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Participation in debates have manifest, hidden values, says Olurode

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Lai Olurode, Professor of Sociology at the University of Lagos and former National Commissioner with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

Lai Olurode, a former national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and professor of Sociology at the University of Lagos, said in a predominantly non-literate society with poor reading culture, debates about issues and personalities in elections are pertinent in providing public education, enlightenment, sensitisation, clearing doubts and ambiguities and more robustly, in overcoming stereotype and prejudice, especially in this age of television, with its expansive reach.

He added that election debates can be informal or formal, not necessarily among the candidates, but among their allies and cronies, which are always taking place in public places, such as the newspapers stand or inside the debate hall, with onlookers get involved in the debates through clapping and murmuring, which may signal approval or rejection of candidates or viewpoint being canvassed.

“But we may not yet be able to establish its impact, as opinion polls aren’t common before and after election debates. Indeed, election debates count in Nigeria, but how much it does is yet to be measured.”

Olurode stated that Buhari and Atiku, who seem to be leading from media accounts, ought to have put up appearances in the well-publicised event, as assurances of their attendance had provoked intense interest and enthusiasm both within and outside Nigeria.

“It could have achieved for the candidates what millions of posters, radio jingles and billboards couldn’t. They could have been able to present their policies for public scrutiny, but alas, it was a missed opportunity.

“Of course, some people feel snubbed and disrespected. Could it be a sign of over-confidence by the candidates or distrust in the organisers of the forum? Whatever it was, it was a pity to have missed the occasion, which may be the last of such for the two of them.

“There is a lesson in this development for future aspirants to high public office. The Americans, since the first ever-presidential debate in 1960, treat the issue with respect and not disdain. People aspiring to public office should hold the voting public in high esteem and never with scorn.

“Surprisingly, and to his credit, on occasions of three previous debates, Buhari had always put up appearances. Why didn’t he endure the ordeal of this last one?”

He stressed that participation in election debates have manifest and hidden values, as seeing one’s candidate squaring up to co-contestants can be manifestly demonstrated, while on the other hand, it can be psychologically rewarding and fulfilling for well wishers, just as it may provide compelling and conclusive evidence that can sway undecided voters.

“Definitely, election debate is a necessity in an age of discussion and accountability. It will help in moderating and cautioning against verbosity and bogus promises. It helps to answer the ‘how’ question,” he added.

According to Olurode, participation in a debate affects candidate’s chance of victory by influencing all potential voters, but more significantly, undecided voters, as poor outing at such debate might also be calamitous in robbing a candidate of victory.

The university don believed Nigerians are intensely savvy, politically, and economic hardships cannot constitute a hindrance to monitoring election debates, as they are in love with debates as they are with football and like to be eyewitnesses of events and primary informants.

He stated that in the absence of star contestants, the glamour would have been taken off the debates and must have left a sour taste in the mouth.

Olurode noted that attitudes toward any issue, be it election debate or not, is a function of age, gender, level of education, ethnic identify, literacy level, income/class, geography and family background and individual and community interests are also key factors even in shaping perceptions and interpretations of what are said or not said during debates.

“Ordinarily, people are expected to be interested in governance issues and policy that touch on their life chances and ought to be keen in listening to perspectives of potential leaders. That way, it will be possible to come to conclusions as to whether current or future policy proposals will have adverse or salutary effects on them and their families.

“Without doubt, self-interest, generally, governs behaviours, interpretations and perceptions,” he asserted.

National Chairman of the African Democratic Congress (ADC), Chief Ralphs Okey Nwosu, said in democracies all over the world, frontline presidential candidates would readily jump on any large audience event, like presidential debates, which attract the largest audience amongst the plethora of election year campaign activities, and television networks that would attract very large viewership, and the radio stations that would reach a lot more people coming together to cover a publicised event should, for one seeking votes, look like participating in the world cup finals.

“One can hardly imagine the mileage any politician will get if privileged to participate in the event. So, it is like shooting oneself in the leg for not taking advantage of the forum provided.

According to him: “Ordinarily, any presidential campaign organisation spends millions of naira to bring together 3,000 to 10,000 people for a rally. The presidential debate is most often done by the news networks as a social responsibility or sponsored by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), so it comes free. One wonders then why anyone will fail to take advantage of such a mega-event that will reach millions of people. For any informed politician, the presidential debate will provide a platform to reach the largest number of the voters at one time.

“Some Nigerian political leaders hold the people and democracy in contempt and will go to any extent to manipulate the systems and people to get the result they desire.

“Also, the dichotomy occasioned by the ethnic and religious biases, elite hypocrisy and obnoxious activities of some cabal-like special interest groups have an undulating influence in our country’s democratic practice and nation building journey, thus the things that make the systems dynamic and robust often do not seem to matter.

“Unfortunately, the leadership in place do not bother, rather they are the ones that promote the toxins that infest the democratic space for their pecuniary interests.

“Nigerians watch and listen to televisions and radios, but the body language and predispositions of institutions, like INEC and the security agencies, make the people to feel that their voice and votes do not count. So, it may not be out of place to see a lot of the youthful voters watching football matches instead of the debates on television.”

Oluwafunmilayo Daniels-Durotola, a banker said: “Believe it or not, from the multitude of the heart, the mouth speaks. Yes, they would definitely do a lot of rhetoric during the debate, but people would still deduce the viable points from the many sweet talks, which makes it easier to pick and vote the best candidate from the lots.

“Did you see the rush in movement on the evening of the presidential debate? A lot of people ensured to get home from work in time with the expectation that Buhari and Abubakar would be debating with the other candidates, but everyone was shocked when Abubakar left the venue just because Buhari was not around to participate.

“That is the height of disregard for an entire nation, because whether or not the President was at the debate, he should have still debated. For me, it simply means he has no intent to serve the people, but only obsessed with the President, whose absence for the second time in a national debate has now proved to us all that he is neither up to any good service for the people nor does he have any regard for the nation.

“So, Nigerians should not even attempt to vote any of those two candidates, let us take the bull by the horns and rewrite our own story. Let us pick one of these new candidates with better leading strategies.”

Chinasom Obioma, an importer noted: “Election debate counts and more importantly, the outcome of the last presidential debate implied a single fact- that both PDP and APC candidates are overrated, and if Nigerians are to vote from sane minds, those two candidates would never come close to winning, let alone having one of them actually win.

“But again, even if Nigerians vote other candidates, trust me, these two arrogant candidates, who obviously have nothing to offer the nation, would rig the election and the best rigger would eventually win.

“Yes, they would win because our country is corrupt, the leaders, officials and even we the people are corrupt. In fact, the people are more corrupt, because I can tell you that the people are the reason this nation is not liberated from these selfish and arrogant leaders.

“I know a lot of people who would only vote if given a meagre N5, 000. These peanuts given to us all by the greedy politicians is the reason we keep dancing round same circle of failure as a country.”

Obioma, however, added that the other candidates have presented themselves well in series of debates and it is obvious that they have more to offer this nation and as such, Nigerians should go for a total change in leadership and vote for any of the young and vibrant candidate.

A former president of Rotaract Club of Mushin, Ayobami Salaam, said presidential debates would not affect majority of voters’ preferences for absent candidates in the election, but only that of a few elites who might be politically neutral.

He stated that since the presidential debate is a borrowed phenomenon from the American system: “It is not better, considering poor political education of an average Nigerian, especially youths that constitute larger percentage of voters. Campaign and manifesto to people at the grassroots win elections better than televised debate.”

Ayobami believed the debate might have more consequence on absentees in the future when Nigerians are more politically educated and there is access to the medium of such debate.

Co-founder of AdDict Creative, Femi Akinseye, pointed out that though the debate provided a platform for the presidential candidates to show their capacity and competence while responding to issues spontaneously, it would not affect the absentee candidates’ fortune on February 16.

“Nigerians are not so very educated yet and as a result, not many people pay attention to debates and even policy documents of the respective candidates. The majority of people who watch debates are elites. Unfortunately, these are the same people who would find one excuse or the other to avoid the voting process.

“This means that most of the people who will be voting pay little or no attention to debates and will cast their votes in favour of their choice candidates, regardless of his/her presence/absence at the debate,” he stated.

Femi added that Buhari is the only candidate that understands the way the Nigerian political terrain works right now and knows that the elitist political play of using social media and debates to sway the voting populace doesn’t work right now and the only way is to do grassroots campaign, which he said the President is doing effectively.

Ayodele Awodele, a businessman, said he has followed with keen interest all the presidential debates on television and has remained sorely disappointed so far.

He stated: “None of them, including the incumbent, have any major plans for this country and even the ones that have plans have no idea how they are going to execute the plans. It is obvious that they are all fighting for their share of the national cake and do not have the country’s true interest at heart.

“I expected much more from Buhari in his first term and I was seriously disappointed, as things went from bad to worse and giving him a second term would be a gross mistake, but truthfully, all the other candidates don’t seem to have an idea of what they are doing. The presidency is serious business, but has been reduced and if a sitting President cannot come on television to tell us his plans to transform the country, he doesn’t deserve to be voted in again.

“As for Atiku, I would have been happy if he had taken that moment to show the ineptitude of the incumbent and lay out his plans and solutions he has for the country, but instead, he behaved like a typical politician and chose the easy way out.

“None of them deserve to win and I wish there was a truly strong and honest ‘third force,’ so we can vote them and get rid of all these political prostitutes once and for all.”

Foluso Awe doesn’t see the need for any debate, as “the people that would vote are not interested in any debate; they are waiting for the candidate that would share the most rice, groundnut oil and cash and no amount of debate is going to sway that decision.”

He added that both Buhari and Abubakar have no respect for the electorate and knew they would get away with refusing to debate without any repercussions.

“We all watch debates of advanced countries and see how serious everyone takes it, but the reverse is the case here, because they know they will share rice and money and people would still vote for them at the end of the day. Who does debate help?” he asked forlornly.

Blessing Imoh, a civil servant, suggested that another debate be held before the end of this month, so that all the candidates running could reveal their plans.

“I think debate is very important and I was unhappy that our President refused to partake in the last one without any good reason. It makes me slightly worried that he needs Osinbajo to be there to speak for him, which makes him look incompetent.

“We need to be shown why we need to vote for them. The last time he appeared on television, it was with Osinbajo, without other aspirants. We need to see him alone with other candidates to gauge the situation.”

John Kingsley, a tricycle operator, supports Buhari’s decision to skip the debate, saying actions were louder than words and a debate was not necessary.

“We don’t need any more talk again in this country, but action. If they all talk from now till tomorrow and promise heaven and earth, what is that going to do for us? We need someone that would rescue this country and improve the economy, so that our people would stop killing themselves trying to escape.

“How is debating going to do all that? They should simply tell us their plans and Nigerians would decide who they want to lead them,” he emphasised.

Buhari, Atiku’s Absence Does Not Show They Have Regards For Electorate’
From Collins Osuji, Owerri

In Imo State, most respondents acknowledged the essence of the presidential debate in nation building, especially in a democratic setting, adding that much as Nigerians do not attach much importance to the gains of the exercise, it still does not diminish its value going into elections.

Professor Protus Nathan Uzoma, a renowned social critic and public affairs analyst, and Mr. Lawrence Nwakaeti, immediate past chairman of Owerri branch of Nigerian Bar Association, among others, believe Nigeria has not gotten to the level where such debate can influence voting during elections.

Uzoma said: “Since the inception of democracy, even in the western world, there have been needs for people to sell their opinions, manifestos, what they stand for, what their party stand for and their programmes for the election.

“So, electoral debate is very necessary to intellectualise politics, which, without proper input of intellectualism, is devoid of proper democratic dividends, because you must give what you have and in giving what you have, you must be intelligent, educated, informed and articulate.

“What education does is to prepare the person in character and mental alertness. But if you lack these things and you are coming into power, obviously, tendencies are there that the person must tumble.

“Therefore, it is my humble submission that debate in a given democratic setting is necessary, particularly when it has to do with the Nigeria system. So, presidential debate is very necessary.”

Nwakaeti on his part, said: “As a matter of fact, in developed climes, electoral debate actually counts, because it affords one the opportunity to interact with the people and then give them an insight into what your programmes and manifesto are.

“It also gives the people the opportunity to assess you as a leader or as somebody who intends to lead them.”

Uzoma, a chieftain of the PDP, and Nwakaeti berated Buhari and Abubakar for shunning the presidential debate, stressing that neither of them have cogent reasons for not affording Nigerians the opportunity to assess their capacity and competence. Uzoma said: “I will say that Abubakar was prepared for the debate, but he failed to understand that the debate was not for Buhari, but Nigerians. If he felt that if Buhari was not there, he was not going to participate, that is not logical.

Nwakaeti added: “Their absence does not show that they have regards for the Nigerian electorate, especially a good number of us who expected to use the platform to make informed decision about the election. It is a very big minus, especially on the part of Buhari.

“He does not show respect because as a President, you are a public servant and the people you want to lead are Nigerians; you are not leading yourself, you are offering yourself to lead the people. So, those people are your masters and you are their servant.”

On whether debates have any influence on Nigerians going into the general election, Uzoma said: “Yes, the debate has impact, but you see, in the Nigeria context, governorship or presidential candidates won’t come to debate. We have not reached that level of democratic development where debate will earn you victory in election. It is not possible. We have not reached that level.

“But I believe we will get to that level where people will begin to appreciate the importance of debate and also take it serious. For instance, my mother in the village doesn’t listen to debate. Also the electorate, 70 per cent of them don’t do so either. It is just for the elite.”

Nwakaeti added: “But here in Nigeria, history has shown that most times, debates don’t count, because you find out that most people, especially the incumbents, shy away from the debates and they will still go ahead and win in the elections.

Going forward, the duo advised electoral debate organisers and Nigerians to remain optimistic that Nigeria would get to a level where debate would help to shape election outcomes in the country.

“So, they should devise other ways to organise the debate, like having that kind of debate in the major languages of the nation- Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba- so that it would be able to penetrate into the different villages where the major electorate are,” Uzoma said.

“So let us believe that probably the system has changed and the people would really assess those that they want to lead them based on what they can offer and not based on sentiments,” Nwakaeti added.

Anyogo

Lawyer Canvasses Legal Framework For Political Debates
From Tina Todo, Calabar
Constitutional lawyer, Leonard Anyogo, called for the legalisation of election debates to give electorate the opportunity to assess those aspiring to hold public offices.

“The Nigeria debate system is not a compulsory requirement for someone contesting for any public office, meaning that it is an optional platform for them to come and talk to us about their programme and manifestos. It should be made compulsory as part of the requirement for standing for public office, the reason being that the Nigeria electorate will be given the opportunity to access people who want to offer themselves for public service. I hope we will get to the point where it will become compulsory, so that contestants will not take Nigerians for granted.

An organiser of this year’s governorship debate in Cross River, Chief Samuel Egba, noted that a debate brings out the credibility of a candidate in decision-making and also educates the electorate on matters of governance.

“A debate ascertains the credibility of the candidates through their presentation, character and policy-wise, as they would tell the people their plans for them in the next four years if elected.

“Thank God we have many of them participating in presidential and other debates in the states too. We don’t just have one option or two, we have many options to choose from, and that is why it is very important that we have debates, which in a way affect the chances of the candidates, in the sense that if you don’t present what is relevant to the people, you won’t be voted, because that is the essence of what we are doing,” Egba stated.

A mobiliser for Cross River Town Initiative, Matty Eteng, said leadership has gone beyond imposition, adding: “People have the way they behave, which is why it is even more important to have avenues like debates, so that we see the kind of people wanting to lead us, whether they have the people at heart or their own personal aggrandisement at heart.”

‘It Is Important For People To Know Those They Want To Vote For’
From Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
Executive Director of Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (IHRHL) and pro-democracy activist, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, said the value of any debate is the responsiveness of the candidates to the electorate to see in practical terms how they want to articulate the issues they claim they will tackle when they are elected.

He stated: “It is necessary that the candidates talk to the electorate, it shows responsiveness, but at the end of the day, it is not the bedrock or determinant of what happens on election day, especially in Nigeria. But it is important for people to know those they want to vote for and why they should vote for them,” he noted.

He said in a participatory democracy, election debate affects the chances of candidates, as it affords the voters to know the candidates’ take on issues, such as health, economy, etc, adding: “People look out for what they are interested in and what the candidates has to offer, so this can determine how the electorate can vote during elections. But I don’t know if we have gotten to the stage where elections happen as a result of what people can get.

“In participatory democracy, whatever the candidates say determines who the electorate will vote, but I don’t think it is the ultimate determinant. Like what is happening in Nigeria, people do not feel it if they speak big grammar at the debate; people are just interested in the major political parties and the best representation, what they will get as a result of what they have seen. Sometimes, people may have already made up their minds on whom they want to vote for.”

He stressed the importance of election debates, saying a lot of people do not get the opportunity to hear what the candidates have to say until then, so it offers one singular opportunity to hear the candidates speak and also shape the mind of the people.

“It is important that every opportunity that is offered by candidates to express themselves, to put out their views, they should honour it. Also, the motive for election debate will determine why some people want to participate or not, as people who take seriously the views of the electorate take every opportunity to express their views on the issues, because at the end, the electorate will consider the candidates based on what they heard, especially in countries where participatory democracy is practised.

“When you debate, it strengthens the mind of the people, it makes the electorate have the feeling of responsiveness and the vote of the public determines what happens during the election. Therefore, as everyone listens and contributes by asking questions, whoever wins would be held responsible by the things he said.

On participation in debates, the activist said:
“It is a matter of choice; I don’t know if it is a matter of respect to the electorate. If you say you are not going to debate, for example, in a country where participatory democracy is practised, you are going to pay the price for not doing that, because it is for the electorate to determine who wins. It will also prepare us for the future to get stronger.

“So, it is a duty for candidates to respect the views of the electorate. If you are saying that the will of the people will determine the outcome of the election, then you must listen to the people. Anyone who say I want to run for an election must listen to the electorate and running away from them will not help.”

‘How Many People Have TV set Or Light To Monitor Debate?’
From Isa Abdulsalami Ahovi, Jos
The Chairman of Plateau Coalition of Business and Professional Associations (PLACOBPA), organisers of the Plateau Governorship Election Debates, Mr. Cyril Ogboli said election debate should be encouraged as it serves to deepen democracy, fosters interaction between the people and political class.

“It gives you an opportunity to interface with them and to ask them questions concerning what plans they have, devoid of the fanfare of rallies, where they just make sweeping statements without details.

“In the environment of debates, you are able to interrogate key issues and get specific answers to them and possibly have a rejoinder where another person or candidate may do a rebuttal to the points made by another candidate. So, the interaction is richer, it is a two-way between the candidate and the public and also fellow contestants,” Ogboli explained.

On whether the refusal of some presidential candidates to attend a debate could affect their electoral chances, Ogboli retorted: “Let us ask ourselves, how many people had television or had light to monitor the programme? And after the thing is telecast, is it going to be repeated? How many people have data to go and track it down online to check what was said?

“Because our politics is evolving, a time will come where if you do that, it will cost you dearly. But now, they have done their marks. Now, I believe all of us know that the battle is between the two leading political parties and for the opposition, as it were, to engage in a battle without the defending champion, I can appreciate their sentiment or their mindset.

“However, presenting yourself goes beyond just your manifesto and telling people what you are interested in; it is a sign of subjecting yourself to the political system, where you show respect for the public by putting up appearance. I believe there should be another opportunity for them to debate.”

Ogbodi argued that their refusal to honour the debate was not a disrespect to the system of the deepening of democracy, saying: “When you are deepening democracy, you are expecting that this is a period where you can go and hold them to account, come and tell us the issues. The challenge here, as one who has organised political debates, is the fact that the system is so fluid that the candidate is invited, but the certainty of his attendance remains a probability. You invite him, but whether he is coming is up to the candidate.

“If we had legalise debates in the electoral process, for instance, then it will be beyond the issue of disrespect, because they will tell you that going to meet the electorate in the various states and wards and villages is their own way of showing respect, because it is Africa and people want you to come to them.

“Some of the candidates do not consider their capacity for public speaking as one of their strong points and truly nobody wants to commit political suicide,” Ogboli submitted.

Lanshima

On the other hand, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) House of Representatives candidate for Jos North/Bassa Federal Constituency, Mr. Vitalis Lanshima, a sportsman whose two hands were amputated after a ghastly accident, expressed doubt about the actual impact of debates on the electorate, adding: “For instance, in the United States (US) this month, you start hearing about election and each political party will have about 20 different election debates and that determines who comes to the top or the forefront.

“But in Nigeria, we don’t do enough and I would want the media to do that. Having just one debate does not change anything because no one shows up, but if you create a platform where you have multiple debates, the excuse of not been around for one or two will be taken away.

“Lanshima said the refusal of the major political candidates to attend the debate would not affect their chances, wondering: “How many people watched the debate? One debate cannot change the mind of the people; you have to have a series of debates and people would have to ask questions to enable the voters choose who they would vote.”


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