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The Presidential debate

By Obi Nwakanma

Earlier this year, February 7, precisely, I had gone to speak at the University of Houston, Texas. The English and History Departments, the Houston Fund, and the good folks at the Voices Beyond Boundaries in Houston had made it possible for my visit to talk on a subject I called “Imagined and Transitional nations: matters arising in African Literature” and give readings from my collection of poems, The Horsemen & Other Poems. In the audience, both at the university and later that evening at the reading at the Houston Institute for Culture was a group of Nigerians.

Nigerians as we all know are in preponderant numbers in many cities across the world in what we now call the “Diaspora.” When we meet we often weep into our beer in fruitless laments for the homeland. My hostess, Dr. Kairn Klieman, introduced me to a young Nigerian woman Ezinne Anyanwu. She was not weeping for Nigeria. She was all smiles. She had girded her loins for the real work to be done and she was doing her part.

She was part of a network of young Nigerians across the world engaged in mobilising the younger generation of Nigerians to rise to their responsibility and vote.

She is Texas Regional Director for the group, “Vote or Quench.” Speak with the ballot,” they say, to the newer voters, “change is a collective effort.” This get out the vote effort is only part of what “Vote or Quench” is all about: it is at its most fundamental, an initiative for democratic change using the capacities and the technologies of mobilisation available to the younger generation – a crucial voting bloc – in the emergence of a new Nigeria.

As part of this effort, the group was linked to the network that organised the recent presidential debates that featured Mr. Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC); Mr. Nuhu Ribadu of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), and Mr. Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP).

As I understand, the incumbent president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan did not participate, on account, his aides later said at the end of the debate televised live nationally and streamed globally by the private NN24 Television, of “other commitments.” The excuse was rather lame, of course. His opponents in this election used the opportunity to hint at the president’s disdain for Nigerians.

The Jonathan campaign has since registered the president’s willingness to participate in a future debate “only organised by the Presidential Debate Commission” and to be broadcast by the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria. Nigerians, therefore, hope to see another debate between the candidates before the presidential elections only two weeks away. While we await that debate, and hopefully, hope that Nigerians would have electricity to power their TVs and radios to watch or listen to that debate, it is important to focus on the issues already afloat in this election.

It is the issue of the security of Nigerians; it is the question of public sector corruption; it is the issue of massive unemployment and under-employment that has also given rise to spreading criminality; it is the subject of the limits of the economic and social expansion of Nigeria, it is the issue of infrastructural decay and the potentials for redevelopment, it is the question of the terrifying slide in the education of the Nigerian; it is the question of triple digit inflation; it is the question of Nigeria’s under-reported public health crisis; it is the question of what becomes of Nigeria in the 21st century within the global situation, particularly its increasing marginality and potential subversion.

The other day, the president was more proud than leery to declare that Nigeria was not doing badly. It was the “third largest economy in Africa.” I think we can read the president’s lips very clearly. But what happened to the talk about the “giant of Africa”? With a potential market slice par none in Africa, Nigeria should not be the “third largest economy in Africa.” It should be the economic engine house of Africa and among the world’s most important economic and technologically advanced nations. But three conditions hinder Nigeria’s emergence into the sunshine: corruption, negligence, and injustice.

To start with, corruption is the product or consequence of systemic failure, and, it was the focus of the debate. It was clear to me that Mr. Shekarau is a quick and thoroughly informed man. Educated at the Ahmadu Bello University, with a double Major in Education and Mathematics, Shekarau’s background as an educator – a Maths teacher and principal of several public secondary schools in Kano, and as an administrator – first as Director of Research and Planning in Kano’s ministry of education, and as permanent secretary in its civil service, before he was elected governor of Kano State, arms him with formidable insight and experience. His answers to the questions were thoughtful and clear. His solutions to the myriad problems of the nation seemed equally incisive. Shekarau’s major dilemma, however, is on the view of his religious extremism, and a potentially intolerant worldview.

Shekarau’s implementation of the Sharia in Kano State and its enforcement by the hisbah has been the sore point for his critics who find him too narrow, as a result, and incapable of making a wider national appeal. His worst answer was to the question of the suppression and censorship of the local film industry by Kano’s moral police and censor’s board. Nuhu Ribadu also came off mostly as enthusiastic and motivated.

His claims of speaking for a new generation, however, has to be tested against the reality of what voters could regard as his flip-flop over past statements as the anti-corruption czar which indicted some of the men with whom he has now formed something of a strange political concubinage. Ribadu graduated with a Law degree from the Ahmadu Bello University Law School, and joined the Nigeria Police Force and rose to become Assistant Inspector-General of Police, and also the head of EFCC.

Ribadu’s critics contend that as head of EFCC, he was nothing but an unprincipled hitman for Obasanjo’s PDP administration, although he later fell out with the Yar’Adua regime over his insistence to prosecute certain figures with powerful political ties to the administration.

Muhammadu Buhari, General and former military head of state comes with the widest experience compared to his opponents. He has also established the image of an incorruptible man whose War Against Indiscipline as  head of state first grappled with corruption and indiscipline in public life. In some ironic sense, Buhari’s regimes handling of this programme has also given his critics their greatest armour against him, in their claims of a lack of impartiality that suggests Southern hostility and a lack of democratic credentials.

Buhari, however, has a number of things going for him: experience, determination, toughness. His response about the Nigerian crisis seemed also perhaps the most pragmatic: corruption is the product of the failure of public service. Many Nigerians see in Buhari the wind that would sweep clean Nigeria’s public system. The campaigns are still on, and it is now in the hands of the voters to vote their conscience and defend their ballots by all means necessary.


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