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Deepening democracy with presidential debate

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President Goodluck Jonathan debating alone during the 2011 NESG Presidential Debate session

President Goodluck Jonathan debating alone during the 2011 NESG Presidential Debate session

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Nigerians across the world will on Sunday, March 22, be treated to an interesting spectacle void of hot air that has pervaded the 2015 electioneering campaigns. It is the Nigeria Elections Debate Group (NEDG) presidential debate.

With bated breath, Nigerians look forward to seeing the best and worst from not just the leading presidential candidates, President Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd.), the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, but a roll call of all 18 presidential candidates standing for March 28 election.

Followers of Lagos Governorship Debate already have their appetites whet to the stimulating engagement expected to herald the live debate.

The expectation is high because the entire country is the panel and though actual measurement of impact may be tentative, especially in a developing country where there are challenges of illiteracy and access to mass media, the performance of the candidates ordinarily reshapes the conversation and can significantly influence voters’ choice.

The essence of a presidential debate would be fully appreciated in a society where the people see it as an opportunity to evaluate the policies, preparedness and demeanour of those who seek to govern them. It must, however, also be warned that a great leader may not be the best of debaters.

Chairman of the NEDG and Director General of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Mr. Sola Omole, during his sensitization visit to The Guardian newspaper, said the debate, which will be held in three sessions, 12noon-2pm, 3pm-5pm, and 7pm-9pm, will be broadcasted to over 300 million audiences across the world.

Omole, during his visit to The Guardian, said the mission of the NEDG is to ensure the debate process becomes a strong component of Nigeria’s democracy. “All over the world, this is what happens before any presidential elections. We want to make the debate culture a part of our growing democracy and we have initiated discussions with the National Assembly to propose a bill in order to legalize presidential debates ahead of general elections.”

The culture of televised presidential debates is one of the many cultures that were copied from the United States of America (USA).

The first ever debate in the USA between rivals for elective political office can be traced to 1857 when Abraham Lincoln insisted on having a debate with Stephen Douglas on “the virtue of the republic and the evil of slavery”. Abraham Lincoln lost that election but a history in political debating had already been made.

Lincoln would later win the presidency in 1860, in an election, which featured no political debates. In fact, there were no debates between presidential candidates until 1952.

The culture of televised debate would later become formalised with the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The handsome and more charismatic John Kennedy won the televised debate while an earlier radio debate had been won by Nixon. Nixon was said to have appeared rather “shifty” on television and that contributed to his loss of the election.

If televised debates could prove the downfall of a candidate who otherwise could have won in an election, why bother to participate in it? President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate with Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964; he was leading in the polls, and public speaking was not his forte.

Just as John McCain was about to do in one of his 2008 presidential debates when he said he was attending to legislative matters in Congress, President Jimmy Carter in 1980, refused to participate in the first presidential debate because it included independent candidate John Anderson.

He, however, attended subsequent debates and that memorable question by Ronald Reagan did him great damage: “Are Americans better off today than they were four years ago?” The state of the economy and the American hostage crisis in Iran suggested it was the right question that would nail the coffin of the Carter presidency.

On the home turf, the highpoint of Nigeria’s experience with presidential debates and the last time Nigerians enjoyed something really close to an exciting debate was during the 1993 presidential elections. It was a memorable encounter between the late Chief MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

At the end of that debate, it was clear who among the duo was better experienced, much more intellectually capable and more endearing to the electorate in terms of readiness for the job being applied for. That is what a debate, under these circumstances, is: a job interview.

Unfortunately, there won’t be a remake of the 1993 feeling. Voters would be denied this opportunity for comparison, assessment, interaction, excitement and drama that comes with a debate of any sort, as Buhari announced on Tuesday that he be shunning the debate on Sunday.

It would be recalled that the APC had said it will not participate in the previously scheduled public debates on national television and radio stations organised by the NEDG, long before the elections were postponed from February 14 to March 28. The party had alleged that NEDG, which is co-ordinating the debate, was fraught with fundamental errors from the outset, according to Malam Garba Shehu, the Director Media and Publicity of the APC Campaign Organisation.

Yes, I am supporting Buhari but ask me what does my candidate think about local government autonomy or creation of state police, I would not know. This is really a shame, I must admit. But beyond rhetoric, both Buhari and Jonathan have really not helped Nigerians to be able to decide wisely.

Clarifying his stance, Buhari, in an interactive session with journalists, said there was nothing worth debating with the president, which has failed to live up to the expectations of Nigerians. According to him, the mere fact that Jonathan had to rely on Chad, Niger and Cameroun to tackle the menace of Boko Haram speaks volume of the failure of the PDP-led administration.

Reacting, the Director of Media and Publicity of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation, Femi Fani-Kayode, claimed the APC took the decision to boycott the debate simply to shield from Nigerians and the international audience its candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari’s intellectual laziness and inability to constructively engage contemporary national issues in a live television and radio debate.

It is not only political gladiators that are bothered about the seeming intransigence of Buhari to debate with Jonathan as the two leading contenders for the 2015 presidential elections. Citizens like Niran Akintunde are also showing similar concern and what it portends to the electioneering process.

In his Facebook post recently, Akintunde said: “Yes, I am supporting Buhari but ask me what does my candidate think about local government autonomy or creation of state police, I would not know. This is really a shame, I must admit. But beyond rhetoric, both Buhari and Jonathan have really not helped Nigerians to be able to decide wisely.

“I expect the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to make political debates compulsory as part of the electioneering process in the interest of the electorates because at the moment, mediocrity is found in both the Jonathan and Buhari camps.”

Many political watchers have complained to a great length the seeming absence of issues in the campaigns of the two leading political parties. Sadly, in the few days before March 28, the campaigns might never rise beyond the present disenchanted state, which is focusing greatly on personalities rather than issues. They argued that only a presidential debate would change the narrative.

Reacting to concerns by the APC, who had earlier pulled out of the debate earlier scheduled for February 8 over the integrity of the process, Sola Omole said efforts have been made by organisers to make the debate credible.

“The debate platform, which is designed by the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) comprises of all radio and television stations across the country. With our over 300 membership, it is going to be the largest broadcasting session ever.

“Over 4,000 questions were sent in from across the world and it has been polled and vetted by our technical team to avoid repetition. The questions have been kept secret from our panelists, which would only be delivered to them minutes before the debate begins. At the same time, it is the same questions that will be asked from all the contestants, while the debate is going to be aired live so there would be no filtering.”

The chairman of the debate group added that the contact committee of NESG has been in touch with the APC leaders to carry them along and explain the whole process of the debate. He, however, noted that with or without the APC participating in the debate, it would still go on as scheduled on Sunday.



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