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Did I hear Buhari does not want to debate Jonathan?

By Rotimi Fasan

These are political times and like in a war the first casualty is truth. There have, in the last few days and the many weeks leading to the February 14 presidential election, been a whole lot of untruths being peddled out there as the Gospel, and that too in the name of God. Not even so-called men and women of God who have become more partisan than the politicians they are ranged behind are exempt.

Buhari and Jonathan
Buhari and Jonathan

Aside the presidential candidates of the two leading parties to whom false statements and actions are attributed by their opponents, persons not known to be card-carrying members of political parties, or with no more connections to them than can be expected of concerned citizens, have had attributed to them statements and action they could not have made in their wildest dreams. The internet has become a major source of these incredible statements, many of them blatant lies that could be easily seen through by Nigerians literate and interested enough to follow developments in their country.

Documents have and are being forged and passed off as authentic by criminals obviously practiced in their game of subterfuge. Little or no attempt is made to conceal the fact that an attempt is being made to tarnish another person’s image in order to destroy their chances at the poll while enhancing the chances of their rivals. Statements are made and boldly attributed to other people. Documents are randomly forged and authenticated with the presumed signature of the innocent victim to whom they are attributed and sent out on the internet. News is breaking with the rapidity of beer-room gossips.

One moment, a fabricated image is posted on the internet which goes ‘viral’ to be replaced by another within the hour or day- all by supporters and opponents of the people being maligned and/or approbated by those sending out the posts. The long and short of my point is that it is very difficult, if not dangerous, to know what to believe in the myriad of information that is thrown out in the public space in the course of the ongoing political insults and false attributions called campaigns. Nothing can be taken for granted.

It is for this reason that I am, as I write this at about mid-day on this last Friday of the month of January 2015, taking yet with a pinch of the salt, the news that Mohammadu Buhari, presidential candidate of the APC, has refused to take part in a debate with his leading opponent in the presidential contest and incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. It is hard for me to believe but not unimaginable given Nigeria’s steep descent into infamy (no thanks to our politicians), that a candidate to the high office of president would refuse to debate an opponent in an event organized by citizens.

I say I do not find this difficult to imagine even if I find it difficult to believe that any aspirant to any office, especially that of president, would spurn such opportunity to sell their programme to the electorate. The reason it is not difficult to imagine is that we have being for a long time in an era of impunity where everything and just about anything can happen without anybody being shocked. But it is difficult to believe or accept that at this material time somebody would dare contemplate such action.

I will therefore not believe the report yet that the APC and its candidate for president would refuse to debate an opponent. Not for a candidate whose campaign mantra is ‘change’- from what exactly somebody might ask, if the candidate will not abide by a simple convention of modern democracies?

A party and a candidate that campaigns on the high crest of change, which I take to mean redirecting Nigeria from the unacceptable ways of the past, will not want to make the hubristic mistake of proving right opponents who have talked of a leopard not being able to change its skin. Mohammadu Buhari has been cast in the mold of an unbending jihadist by his opponent, a throwback from a better-forgotten era of military despotism. Would he make the mistake of committing the political crime of slighting the electorate by refusing to debate his opponent? I’d rather believe otherwise.

By the time the reader gets this, I believe the situation would have been made clear. But suffice to say now that no Nigerian aspiring to lead the country or the people of this country in any capacity deserves to be voted for if such refuses to present himself before them in a debate organized by the same people whose support is being sought. The reason any candidate can advance for not wanting to debate their opponents have been stated here in this column last week, and need not detain us any further. It has to do with the impartiality or lack of it of the organizers. This is a simple thing to overcome.

A candidate needing assurance on this issue need only insist on the integrity of persons to be selected to be on the panel of interviewers and/or moderating the debate. That it is called a debate is no reason for any candidate to assume that their opponent would dominate the argument unhindered, or crowd them out of the debate with a barrage of remarks. Such fantasy can only happen in the cacophonous atmosphere of paid supporters.

The type of political debate the present one demands is timed, with each speaker allotted equal time. And no partisanship can be allowed either by way of questions asked or time given for such question to be answered by moderator(s). In short, not being an eloquent speaker is not necessarily a disadvantage. And who among those presently out on the rostrum has the eloquence of a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama as to inspire fear in their rivals?

Let the contestants be reminded that Nigerians are looking forward to the opportunity to assess them at close quarters. It is therefore not up to a candidate to choose to participate in a debate or not. It may not be a constitutional requirement yet, but it is a global convention we would be worse off to ignore. Just this past Wednesday a call from an official of the Murtala Mohammed Foundation in Ikoyi, headed by Aisha Oyebode, daughter of the former head of State, Murtala Mohammed, informed me of the plans of that organization to hold a debate for the presidential candidates in Abuja. This official called in response to the call in this column last week for such a debate. This is to tell the two presidential candidates, Mohammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan that Nigerians are waiting and will want to hear them.

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