By Tonnie Iredia

In some countries, political debates are often cumbersome to undertake. Nigeria is one of such countries because candidates in a Nigerian election are usually too many to engage in any meaningful debate.

For Presidential elections alone, there were five candidates in 1979; six in 1983; 20 in 2003; 23 in 2007 and 19 this year. Nigeria has thus maintained a funny history of Presidential debates deviating from the envisaged format of diametrically-opposed viewpoints being canvassed at a time for meaningful comparison.

Our Presidential debates can thus be hardly different from “Party Talks” and “Interviews.” The large number of political parties contesting elections in Nigeria is, however, not our only problem. What happened in 1999 makes the point.

That year, there were only three major political parties. Through political alignment, only two Presidential candidates were presented – one for PDP and the other was a compromise between  AD and  APP.  PDP presented Chief Olusegun Obasanjo – a former Head of State while the “AD/APP compromise” brought up Chief Olu Falae – a former Finance Minister and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF).  Unfortunately, this enabling environment for a proper debate between the two candidates did not materialise. The debate could not hold because the PDP candidate did not show up.

Also serving as a strong point against proper debates is the fact that Nigerian politicians donot in earnest have differences.

Here, it is in order to once again quote Segun Adeniyi that in Nigeria, ‘someone could be in Party A in the morning, join Party B in the afternoon and by evening of the same day be contesting under Party C’s platform’. The system also allows a politician to return to his previous party even after having won an electionon the platform of another party. My school- mate, Senator Patrick Osakwe, left PDP for Accord Party in Delta State so as to get a ticket to return to the Senate.

After winning the election, he returned to base. Governor Isa Yuguda of Bauchi State and many others have not acted differently. During the Obasanjo years, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku was able to remain in office as Vice-President although he had parted ways with the political party which formed the government in which he was the second-in-command. Mrs. Paullen Tallen, as we write, remains the PDP Deputy Governor of Plateau State and at the same time the governorship candidate of the Labour Party. Under the circumstance, political debates can only be used to chase shadows because the debaters belong to the same school of thought and have nothing new to sell.

There is also the issue of politicising everything in Nigeria, making it hard for us to give any policy or event its true nature and meaning. The significance of a political debate is that it offers an opportunity for all political parties to enlighten viewers and listeners on their manifestos and election promises so as to convince the public to vote for them.

Such an opportunity is expected to be enthusiastically utilised by all; particularly small or poor political parties who cannot afford huge electioneering expenses on advertisements to publicise their activities. Rather than do that, Nigerian political parties, particularly those in the opposition,  prefer to chase shadows, by leaving the debate proper for the politics of the debate. Rather than participate in every debate and use each to increase their political leverage, the opposition candidates in the 2011 elections ill-advisedly boycotted the only debate that has a national platform.

Their ‘tit- for-tat’  action was to protest the absence of  President Jonathan from the one they had attended as if it was the first time a ‘front- line’ candidate would be absent from a debate.  Chief Obasanjo, the PDP candidate was absent in the 1999 debate.

In 2003, when he showed up, it was General Buhari, the then ANPP candidate who declined to participate.  In 2007, the PDP candidate, Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua was absent, but his Vice, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, participated. Surprisingly, Gen. Buhari was among those absent from the presidential debate organised on Tuesday, March 10, by the Murtala Muhammed Foundation “in honour of a fallen hero.” In all of these, our politicians only leave the citizens with “amebo” political controversies.

Accordingly, many controversies have arisen over the 2011 debates. One of them is that the opposition parties were frustrated because the absence of President Jonathan killed their plan to jointly and ferociously attack him during the NN24 debate. This does not appear rational because they could have resuscitated it by participating in the one organised by the Nigerian Elections Debate Group (NEDG) which the President promised to attend. The argument that the PDP candidate wanted to have a pre-knowledge of the questions is also puerile.

All those canvassing this point seem not remember what a debate really is. It is not a quiz contest where the topic must necessarily be hidden. The essence of a debate is to see whose viewpoint between the pros and the cons of a given subject is most persuasive on the basis of knowledge, articulation, eloquence and comportment. To also argue that the NN24 debate is the impartial one misses the point totally. One friend told me he preferred that channel because he heard that it is affiliated to CNN.

That is what happens to people in underdeveloped societies who are always carried away by the exogenous – a constant thought by some people that only foreign things are good. We often forget that as representatives of neo-colonial institutions, the foreign media come to Nigeria to cover events with a mind-set that an African project cannot succeed.

For this reason, their coverage of Nigerian elections is usually fault-finding to the extent that they concentrate not only on what went wrong with an election but also on what they think might go wrong even before the event. While we recognise that NN24 has a team of excellent Nigerian practitioners, we insist that the channel is inappropriate for a Presidential debate because those who can watch it are less than one per cent of the nation. We are thus unable to fault the preference of our President for a national platform.

We can only hope that the issue of appropriate platform will not arise in 2015. We should also look forward to robust candidates who will at that time embrace a debate rather than its politics. Such people must be different from some of the present ones who plan to study the Nigerian problem only after getting into office. 2015 beckons on those who can do it differently and not those who promise to be effective with the old methods.

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