MILLIONS of Nigerians were sorely disappointed by the refusal of the candidates of the two major political parties – President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, APC and former Vice-President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, to participate in the presidential debate organised for specially handpicked candidates by the Nigerian Election Debate Group, NEDG and the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, BON, on Saturday, January 19, 2019.
While Buhari claimed he was too busy to attend, Atiku cut short his tour of the US and attended only to boycott the exercise when Buhari did not show up. Only Prof. Kingsley Moghalu, Mr. Fela Durotoye and Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili represented their respective political parties at the event which took place at the Congress Hall of the Abuja Hilton.
The non-attendance of the major candidates was the continuation of a trend that has become the hallmark of our electioneering since the return of democracy in 1999. In 1999, former President Olusegun Obasanjo failed to show up. Also, in 2011, former President Goodluck Jonathan did not participate; and in 2015, it was Buhari’s turn to opt out. Incidentally, all the debate dodgers went on to win the presidential elections.
Debate-dodging has become a queer show of “prestige.” But many Nigerians, especially the social media-savvy youth, felt slighted that our today’s aspiring leaders disregarded their feelings 25 years after presidential candidates, Bashorun Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, SDP and Alhaji Othman Tofa of the National Republican Convention, NRC, had held the nation spellbound in a debate that remains memorable to those who watched it.
Some analysts have pointed out that debates do not win elections. But this argument misses the point completely. All over the world, debates have become not only means of assessing the intellectual and ideological depths of candidates, they also offer open forums for candidates to explain their agendas to the public and answer questions from the audience, which is not possible at the usually noisy open air soapbox rallies. They also offer the opportunity for the candidates to challenge one another on their action plans.
Debates have become conventional parts of the electioneering process all over the democratic world. Those who make light of its importance are not true democrats.
We support those who insist that the presidential debate dodgers – Buhari and Atiku – should still be given another opportunity to face each other in a final debate and let Nigerians be the judge.
The National Assembly and the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, should consider the possibility of including debates for presidential and governorship candidates and their deputies in our laws as part of compulsory activities prior to elections.
Nigerians deserve to meet their candidates before choosing who to vote for.