The much-talked about Presidential Debate has come and gone, but not without its drama, which has kept Nigerians wondering and talking about so many things. People are wondering why the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, shunned the debate, and why his closest challenger, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, went to the venue and later excused himself.
The debate was supposed to be a Presidential Debate. Such debates world over lose their essence and savour once the incumbent is not present, and it is unthinkable that the incumbent in the US, for example, would miss out on such a debate since the debate is designed to scrutinise the performance of the incumbent/his party and extract commitments from the contenders.
It is therefore sad and unfortunate that President Muhammadu Buhari did not seize this all-important opportunity to engage his challengers and Nigerians through the debate. His absence totally vitiates the importance of the debate and obliterates its essence, just like a well advertised world heavyweight boxing match is scuttled by the absence of the reigning champion. Such a disappointment cannot even be assuaged or compensated for by the challenger no matter how much he tries to entertain the crowd with shadow boxing and showboating, which is what a Presidential Debate without the incumbent is.
In fact, in developed democracies, presidential debates are usually organised for only the top contenders, and in the case of the US, between just two, the Democrats and the Republicans. While there are usually dozens of other political parties fielding candidates for the presidential elections in the United States, only candidates of the two major contending parties feature in Presidential Debates after the parties’ primaries.
Although candidates of the other parties have always been in the contest, their chances of victory are very slim and insignificant, to the extent that the debate features only the top two contenders. If it was in the US, the Presidential Debate would have been strictly between President Muhammadu Buhari and his closest challenger, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. The verdict, based on what happened on Saturday, would have been that the Debate would not hold since Atiku turned up but Buhari was nowhere to be found.
Atiku was right in excusing himself from that Presidential Debate because of Buhari’s absent. Debates are not just addresses or rallies. They are ultimately a stage where “opposing arguments are put forward” by the debaters. In fact, another dictionary described it as to “argue about (a subject), especially in a formal manner”. One of the synonyms for debate is to “dispute” on an issue.
At this stage of our national life, we can no longer be taking certain things for granted. If it was a debate on critical national matters, who would Atiku be debating or disputing with on this matter? Does Kingsley Moghalu know why our soldiers are being killed on a regular basis by a ragtag Boko Haram despite trillions of naira budgeted and spent on the military in Buhari’s almost four years tenure? Can Oby Ezekwesili provide answers to why the Buhari presidency keeps making excuses for those who murder our fathers, rape our mothers, wickedly rip out the unborn from their wombs, maim our children, sacking communities and forcefully taking over other people’s lands without any repercussion or even as much as a challenge from our security forces under Buhari as Commander-in-Chief? Could Fela Durotoye have been able to provide answers to why Nigeria became the poverty capital of the world under the Buhari administration with all its known inefficiencies, gross incompetence and blatant ineptitude? Who among them could have explained why the fight against corruption under this administration has been turned to a fight against opposition? Who among them would have been able to provide answers to why appointments are lopsided and why Nigerians have been so bitterly divided along ethnic lines under the Buhari presidency based on the words and actions of the president and his officials?
Critical issues and questions of national importance would have come up at the debate to which only the incumbent would have answers to. But what is the essence of a debate of presidential candidates when the one to give answers to those issues plaguing us as a nation is not there to either defend himself and his administration or give explanations as to why certain things happen under him, which have left Nigerians bewildered.
Such argument on the podium would then give all the candidates, including the incumbent, a chance to put forward what they would do differently going forward. This is why a debate is between the forces for and those against. It is not a narrative exercise. It is an argumentative one. When one critical party to the salient points to be raised at the debate deliberately makes himself unavailable, it rubbishes the very essence of the debate.
This is the reason the other contenders should have also insisted that they would not participate in the debate if Buhari was not going to be there. What was the essence of all they said about the precarious situation of the country when the man at the helm of affairs was not there? Who were they disputing with? Or rather, who were they debating with? The truth is that all the other candidates who chose to go ahead with the debate did not do so because they are comfortable with the fact that Buhari was not present or that they love Nigeria and Nigerians more than Atiku, but only seized the opportunity of rare free live television coverage provided by the occasion to speak of their ambition and have their faces on camera. That is the hallmark of desperate politicians who would compromise standards and rightness just to further their own personal interests, which they masquerade as national interest.
But Atiku is not a desperate leader. His ambition is obviously about Nigeria and not about his person. He shows this by insisting that the right things have to be done by all irrespective of status. He has willingly engaged Nigerians at different forums where he was subjected to grueling questions agitating the minds of the people. He was fully prepared for the debate despite his long trip and the hectic schedules arising from it.
Buhari’s absence is surely not unconnected to the mindset of his presidency as stated by one of his acolytes, Prof Itse Sagay, that the presidential debate was designed for “political dwarfs”. Those who participated in the presidential debate that didn’t have Buhari have only succeeded in cutting their own average heights just to fit into “political dwarfism.” As for Atiku, it is obvious he is not ready to reduce his towering heights in order to satisfy the conditions for being a “political dwarf”.
•Ndukwe wrote in through, [email protected] Twitter: @StJudeNdukwe