Having five persons on a debate podium limits the time available to each person to string out his thoughts coherently and convincingly.
Last Friday, five vice presidential candidates representing five political parties took the podium in Abuja to discuss various issues that are likely to matter much in the running of the country next year and beyond. That activity was tagged the vice presidential debate, but it was no debate as such. The five candidates merely expressed their views on the economy, which seemed to be the main focus of the so-called debate.
The candidates that participated in the exercise were Professor Yemi Osinbajo (APC), Mr. Peter Obi (PDP) Ms Umma Getso (YPP), Mr. Ganiyu Galadima (ACPN) and Ms Kadijah Abdullahi (ANN). The debate was organised by the Nigeria Election Debate Group (NEDB) and the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria.
There are principally two advantages that the country can derive from a vice presidential debate. The first is to see whether the candidates are espousing the same policy position as enunciated in their party manifestoes and policy documents. That is absolutely important in the light of the problem that we have had with the APC’s disavowal of the true federalism clause in its manifesto, which has raised the question of trust. And even when public pressure forced it to cave in and it decided to send a team to the six geopolitical zones to probe the public mind on it, it still has not responded positively to its findings. So, it is important to ascertain, if that is possible, that the vice presidential candidate and his boss are singing from the same hymn book on policy issues. The second is to assess from the debate the suitability or otherwise of the person for the high office of Vice President. Why this is important is because the Vice President is constitutionally an Acting President when the President is away. Also, in the case of removal, incapacitation or death of the President, the Vice President automatically steps in. So, in reality, the vice presidential candidate should be as sound or almost as sound as the presidential candidate because he or she is only a spit away from the top spot. The cynical view of a vice presidential position is that his main duty is to attend funerals and weddings on behalf of the government. Weddings and funerals are not so unimportant in Nigeria because Nigerians spend a lot of time and money on these things and often turn them into venues for serious politicking and social engineering. Besides, if the President trusts his deputy, as President Olusegun Obasanjo trusted Atiku Abubakar in the early part of their presidential partnership, he would put a lot on his plate. President Muhammadu Buhari does it differently. He sends out Professor Osinbajo on high-profile errands, especially at policy-related conferences but it is doubtful how much respect he has for his views on crucial issues. Both of them have disagreed on the issue of state police. The Vice President wants it and said so. The President doesn’t want it and the chapter was closed. That is why a country like Nigeria, where democratic pillars are weak, is not the ideal setting for the practice of presidential democracy. It is easy, very easy, to turn it into a one-man rule basically since the institutions are not strong enough to curb the excesses of the strongman. But it is not just the powers of the presidency that are to be interrogated. The National Assembly corners for its members stratospheric salaries and allowances over and above what they are legally, lawfully entitled to but no one has been able to stop that high grade greed. We all sit around looking helpless while they commit rape on our limping economy. I am not surprised that some legislators are now campaigning for a return to the Westminster model called parliamentary system. That cry for introspection is based on the fact that the Buhari government has a very insignificant faith in the rule of law. This may arise largely from his military background but also pointedly because he is a man who holds stiff views, right or wrong, and holds himself impervious to new ideas or approaches to problem-solving. But Buhari is in an issue now because he is in office and is asking us to give him a nod for the second time. But our presidency was actually built into a behemoth by President Olusegun Obasanjo, not Buhari, apart from the enormous constitutional provisions. We had just retrieved our country from the jaws of the military and Obasanjo, a former military leader, himself took the reins of power and gave our democratic institutions a military imprimatur, with Nigerians blissfully unaware that we would run into problems in future. It was a good idea for President Obasanjo to set up the anti-corruption agencies, EFCC and ICPC, but they were not designed to pursue corruption independently from the governing authorities at any given time. That would have made the two important institutions independent and respected and not simply feared by potentially corrupt people. The two institutions have turned themselves into instruments of state designed largely for the harassment of political opponents. Every one of the heads of these institutions sees its role merely as regime maintenance since 1999 and is not about to change. That is why the corruption crusade is fraught with question marks on issues of sincerity, fairness, or evenhandedness. That is why no EFCC chairman ever survives in office when the President who appointed him is out of the saddle. The vice presidential debate did not achieve much. First, to have five people engage in a serious national encounter in two and a half hours is just a little better than a joke. And that is not the fault of the organisers of the debate. Five is clearly a crowd, an unwieldy crowd, much like a school debating club activity. There are 91 political parties in Nigeria. And that is certainly a cheap joke. But that is not INEC’s fault. The law allows it, but in which country do we have 91 viable political parties? None that I know of. There are only two strong parties in the country now, APC and PDP, that control a number of state governments, while APGA has only Anambra State. So, having five vice presidential candidates on the podium was just a means of consoling the no-hoppers. Even at that there were still some demonstrators at the venue of the debate questioning why their candidate was excluded from the charade. The organisers of the debate offered no explanation on the choice of the five but they must have done their homework. It is actually a difficult decision to make in a democracy when people will always talk about giving everyone a level playing field. But all the parties are not the same in strength nationwide. While the major parties have offices in all the states of the federation most of the other parties that want the presidency do not. So, how are we expected to put a modicum of seriousness to their activities and troop out to vote for their candidates to move into Aso Villa? Politics in Nigeria is organised in favour of the rich. No one that is not rich or does not have access to a huge wallet can win the presidency. People like Oby Ezekwesili and Professor Kingsley Moghalu are people of ideas, their ideas fascinate people. They seem to have considerable knowledge of how things can work better for us. But you have to get there to make these ideas work. The mechanics of nicking the presidency is the problem. If all the women in Nigeria vote for Ms Ezekwesili, she would win but they won’t because they lack faith in their gender. If all the youths in Nigeria vote for Professor Moghalu he would win but they won’t because they lack faith in the leadership of youth. So, the first battle that the newcomers in politics have is to destroy ingrained prejudices against women and youths, and for these two groups to believe in themselves.
Having five persons on a debate podium limits the time available to each person to string out his thoughts coherently and convincingly. That happened during Friday’s debate because of the limitation of time. In the United States, two persons representing the two major parties are often the regular combatants. This makes it a straight fight between two combatants, two parties and two ideological positions. In Nigeria, parties have no ideologies. The difference between them is the difference between six and half a dozen. That is why it is easy, like drinking water, for politicians to cross from one party to another in the morning and move back to the former party in the evening of the same day. And they make no bones about it. They simply keep a straight face. That is the nature of our politics and, apparently, we love it that way, that weird way. I am by no means opposed to carpet-crossing. It is a right, but it must be done for a good cause. For most Nigerians who engage in it, the main reason is either to gain an elective or appointive position, or some financial advantage or to escape from a knock on the door by the EFCC. There is nothing ideological or society-transforming about any of the above reasons.
Certainly there is a problem with having too many parties and I think 91 is far too many. The vice presidential debate did not deliver any reasonable information that we could use in assessing the candidates because the effort was dispersed. Two candidates would have been a more direct hit. When the five presidential candidates chosen meet on January 19 next year it will yield very little for the benefit of the voting public. Let us work towards having a maximum of three parties. It will make voting easy. Ninety-One is a crowd, a crowd that is more useless than useful. At the end of the day we should be working to arrive at a two-party structure. That is probably the best for the country. President Ibrahim Babangida may have been wrong on several issues but on that one he was right.