By Muhammed Adamu
WE have seen that unlike in sports, in political debates there are neither gallant losers nor magnanimous winners.
And because one man’s victor (especially in keenly-contested encounters) is another’s vanquished, there’s usually none prepared to be gallant about a defeat he has not accepted; nor any ready to be magnanimous about a victory his opponent has not conceded to him.
Whereas outcomes of sporting events are ‘certain’ -even when they are controversially arrived at- those of political debates are not-for the reason that they are usually left to the subjective assessment mostly of partisan viewers and or listeners.
We have also seen that even in the U.S. the democratic process has still not developed enough to birth independent, impartial and apolitical institutions trusted with the task of organising and conducting political debates; and that the only body that currently discharges that responsibility (Commission on Presidential Debate, CPD), has to be a bi-partisan outfit jointly owned and run by the two major political parties, the Republican and the Democratic parties. Candidates will not debate on platforms they have no reason to distrust.
Trust or timidity or both may have informed Jonathan’s refusal, in 2011, to attend the March 18 debate organised by a private Cable Television, NN24; even though the trio of CPC’s Buhari, ACN’s Ribadu and ANPP’s Shekarau who attended, may not have had such issues.
Trust or timidity or both may have been why the same trio, 12 days later (March 30), deserted Jonathan as he debated alone on the platform of NEDG-BON (Nigeria Election Debate Group/Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria), which allegedly availed Jonathan the unfair advantage of a sneak preview of the debate questions negotiated for him by a media aide, Doyin Okupe.
Nor would trust now not have been at issue also when Buhari shunned the 2015 debate organised by the same discredited body, leaving Jonathan and others who opted to attend because they had no such issue. And maybe trust too, or timidity, was the reason PDP’s Obasanjo in 2003 refused to debate an AD/APP-adopted candidate, Olu Falae.
In truth, candidates have the prerogative to weigh both the potential benefits and the cost of participating in a political debate and accordingly, to decide whether or not to attend.
America’s Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, refused to debate Senator Barry Goldwater for the reason that having already commanded an appreciable lead at the polls, and not being a good public speaker, it would be unwise to risk jeopardising that lead by attending the debate.
As did PDP’s dancing maestro, Adeleke also who shunned the Osun debate because it was the most optimal game-theory strategy in the circumstance.
And the question arises: what can Buhari gain side by side with what he definitely stand to lose, by participating in a debate that promises to have him as a menu on a dinner table peopled by hawks, foxes and hyenas?
Or can Buhari trust the same NEDG-BON now headed – hold it!- by Channels TV-owner John Momoh, to be unbiased in the conduct of a debate with an Atiku whose principal, Obasanjo, cast as monist-Machiavellic who sees reality as a single entity driven by the ability and the readiness to pay one’s way through every challenge.
By the way, since ‘trust’ and ‘being in presidential command’ are the objects of a presidential debates, the question also arises: ‘how can it be determined, in a presidential debate, which person seems more trustworthy and or more in presidential command?’ Is it the man who speaks the more flowery English even though he may lack the will, the capacity or the sincerity to deliver?
Or is it the one who reels out the most economic jargon, even if a majority of the debate’s audience does not understand him?
Or is it the person who exudes the most humility even if he does not coherently communicate a realistic vision and a workable plan? Or is it the dissembling impresario who dresses more ornately, uses the most high-sounding catch phrases, and is able to pass off as one who can be both trusted and in presidential command?
The audience of the first ever televised debate, 1960’s ‘Kennedy-Nixon’ debate was said to have scored Kennedy higher not so much for what he had said as for how he appeared at the debate -“vigorous, tanned and confident”, they said, while his opponent, Nixon had “looked pale, worried and sweaty”.
But the irony of it was that whereas those who watched the debate by television were swayed by young Kennedy’s looks, majority of those who listened to the debate by radio (and did not have to see a morose-looking, older Nixon or a tanned, debonair Kennedy), said Nixon won the debate.
And it turned out also that much of Nixon’s pale and sweaty looks on the debate klieg lights neither came from his physical age nor from the age of his ideas. It was from his refusal to wear a simple make-up – whereas Kennedy did.
And we saw also, that in spite of all the controversial issues of ‘trust’ afflicting the candidatures of Hillary and Trump, yet the winner of their three-times, hate-filled debates in 2016 was arrived at less by the question of who was more trustworthy than it was by the judgment of who seemed more ‘in presidential command’.
And this was in spite of the grossly un-presidential conduct of both candidates throughout most the encounters. Many in fact said that Trump’s uncouth reference to Hillary as a ‘nasty woman’ and the threat to jail her if he became President, were all the ‘feminist rallying’ sympathy she needed to win the debates; even though in the end, they could not win her the election.
Nothing can be more ironically unfair, than that the debater who seemed ‘more in presidential command’ should win only the debate but not the election; or that the one who was scandalously ‘un-presidential’ should lose the debate but win the election.
And so it raises the questions: are the outcomes of pre-election debates truly as game-changing as they are purported to be? The answer is no! A research in The Economist Magazine has proved that “although presidential debates can inform a person’s view, they tend to do little to change it”. In fact it has been shown that between 1960 and 2008 “the polling numbers of presidential candidates leading up to debates were almost perfectly correlated with their numbers (even) shortly afterwards”.
And so, to what end is a political debate if its outcome will not affect the entrenched positions of voters? Thus one may ask, ‘what new issues would a debate involving Buhari throw up that Nigerians are not already abreast of or already uncompromisingly divided about? Or what percentage of Nigeria’s voting population by now is still genuinely ‘undecided’ about Buhari or Atiku and have to require that the two candidates debate before they can make up their minds?
In truth debates are merely avenues for capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of opponents to score cheap political mileage. Like Kennedy did against Nixon, or Reagan, against Carter, or as virtually every other Nigerian presidential candidate now hopes to do against a bashful, deeply-accented and potentially gaffe-prone Buhari. Said John M. Cunningham, debates are merely “a reliable source of quips, gaffes and lofty remarks”.
Every candidate wants to debate an opponent with the most potentials for goofs and gaffes, faux pas and lapsus lingue. And Buhari, perhaps is your worst possible political interlocutor. You’ll do well first to cut through the cadence of his deeply accented Hausanized English; before you grapple with the import of his rationed delivery. His publicly acknowledged virtues of integrity, modesty and tenacity, in the circumstances, are not fitting wares for a political debate with opponents ready to make a bloodied Caesar out of him. He should not debate!