It was a single-issue debate which attendees unanimously found boring, despite repeated audience interruption that tested the patience of moderator Imoni Amarere. Ultimately, however, those interviewed by reporters said there was a winner.
The Peoples Democratic Party vice-presidential candidate, Peter Obi, edged Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo of the All Progressives Congress in the vice-presidential debate on Friday night, instant interviews conducted by reporters after the debate showed.
Two out of three attendees who came to observe the debate live at Transcorp Hilton Hotels in Abuja, who described themselves as non-partisan told PREMIUM TIMES Mr Obi did a better job.
Mr Obi was also the best debater amongst other participants who did not disclose their political affiliation.
The respondents were reluctant to comment on the showing of three other vice-presidential contenders who took part in the five-man debate, repeatedly preferring to focus only on Osinbajo and Obi, who are of the ruling and main opposition parties, respectively.
Stylistically, respondents said Mr Obi dominated. He looked mostly into the camera, which conveyed confidence. His voice was calm, but not entirely conversational, reminiscent of his decades’ experience as a trader.
In contrast, Mr Osinbajo frequently interrupted. He talked somewhat faster than he ordinarily does and defensively in many cases.
The vice-president ferreted from talking point to talking point, especially on rice production output, road infrastructure and the social investment programmes, and oftentimes gets shut down by Mr Amarere.
‘Data is life’
Mr Amarere’s decision to keep the debate strictly around the economy saw the contestants put up their statistics A game, and many in the audience were completely blown away.
“To be honest with you, Peter Obi was amazing,” Saryum Okorare, an Abuja-based human resources professional, told PREMIUM TIMES. “I saw it all how he was able to dole out statistics from his head.”
“But the other people, not so much,” Ms Okorare said. “The vice-president is a professor, he has the ability to do more, but…”
Another non-partisan attendee Mary Omono, acknowledged the unique performances of Messrs Obi and Osinbajo, but still found Mr Obi’s ways with data more amusing.
“The debate was really interesting, thanks to both of them, but Mr Obi came out stronger for me because he did not only outline the problems, he gave solutions to them. He also gave statistics to back up most his positions,” Ms Omono added.
On substance, Mr Osinbajo won by highlighting the achievements of his administration. When Mr Amarere asked for his opening remarks, Mr Mr Osinbajo went straight for the PDP’s head, saying Lagos-Ibadan Expressway was abandoned for “practically 16 years”, and “practically every day” the government has been working to fix the crucial highway.
During some of the high-points of the debate around anti-corruption war, the vice-president displayed a quick ability to clap back. When Mr Obi said it was senseless to abandon a shop in pursuit of criminals, Mr Osinbajo quickly retorted that there would be no shop at all if rampaging criminals stole everything.
Mr Obi had a chance to deliver a similarly sharp blow when Mr Amarere asked about the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), but missed it by towing the administration’s line on why Nigeria did not sign the agreement earlier this year.
When the agreement was signed in March, the Buhari administration said it withheld consent because Nigeria could lose big if the country signs the agreement without the input of key sectors of the economy. But critics like the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, have condemned the delay as senseless, and even went on to describe the action of countries that did not endorse the pack as “criminal.”.
After initially agreeing with the position of the administration, Mr Obi used his second take on the matter to scold the President Buhari for failing to consult widely and conclude its collation of inputs before the agreement was due to be signed.
‘Corruption still a major issue’
“I think the vice-president found his footing when the debate got to the anti-corruption aspect,” Umar Abdullahi, an academic, said. “Mr Obi was unable to catch up with him again, even though he tried many times with his dizzying statistics.
Both candidates appeared to have muddled up facts in their submissions at the debate. Mr Obi repeatedly compared Nigeria’s economic indices with China’s, but failed too often to provide sources for his claims.
Mr Obi’s claim that his purchase of 30,000 units of computers as Anambra State governor was the highest by any government in Africa was instantly contradicted, although by an APC strategist.
Although Mr Osinbajo cited reputable sources, like the World Bank in his claims, he bungled basic facts in some cases. While reeling out the administration’s strides in agriculture, the vice-president said Nigeria was producing 90 per cent of its rice consumption.
This claim, which other administration officials have continued to regurgitate despite being fact checked in 2017, remained demonstrably false.
Only one of five politically-active attendants interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES said Mr Osinbajo won the debate. But they all complained that the event was boring and Mr Amarere should have been better armed.
“You must think about the capacity of the organisers,” Terver Terkimbi, a civil engineer who said he has been in politics 17 years, said. “Do they have the capacity to put the right questions through?”
Reporters were barred from entering the hall of the debate, but a small cubicle was arranged for reporting activities in the lobby. Some participants who were inside the hall said they heard in the background that politics came to play in some of the questions that were asked.
Coming at a time of severe national security challenges, especially with the Boko Haram war and other boistering violent crimes across the country, attendants interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES had nothing but harsh words for the organisers’ failure to expand the debate beyond the economy.
But Clement Nwankwo, a civil society personality who provided support for the organisers Nigeria Election Debates Group, said the intention was to keep the vice-presidential candidates focused on their potential roles if elected.
“It is deliberate to keep it focused on the economy,” Mr Nwankwo said. “The main issue is the economy, even though a few other things came up.”
“It was up to the candidates to diversify their responses to other issues, but from the point of view of the moderator, the intention was to keep the debate on the economy.”