By Dr Ugoji Egbujo,
Igbos say when frogs run around in the afternoon they aren’t doing so for fun. If they are not after something then something is after them.
When president Jonathan chickened out of the scheduled presidential debates in 2011 and opted for a literal monologue rather than engage Buhari and Ribadu , he played into the hands of the opposition . Often derided as inarticulate and diffident, he didn’t help himself by opting out of that debate.
Against opponents who were not really gifted with garb or elocution, who couldn’t boast about being remarkably conversant with policy and great innovative ideas, the task before him then was not particularly daunting. So why did he avoid a debate with his main opponents in 2011 ? Perhaps it was a deliberate political strategy . He was a front runner, had victory within reach baring any major slip ups. And since he lacked a bit in charm and poise , he just played safe .
The other parties then were too weak to mount any robust contest on the field. They lacked the requisite national spread. Debates could hardly dent his chances. So why didn’t he take up the challenge of debating people whose intellect he should ordinarily match since he reminds everyone of his possession of a doctorate degree at every opportunity? In football parlance, he simply “parked the bus”. Style is nothing without results, perhaps.
Whatever his reasons, the people were denied an opportunity to further assess the candidates. Perhaps the only real opportunity to feel the texture of candidates who are usually handpicked by party god fathers without even scant regards for the inputs of ordinary party members. Primaries are charades staged by god fathers
It is not important that only a few would have been swayed by the debates, much would have been gained by entrenching a national political culture of debates prior to elections. And you would think that the candidates would relish any opportunity to lay out their plans and programmes since the routine, noisy political rallies aren’t conducive for such rational engagements. The rallies being mere carnivals to which no one really comes to learn about manifestoes. Many ordinary folks turn up for a fee and others come for a piece of fun. The exploitation of the poor continues at every turn.
It’s 2015 and Jonathan now wants a debate. And he is making a fuss of it. How times have changed and tides have turned. Opinion polls suggest the race is dead even but many observers claim Buhari is in a clear lead. Jonathan , who refers to his party chairman as “ game changer “ , may be in need of a real game changer. The campaigns yielded little . A barrage of assaults on the image of the opposition leader, his qualification and readiness to lead haven’t managed to hinder the momentum of the opposition.
PDP officials have all but conceded that they are worried about the outcome of the elections and are manifestly desperate. A party and a president who preferred the elections in Febuary rather than April now want a postponement. The National security adviser is not a flippant man and when he speaks he reveals the inner concerns of the presidency. The PDP had a plot that has unraveled.
Fani Kayode has recently hinted of the possibility of a ‘no confidence vote’ on INEC and even a mere contemplation of that reveals much of the trepidation ransacking the soul of the ruling party. Toying with a vote of ‘ no confidence’ on INEC is like flirting with the idea of a boycott of the elections. Strange things are happening. It may not have reached those depths but it shows how rattled they are. PDP’s air of invincibility has disappeared.
The presidential primaries of APC were expected to be too fractious and too acrimonious to enable the party mount an effective challenge in the presidential elections.
The plot by the PDP to bring the elections forward to February could have been a political masterstroke . It was meant to suffocate an ill prepared and perhaps conflict stricken APC when they would not have found any real bearings. But it has boomeranged. Or so it seems. APC, ironically, is now the party insisting the elections must not be shifted. APC supporters revel in their optimism. It is good for the country. One party rule is an anathema in a democracy
The opposition that lampooned Jonathan for avoiding the debates 4 years ago has now found many excuses for opting out the debates. They claim media bias. But we know better. Some media houses, though ,have been at the very least unethical. But you would think that the party of change, that has labeled the president as clumsy , clueless and weak would crave to feast on him in a debate. They are hesitant. And deliberately so.
The PDP and Jonathan avoided a debate with the same Buhari in 2011. And he was the main challenger then too. If their inferences that he is mentally deficient and anachronistic are right, then they missed an opportunity in 2011 to expose his deficiencies. PDP cannot pick and choose when to engage in presidential debates. They have urged us to make necessary inferences from Buhari’s hesitancy or refusal to debate. And that is a reasonable demand but in light of a precedent they set in 2011 we are entitled to infer that their new found altruism is cynical and borne out of desperation.
If Jonathan avoided the debates for strategic political reasons then Buhari is morally entitled to employ same reasons and stay away. Elections are, in the main, contests and partakers do all permitted by the rules and conventions to win. Buhari owes no one any legal or moral duty to participate in any debates.
Many argue that APC should set the pace by encouraging the establishment of a culture of pre election debates. And that the debates are a service to the electorate and the nation. And these are sound arguments.
While it must be conceded that the debates may not influence the decision of most of the voters , in a closely fought election all votes become extremely significant. A few undecided voters can be swayed by a debate performance . Some good leaders do poorly in debates , just as some good students don’t do particularly well in exams . So debates ,as welcome as they are, may not serve some good candidates well . A calamitous “my oga at the top” moment can be very damaging for either of the major candidates.
For a candidate like Buhari who touts his exceptional personal character one must wonder how much damage is done his sense of self esteem by his avoidance of the debates . It is worse if that course was taken by his party to help his inadequacies. Why wouldn’t Buhari use the debates to advertise his mental alertness and good grasp of relevant issues? Who would have imagined a Buhari afraid of a small challenge.
Ordinarily the opposition, any opposition, would long for a debate against an incumbent whose performance has been adjudged, even by his most ardent fans, as uninspiring. In a sense , the election is a referendum on the incumbent’s performance . So why wouldn’t the opposition take on him frontally and skewer him? And more, Buhari could, with one good debate performance, convince any remaining skeptics that all the talk about certificate and age are irrelevant gibberish of a confused and petty ruling party. Buhari, like Jonathan in 2011, may suffer a personal psychological harm if he avoids the debate.
Debates are important. Since the main complaint about the campaigns, besides matters bordering on violence, is that they have not been issues- based. A debate could settle all that by redirecting the candidates to issues.
Debates offer the nation and its people an opportunity to appraise the issues that confront them and allow a general assessment of government measures
. To that extent it represents an effective public accountability process . Wouldn’t Nigerians want to know how many of our soldiers have lost their lives defending the nation against boko haram? Let someone tell the APC that town hall meetings cannot substitute debates. That is not to say that debates cannot also be hollow rituals where practiced candidates come to churn out themes handed them by their handlers the day before.
It has become unlikely any presidential debates will take place . The desperation for a game changer has reared it’s head on other fronts. A motley of inconsequential minor parties suddenly congregated and released a communiqué calling for a postponement of the elections. A suit has been filed in an Abuja court seeking to halt the elections by a fairly unknown person. Proxies are at it again, smells like ’ June 12’ . Claims and counter claims of plans for an interim government are now rife.
Niger Delta militants have threatened us with dire consequences if Jonathan loses. Now they have added that they won’t spare anyone who doesn’t vote GEJ in the Niger Delta. How free can these elections be?
The worry is not about the frenetic dance steps of these minnows, the real worry is about the drummer in the shadows supplying them rhythm.
APC has “parked the bus”. And time is running out!
Dr Ugoji Egbujo MBBS, LLB, LLm (Medical Doctor and Criminology