By Anthony Igiehon
VIEWPOINT IN BRIEF
Height of insecurity
Ahead of the 58th quadrennial United States presidential election on November 8, 2016, the world watched with bated breath as the two major candidates in the election, Republican Candidate Donald Trump and Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton went head to head at three separate debates held at New York’s Hofstra University (September 26, 2016), Washington University in St. Louis (October 9, 2016), and University of Nevada, Las Vegas (October 19, 2016).
For the two candidates who met the Commission on Presidential Debates’ criteria for participation, the debates provided a much-needed platform to present to the American voting public their plans or reform proposals on a number of foreign and domestic issues. Some of the key issues that came up at the debates include US-Russia relations, the Syrian civil war, terrorism, immigration, job creation, police conduct, race relations, Social Security, taxation of the wealthy, the national debt, Iraq, the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court, “uniting the country”, nuclear weapons, abortion, gun policy, “birtherism”, jobs in the energy industry, cyberterrorism, and Islamophobia. Questions were also raised about Trump’s taxes and lewd leaked recording controversy, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, Clinton’s emails, the Clinton Foundation, and a host of other issues personal to the candidates but likely to have wider national impact.
Even though the debates were criticized for failing to address issues like climate change, US-Cuba relations, US foreign policy on China, Africa, South America and Egypt, among others, they, no doubt, gave the American voters an insight into each candidate’s thoughts on sundry issues affecting America individually and in the global context. To what extent the debates influenced the eventual outcome of the election is, however, a subject of further debate. Though Hillary Clinton was considered to have won all three presidential debates in opinion polls of likely voters, Donald Trump won the presidential election of November 8. Yet, that does not in any way diminish the import of the debates in the electoral process.
Clinton and Trump debated even though none of them was an incumbent president seeking re-election. Yet, on Sunday, January 20, 2019, Nigerians and the world watched with disappointment as the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) laboured to explain why Muhammadu Buhari, its presidential candidate who has been in power for over three and a half years, arrogantly absented himself from a presidential debate where he was expected to face the electorate and give account of his stewardship so far and seek their votes in next month’s polls.
“Firstly, out of several opportunities afforded our candidate to interact with the Nigerian people directly by different organisations, our presidential candidate has taken full advantage of another town-hall meeting organized by another group which held on Wednesday, January 16, 2019,” Festus Keyamo, spokesperson of the APC Presidential Campaign Council (PCC), told Nigerians.
Keyamo added that the debate clashed with “the busy and hectic official and campaign schedules of Mr. President”.
No sir, Mr. Keyamo. First is that the date and time for the debate were fixed long ago and the debate was well publicised; it didn’t come up as an emergency. So the issue of a clash does not even arise.
Secondly, the debate was not just one “out of several opportunities” afforded Buhari to interact with the Nigerian people directly; it was the mother of all opportunities. But, typical of them, Buhari and the APC bungled it, the same way Buhari arrogantly avoids interviews with the Nigerian press but speaks with the BBC in Hausa. Come to think of it, what would Buhari tell Nigerians about Boko Haram that he promised to decimate in six months but which is still killing innocent Nigerians almost four years after? What would he tell them about the economy that he promised to revamp but threw into recession, leading to loss of millions of jobs and closure of hundreds of businesses? What would he tell them about his so-called anti-corruption war when his own government is mired in corruption? What would he say about the thousand killed in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, Plateau in many parts of the country by marauding herdsmen? So, it was convenient for him to stay away.
Those who say the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate should have stayed back to debate with the other three candidates on the podium miss the point. As the PDP presidential candidate rightly explained, it was to be “a presidential debate, not a candidacy debate”. A presidential debate without an incumbent president seeking re-election is a child’s play and no presidential candidate worth his or her onion would take part in it.
In any case, let’s not forget that in the American case cited above, the Commission on Presidential Debates stipulated three criteria for eligibility for the presidential debates: constitutional eligibility to serve as president, appearance on enough ballots to potentially reach 270 electoral votes, and an average of at least 15 percent on five selected national polls. Whereas Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein were on enough ballots to reach 270 electoral votes by mid-September of 2016, only Clinton and Trump had reached the 15 percent polling threshold.
The truth is that if the same criteria were applied in the Nigerian case, none of the three candidates on the podium last Sunday would qualify for the presidential debate. And this is not to denigrate the trio of Kingsley Moghalu, Fela Durotoye and Oby Ezekwesili. These are fantastic individuals who may also have fantastic ideas on how to get Nigeria out of the woods, but this is politics where oratorical prowess alone can only earn you rounds of applause, and applause does not win elections; votes do.
So clearly, the debate was going to be between the two major candidates. Sentiments aside, every sincere Nigerian knows that next month’s presidential election is between PDP’s Atiku Abubakar and APC’s Muhammadu Buhari. And so, when Buhari arrogantly absents himself from the debate – a fight, so to speak, in which he is the defending champion – asking Atiku to stay back and debate is the height of insincerity.
*Igiebor is founder, Edo Forum