urgently needed to sanitise the monetised political system and redefine the rules guiding the conducts of elections and debates.
Omoshola Deji is a political and public affairs analyst. He wrote in via [email protected]