By Rotimi Fasan
THE much anticipated presidential debate for the 2019 elections has come and gone. But rather than a bang it ended with a whimper for the simple reason that the two men Nigerians considered the main acts of the debate, incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival, a former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, failed to show up. Or rather more precisely, Buhari pretended (especially in the light of the alibi offered by his party, the All Progressives Congress Party, APC) he had no idea he was slated to debate other presidential hopefuls.
He went about campaigning for a renewal of his occupancy of the presidential lodge as Atiku Abubakar made a cameo appearance, just enough for him to register his brand new ‘American’ presence while offering his apologies for refusing to participate in the debate on account of Buhari’s absence. How Atiku, his minders and their party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, that have been putting a spin on his action, want Nigerians to process his ‘non-appearance’ is a mute point. What is this moment is that when both leading candidates had the opportunity to tell Nigerians in an atmosphere devoid of the airy bragging of campaign promises, they failed woefully.
While Buhari himself has chosen not to say anything concerning his absence from the debate, hiding behind the veneer of his well-known reticence, the paid mouthpieces of his party have not been silent even while their utterances have provided more heat than light. It is a measure of the crass disregard with which Nigerian politicians hold the Nigerian electorate that an incumbent president who is asking for the votes of the people and seeking an extension of his mandate would decline an opportunity to show his score card to his ‘employers’ in the last four years that he has been in office.
When it suits Buhari and his likes, they make much of the power of the electorate to determine their political fate but they also don’t fail to show who actually is in charge when the situation calls for it. By ignoring the demands of many Nigerian (one can’t say most because supporters of the APC candidate are yet to see anything wrong with his ways) to attend the debate, Buhari has once more called the bluff of the ‘5%’ of the voting public that will supposedly never see anything good in his administration.
Where things are otherwise normal, the President would by now be sure that his political fate had been sealed and he could very well kiss his ambition farewell. Nobody thumbs their nose at a savvy electorate that knows their right from their left hand and lives politically to tell the story. But things are never normal in the bubble that is Nigerian politics. It is the very abnormality of our political circumstances that has thrown up two candidates that most Nigerians agree are the freak outgrowth of a poisoned system.
Neither Buhari nor Atiku represents the best Nigeria can offer even in these times of depravity. Yet, nothing that happened should surprise anyone. Most Nigerians knew long before the fact that Buhari would not be part of any debate. Beyond his legendary body language, many of his associates and minders were clear about that. Where doubts existed that the man might yet participate in a debate, such were cleared in the dismal aftermath of the town hall meeting the President, sitting alongside the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, for a one-on-one chat with Kadaria Ahmed.
It was a near disastrous outing, with many miscues, wrong and non-answers to questions, that must have cured presidential minders of any illusion that their man could stand on the firing line of a presidential debate with those Itse Sagay, chair of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, labelled motivational speakers. It was not just a matter of poor articulation. Buhari’s answers to some questions were simply off. He did not appear prepared. He came in self-satisfied to discuss, apparently, nothing more than his pet topic- corruption and important as that is, at a very pedestrian level.
But Sagay, the President’s man, wasn’t shy to take a dig at the debaters, most notably the smooth-talking Fela Durotoye of the Alliance for New Nigeria, ANN. Suddenly the job description of a motivational speaker was made to acquire something of a dubious ring or indeed a fecal stink. For Mr. Sagay, a professor of law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Buhari has nothing to prove by attending a presidential debate. Otherwise he would be lending importance, he seemed to be saying, to the exaggerated worth of his opponents. Buhari’s scorecard, as far as our respected professor is concerned, is an open book for all to see. It is self-evident even as many swear they would rather be certified mad than disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes.
But even if Nigerians must do nothing but accept that Buhari is the messiah, a candidate up for re-election should not balk the opportunity to sell his plans to the public. And this was exactly what both Buhari and Atiku, taking his cue from him, did. Buhari turned a blind eye to events at the debate venue, studiously flying from one campaign ground to another across the country, while Atiku Abubakar turned up at the venue of the debate only to pour scorn on Buhari’s absence. While Buhari thinks nothing of his opponents, including Atiku, and could not be bothered to debate them, Atiku firmly believes only Buhari is worth debating.
In spite of attempts to make one look better than the other, both men are birds of a feather. They are of the same political pedigree: for them only their exaggerated sense of self-regard counts. Their opponents who by their reckoning are nothing more than political climbers are unworthy of attention. But it’s the Nigerian people and not the other presidential candidates that were slighted by the non-appearance of Buhari and Atiku. Omoyele Sowore who groused about his exclusion from the debate may well look back now in self-satisfaction.
All Atiku Abubakar scored with his broadside at Buhari was a cheap point. He is an underdog that wanted the attention of the ‘champion’ politician of the moment. But like Buhari he also sees his opponents of the lesser known parties as underdogs that should not be given the chance to take the shine off his political stature. And so he took a walk from the debate but not before he had offered an apology that was in fact an act of arrogance. Mohammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar are beneficiaries of a political system that does not insist on the best. The day may not, however, be long far off when their kind will be called to account.