By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor, Joseph Erunke, Omezia Ajayi and Dirisu Yakubu
•Moghalu, Ezekwesili, Durotoye unfold plans
The two major presidential candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, APC, and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, stayed away from yesterday’s presidential debate organised for five selected candidates to showcase themselves to the electorate.
In their absence, the trio of Oby Ezekwesili of Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN, Fela Durotoye of Alliance for New Nigeria, ANN, and Dr. Kingsley Moghalu of Young Progressive Party, YPP, took the centre stage at the debate organized by the Nigeria Election Debate Group, NEDG, in conjunction with the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, BON.
The debate, moderated by Mark Eddo, was staged at the Congress Hall of the Transcorp Hotel, Abuja.
Atiku, who flew in from the United States, appeared for the debate but stepped aside from the stage on the grounds that Buhari was absent.
*The drama that led to his pulling out of the event started as he was being fitted with microphone preparatory to the debate.
He explained that he could not debate issues arising from Buhari’s policies in his (Buhari) absence.
Speaking as he walked out, Atiku said: “I am walking out because I expected to come and debate with Mr. President. The President has been in office for the past three and a half years. He is not here to defend that record. So who am I going to debate with? If he is on his way, when he comes, I will come back.
“I came back from the US to participate in this debate but the President is not here.”
The Senate President and Director-General of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation, Senator Bukola Saraki, who accompanied Atiku to the TranscorpHilton Hotel venue of the debate, also said:
“We have always made it clear to the organizers that our candidate is ready to debate with the President. When we were told in Washington DC that the debate will take place, we thought the President will be here. Our candidate is ready to debate with the President anytime he is ready”
In a statement he released f after he walked out, the PDP presidential candidate said: “We came here for a presidential debate, not a candidacy debate, and I, Atiku Abubakar, cannot challenge or question an administration where the man at the helm of the affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies. After all, you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence.
“I do not believe in attacking a man who is NOT here to defend himself. As a leader and former vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, let me first apologise to all Nigerians, my fellow candidates and the moderator for the APC Presidential Candidate’s absence in this debate. His non-appearance is a slight on ALL of us and our democracy.
“I, however, challenge President Buhari to choose a date and time for a debate where he will be present and I will be there, hopefully with the other candidates as well.”
‘Why Buhari stayed away’
A high level Presidency source told Sunday Vanguard, last night, that the Buhari Campaign wrote the NEDG on Buhari’s decision to opt out because the arrangement did not suit him.
A statement by Buhari’s Campaign spokesman, Festus Keyamo, explaining the absence of the President, said he had taken up other formats to market himself. It also noted that Buhari’s time was overstretched by the activities of yesterday that saw him commission projects during a campaign visit to Niger State.
“In addition, the busy and hectic official and campaign schedules of Mr. President clashed with this programme. Today (Saturday), Mr. President commissioned the Baro Inland Water Port in Niger State and campaigned in Niger and Plateau States where his time was over-stretched by the tumultuous and mammoth crowds in both states (as seen by Nigerians on live television) and only returned to Abuja late this evening”, the statement said.
The claims of the two men, nonetheless, the three candidates present at the debate took turns to lampoon Buhari and Atiku over their absence.
Ezekwesili said she was not surprised by their absence, noting that they, by their action, had announced their exit from the leadership contest. She said that if they cared about Nigeria, they would have come for a contest of ideas related to how Nigeria could be saved.
Durotoye, on his part, labelled the absence of the two men as a matter of pride, saying that pride comes before a fall.
Moghalu said the two men did not come because they did not have answers to the questions troubling the country.
“They cannot answer the intricate questions of the economy or even security on which they rode to power”, the YPP candidate said.
“They are not here because of arrogance. They believe we cannot without you. They believe we are trapped. They are not here because they cannot answer the questions.
“One of them is a kettle and the other is a pot and they call themselves black.”
The three candidates subsequently took questions on insecurity with Moghalu tracing the continuing insurgency in Nigeria to corruption, saying that instead of Nigeria degrading Boko Haram, the Islamist group had degraded the Nigerian military.
He pointed out that Nigeria was the poverty capital of the world, and added that the North-East was the poverty capital of the country as he vowed to squarely tackle the problem of poverty in the region.
Durotoye, on his part vowed to harness intelligence to address the problem of insecurity in the country and through it beef up the capacity of the military.
Ezekwesili said she would make the military and indeed Nigerians know that “there is a new sheriff in town” and at the same time bring a new approach by sending special forces after insurgents.
The three candidates spoke extensively on the economy.
On diversification, Durotoye pledged to focus on agriculture, housing and road construction which, according to him the three most important sectors.
“We will ensure we fix power, roads and provide housing for our people and that should create 30 million jobs for our people”, he said.
Ezekwesili said she would lift no fewer than 80 million Nigerians out of poverty.
“Nigeria, our country, is in dire need to be rescued urgently. According to Chinua Achebe, the problem of Nigeria is massive failure of leadership”, she said.
“When people are more productive, they earn more, when they earn more, they lift themselves out of poverty. Our plan is to lift at least 80 million Nigerians out of poverty”, she said.
“I bring with me, a track record of service. I have the capacity, the competence and the character to take this country to where it deserves.
“We have no business being the world capital of poverty. Our politics have become politics by the politicians, of the politicians and for the politicians”, she added.
Besides questions posed by the moderator, the candidates responded to online questions asked by comedienne, Emmanuela, a former Big Brother Nigeria housemate, Bisola Aiyeole, among others.