November 29, 2018

2019: Why presidential debates matter

2019: Why presidential  debates matter

FILE: President Goodluck Jonathan and other presidential candidates at the 2015 Presidential Election Debate

By Ikechukwu Amaechi
Thursday, November 22, the Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG) and the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) announced schedules for the 2019 presidential election debates.

The vice-presidential and presidential debates, which will hold on December 14, 2018 and January 19, 2019 respectively at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, will focus primarily on the economy, electricity supply, job creation, health, security, infrastructure and education. But nothing is off limits.

FILE: President Goodluck Jonathan and other presidential candidates at the 2015 Presidential Election Debate

Chairman of the group, Mr. John Momoh, not only reiterated the importance of the exercise and why candidates must participate but also assured of the objectivity of the exercise.

In the past, some conceited politicians had treated the debates cavalierly, dismissing the very idea of being interrogated by the people they seek to govern most contemptuously.

For instance, during the 2015 elections, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) did not participate in the presidential debate, even when Goodluck Jonathan, incumbent president at the time, took part.

In 2011, Jonathan, who became president after the death of Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010, pulled out of a televised presidential debate hosted by Lagos-based NN24 cable television after initial consent, preferring instead to participate in the NEDG-BON organised debate.

Why they pulled out

The three main opposition presidential candidates – Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), and Alhaji Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) – who participated in the debate on March 18, 2011, took their pound of political flesh on March 30, 2011 when they pulled out of the BON-organised debate with Jonathan debating himself.

For refusing to take part in the earlier debate, Buhari, Ribadu and Shekarau accused Jonathan of arrogance. “He has arrogantly shunned the credible debate for which we made ourselves available,” they said in a joint statement, insisting they had “bent backwards” to accommodate him.

That has been the trend since the inception of this democratic dispensation in 1999. Those who reckon that they have the political muscle to win elections don’t see the need to explain their decisions and plans to the people, whose votes they don’t really need to be declared winners.

Thus, after the successful 1993 presidential debate between Bashorun MKO Abiola, then presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC), which many Nigerians thought would be the template going forward, it was bungled in 1999.

General Olusegun Obasanjo, candidate of the PDP, in a characteristic display of political impunity refused to debate with Chief Olu Falae, who flew the flag of the now defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD) and All Peoples Party (APP).

In the 2003 election cycle when Buhari first emerged on the scene, there was also no presidential debate.

These efforts to scuttle the debates in the past were deliberate, mischievous and self-serving. Attempt to give the exercise the necessary legal backing was deliberately stymied by federal lawmakers when the Debate Commission Bill was curiously stepped down at the National Assembly after scaling first and second readings.

It remains to be seen if a renewed effort to have a Debate Commission Law will be successful.

But what is obvious is that the forces opposed to debates are still very much around, hence the negative buzz in some political quarters that heralded Momoh’s announcement.

While it is not yet clear whether the candidates, particularly those of the major political parties, have indicated interest in participating, some political parties that know the inadequacies, or outright hollowness of their candidates have started flying the malicious kite of aspersion on the debate.

What does it matter? They ask. A lot!

As Momoh noted, “Our nation is strongest when our elected leaders are transparent, accessible and accountable to its citizens, explaining their decisions and answering tough questions.”

Standard of  openness

This standard of openness is the global norm. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s political elites continue to treat democracy’s basic tenets most disdainfully. The inability of the country’s key political actors to key into these well-established democracy protocols is at the heart of its stunted growth after almost 20 years.

Campaigns are hollow and devoid of issues. Politicians only display their latest dance steps on the dais. Candidates come to the rally grounds to mouth empty political slogans. There is very scant interest, if any at all, in agenda-based campaigns that would proffer solutions to the myriad problems bedeviling the country.

Yet, democracy is adjudged the best form of government because it affords the people a choice place on the leadership recruitment table. It affords the people the opportunity to interrogate those seeking their mandate by giving them the ownership of the process. That is the norm, which is regrettably observed in the breach here.

Those who pretend not to be convinced that debates serve useful purposes in elections insist they are elitist exercises that pander to the whims and impulses of the well-heeled in society, arguing that the outcome influences an insignificant percentage of the voting population.

That may well be true. But the percentage of the voting population that takes decision based on the outcome of debates is beside the point. The issue is that the people have the sovereign right to know what those who are seeking their mandate have on offer over and above the fait accompli their spin doctors churn out daily.

The right of the people to evaluate those who are going to make the authoritative allocation of their collective values is inalienable.

Those who claim that their candidates do not have the gift of the gab and, therefore, should be shielded from debates simply don’t get it. In any case, leadership is all about communication. If a man cannot communicate his vision in such a way that he leaves no one in doubt where he is headed, that person has no business aspiring to lead others.

Scholars on leadership insist it is about commitment, passion, empathy, honesty, integrity, innovation, vision, creative thinking and decision-making. But most importantly, it is about good communication skills. A good leader must be a good communicator because as Sarmad Hasan once wrote “words have the power to motivate people and make them do the unthinkable. If you use them effectively, you can also achieve better results.”

21 Indispensable qualities of a leader

John Calvin Maxwell, American pastor and bestselling author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, says a leader “is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. President, agrees. “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader,” he said. Actions can only inspire ennobling dreams when there is effective communication.

Nigerians must insist that henceforth, any politician who refuses to take part in presidential debates has no right to their votes. The people must be given reasons to choose. For too long, Nigerians have given out their country’s leadership diadem on the platter of shaku-shaku dance and egregious inanities. That must stop. Let the debates start.