Nigerians have just come to the sudden realization that the political culture called presidential debate is dead in their country. The death knell for the debate was sounded by Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress. Tinubu had declined to participate in the town hall meeting put together by Arise News for presidential candidates. He had a load of reasons for his decision. His campaign office went further to alert Nigerians and other concerned publics that he would not participate in any presidential debate in whatever guise or form.
The organizers of the Arise town hall may not have envisaged this. Even if they suspected that a Bola Tinubu may not be willing to participate in the debate, they may not have imagined that he would put a stamp of finality on possible future appearances. But the debate went on regardless of that. But what turned out as a rude shock to the organizers was the refusal of the audience to accommodate any presidential candidate represented by his vice. The Atiku Abubakar campaign was the immediate victim of this. His vice, Ifeanyi Okowa, had shown up in his stead to represent him since he was said to be outside the country at that time. But the audience would have none of that. They did not want any presidential candidate to speak to them through a proxy. But after so much howl, Okowa was grudgingly allowed to represent his principal.
But that is not all there was to the event of the day. Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party who has never shied away from public appearances, took a hard decision. He was not going to, thenceforth, participate in any debate where his fellow frontline presidential candidates, namely, Atiku and Tinubu, are absent. The implication of this is that there will be no more presidential debates since Tinubu has stated in clear terms that he would not be part of any such exercise. With this development, the culture of presidential debates has died a sudden death in Nigeria, courtesy of Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Peter Obi’s position in this matter is well considered. A vice presidential candidate cannot assume the role of a presidential candidate when the latter is alive and kicking. The reason is simple. The two positions are not interchangeable. In an an electioneering setting such as ours, presidential candidates are the face of their campaigns. The people will judge a political party on the strength of who is flying its flag. This is because, when the election is won, the contract which brought the candidate to power is usually between that candidate and the people. The vice plays no role here. It is therefore preposterous to assume that both are one and the same thing. They are not.
If we permit such lowering of standard, vice presidential candidates will, sooner or later, begin to dress themselves in borrowed robes.
As Nigerians strive to make sense out of this necessary stratification, they have come to know, suddenly too, that Tinubu, the man who used to revel in political showmanship, is no longer the vibrant and showy character that they used to know. They have come to see and know that time and age have worn him thin. He no longer has the verve and vibrancy that used to be his hallmark. Those who are close to him give the impression that his health is failing. The safe thing to do therefore is to keep him away from public glare as much as possible. This is the strategy that the Tinubu campaign has adopted.
However, whatever the trick that his campaign may be foisting on the public, the fact remains that their candidate has a job to do. His aspiration to be the president of Nigeria is not mere wishful thinking. It is a well worn ambition which the man is working hard to realize. If his aspiration sails through, the destiny of the country and its people will be handed over to him. This being the case, the people have the right to know who the candidate is. Who is this man that wants the future of the country to be entrusted to him? Does he have the physical and mental capacity for the job? Can he be trusted with power? What is his level of integrity? These and other relevant questions concern Tinubu and other presidential candidates. They are questions whose answers Nigerians must insist on. But when one of them has, from the very beginning, shielded himself from public inquiry, then there is a problem. That problem is that of doubt. It is the problem of suspicion. How can the people build confidence in a candidate that has erected a wall between himself and the people he seeks to govern? This is what Tinubu is doing. And by that, he is asking Nigerians to be suspicious of him. Rather than opaqueness, Nigerians want openness. Regrettably, Tinubu has not lent himself to the openness Nigerians are looking for.
In a proper country, the Tinubu candidacy would have gone to the gallows the moment he declared that he would not participate in any presidential debate. The declaration amounts to self-disqualification and should have been treated as such. But here we are, behaving as if all is well with such willful assault on the people’s right to know. The real snag here is that Nigerians are a permissive lot. They are a people without abiding standards. That is why those in positions of authority get away with their misdeeds.
To lend credence to the fact that we have moved on in spite of the Tinubu effrontery, organizations concerned with public debates have already begun to accommodate the Tinubu disorder. They have succumbed to his dictates and dictations on this matter. That is why Channels Television, for instance, is putting together a presidential debate forum in which candidates are to appear separately. Why this easy capitulation to one man’s choices and preferences? Presidential debates, anywhere in the world, is a joint engagement. That is why it is called a debate. Participants are expected to square up with one another under one circumstance and one atmosphere. One should not appear on a rainy day and the other on a sunny day. They are expected to deal with the same issues at the same time. The moods have to be similar. Every question is meant for everybody. The situation does not permit of selectiveness. Once the circumstances differ, we cannot expect to get the kind of result we look forward to. Debate is about comparison. It is about knowing who will handle situations and issues better. At the end of the day, the public will be in a good position to judge or make informed decisions. That is the whole idea of such engagements.
With the death of presidential debates under this dispensation, the ultimate lowering of standards may have begun. It is a dangerous precedent which future presidential candidates may latch upon when they do not want to engage Nigerians squarely and frontally.