By Rotimi Fasan
ONE of the cherished traditions of developed democracies is the creation of fora for contestants to public office to sell their programmes to the electorate before live audiences. Contestants present their party’s manifestoes and planned activities on attaining power in form of debates that are often transmitted live to audiences via the broadcast media. These events are organized and moderated by select members of the mass media and others, not party partisans. This is especially the case for contestants to high offices like that of president. Since the 1960s, no presidential election takes place in America without a presidential debate. It is just a convention of American democracy that is now widely accepted and practiced the world over. It may not be a constitutional requirement but no candidate into elective office who wishes to be taken seriously spurns it.
This, however, is not the case in Nigeria where candidates standing for office brazenly refuse to show up for scheduled debates. We saw this during the last governorship election in Osun State. Where these candidates are not contesting the right of any person or group to make them debate but questioned the impartiality of the organizers. All of this because the convention of holding political debates as opposed to throwing unguided verbal abuses, insults and tantrums, is still commonly accepted in the media that should take the lead in promoting it, to say nothing of it being accepted by political parties and the general public. Once such ideas are mooted, those aware of their electoral deficits immediately start looking for means of discrediting it.
Yet, debates like these are avenues through which the electorate can take direct measure of people seeking their support into elective office. It is one way of assessing the intelligence and preparedness, not necessarily the oratorical abilities, of contestants to public office. The electing public is better advised on how to use their votes through such avenues as political debates. They can easily tell who the temperamental candidates are, apart from the dissembling ones. By their responses and general comportment, the electorate is more likely to identify a potential failure in office, a common but eloquent liar as opposed to a well-informed and intelligent candidate who lacks a gift of the grab. Indeed, in a so-called presidential democracy like ours that is devoid of the vigorous debates of parliamentary democracies, occasional opportunities offered by presidential debates to scrutinize candidates at close quarters should be compulsory and ought to be embraced with both hands.
This was why I asked in this column, last week, when the two main contestants for the position of president in the February 14 election would have their opportunity to sell their programmes to Nigerians. They should, in the fashion of sales persons, tell Nigerians what they have in stock for them in the more sedate atmosphere of guided debates, not the cacophony of crowded campaign venues. This is a matter that Nigerians must insist on because once the candidates transform into office holders they are hardly ever accountable to anyone. Nigerians should, therefore, have the opportunity to put them to test now and, in future, hold them to their promises in the event of non-compliance.
That is one way to deepen our democracy. And in this wise, the print and broadcast media, civil society groups and NGOs, must cast aside their individual and group allegiances and take the lead on behalf of the general public in bringing these people before the public. Let is not be said that all the media is interested in is holding elaborate public events to confer titles of ‘Man of the Year’, ‘Person of the Year’ etc, on dubious public holders whose influence on Nigerians are measurable only in the negative. This is your time now, Vanguard, Thisday, The Nation, Daily Trust, Daily Sun, Daily Times, Punch, Nigerian Tribune, The Guardian, Alaroye, Radio Nigeria, NTA, AIT, Raypower, Channels, STV, CTV etc, this is your time to tell Nigerians that you are truly on their side in this business of nation building.
In just about 17 days Nigerians will be electing their president for the next four years, but outside the reckless verbal missiles that are being thrown in all directions by political candidates and their hired mouthpieces, nothing substantial or practical is being said about the different manifestoes being hawked around by the different parties. This past week and the week before it was dominated with accusations and counter-accusations about the academic qualifications of General Mohammadu Buhari. When it looked like the questions being raised by the PDP was being answered the issue was again driven in an entirely different direction. Meanwhile, both presidential candidates of the APC and the PDP went apace with their campaigns even as news of increasing violence pours in. All of this in spite of the peace accord endorsed by both candidates.
There ought to be opportunities to bring these candidates before panels of seasoned interviewers where they can tell Nigerians more about themselves, their parties and the manifestoes of their parties. They should be made to explain in clear terms what they have done and/or intend to do in office beyond the empty campaign rhetoric and meaningless verbiage. Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari should be brought face-to-face to explain to Nigerians how they have or do intend to tackle the practical issues of insurgency, steep downturn in our economic fortunes and pervasive corruption in high places in the country. Other issues that are personal in nature can be addressed in the impartial atmosphere of moderated debates without the bitter ill-will or malevolence of venal party supporters.
On this issue of presidential debates, I insist the media and civil society groups have a major if not the sole responsibility of making them possible. There is nothing to suggest that either of the leading candidates will desire this. But that is not a decision for them but the Nigerian electorate to make. They can’t be contestants and umpire all at once. There are burning issues of national importance that cannot and should not be allowed to go unaddressed before these February elections. These issues cannot be addressed in the staged condition of presidential chats or the acrimonious context of town hall meetings of gawking or paid admirers.
We have seen the contestants. We have heard their mea culpas, and their hired ‘loudspeakers’ and thugs. Two weeks to the elections, it is time that Buhari and Jonathan took to the floor before the Nigerian electorate and debate each other man to man, candidate to candidate.