By Ochereome Nnanna

WE are still exploring matters arising as we rev up for the next round of the general elections 2011. Today, I want to examine issues surrounding the presidential debates, the decision of the Federal Government to deploy the Army to help maintain law and order during the elections and the controversy surrounding whether voters should vote and go or stay to witness the vote counting.

The presidential debates were shoddy and anything but what political debates should be. The best debate I was privileged to witness was conducted for the governorship candidates in Lagos State organised by Channels Television.

All four short-listed candidates were in attendance, and the audience were able to assess them for their ideas one vis-à-vis the other.

On the other hand, the presidential debates were politicised, with the presidential candidates of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Malam Nuhu Ribadu; All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), Malam Ibrahim Shekarau and General Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and their respective running mates attending the debates organised by Nigeria’s private cable channel, NN24 on March 15, 2011.

President Goodluck Jonathan, the flagbearer for the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) stayed away from it amidst rumours that he wanted the questions submitted to him in advance. When he made his sole appearance at the March 30 edition of the Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG), he debunked the rumour. Instead, he challenged his colleagues to another debate where all would assemble.

The NEDG had a day before that organised another debate where the only presidential candidate of note was the Social Democratic Mega Party’s (SDMP) candidate, Professor Pat Utomi who threw in the towel shortly after.

Unless the rest of the candidates take up the President’s challenge for another, collective go, then I will say the presidential debates failed.

Each group of debaters chose platforms that favoured them. You could hardly fault the argument that the NN24 was a restricted platform for candidates aiming to reach 71 million voters. Since it opened shop about a year ago, the channel has not been able to grow its viewership, mainly due to its inability to cover the nation effectively and screen enough local content. Perhaps the presidential debate was a breakout stunt. The debate ended in controversy but at least more people now know there is a cable news channel on DSTV known as NN24.

Similarly, you could not much fault the argument pushed by the Buhari, Ribadu and Shekarau camps that the NEDG initiative looked like a package to suit officialdom. The looming presence of Chief Taiwo Alimi as the chairman of the NEDG somewhat overshadowed the great advantage of reach that the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) and other non-governmental organisations that subscribe to the group offered. Alimi is a journalist, politician and former holder of many public office appointments who recently made a cheap outing on Raypower’s Political Platform on behalf of embattled Governor Gbenga Daniel’s faction. His involvement could not but be seen as a great disincentive by the “opposition” parties.

Boycott of NEDG

However, it was childish of the Buhari group to boycott the NEDG debate just because the President failed to honour the one they attended with NN24.

They made it sound like attending the debate was doing the President a favour. They needed the debate more than the President who possesses huge incumbency advantages. The debate was a level ground they should have grabbed to “trap” him, assuming he was dodging. For me the best debater this season was Governor Raji Fashola, a brilliant, articulate leader who had all the figures at his fingertips and effective delivery.

The second was runaway presidential candidate, Pat Utomi, who displayed a lot of knowledge about contemporary and historical facts. The third was Malam Shekarau who radiated experience. I cannot score Jonathan because he never participated in a debate.

Coming to the issue of the Army being sent to help provide security during the elections, I think the opposition is just being unnecessarily hysterical. I agree with ACN’s Audu Ogbe that in the past the military’s involvement in elections often tempted them to intervene in the political process shortly after.

That was because they were specifically used in the 1960s and the 1980s to help the ruling party at the centre rig elections. Today’s Army deserves our respect because in their handling of the Yar’ Adua fiasco, the Boko Haram uprising, the militants rebellion in the Niger Delta and the sacking of kidnappers in Abia State, they acquitted themselves creditably shunning politics.

Some of their officers and men have been accused over the Jos crisis, but that is just a departure from the norm. In the face of rising violence we need a neutral army to help us through the polls, provided they remain politically above board. Nothing in their body language suggests to me that they will do otherwise.

Disclaimer

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