By Tonnie Iredia
Since the return of democracy in 1999, Nigerians have always waited in vain for the candidates of the ruling party to participate in a debate. In 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011, the candidates of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) did not show up. The 2011 edition took the format of drama as 3 of the candidates appeared in one debate at one platform while the then President, Goodluck Jonathan later undertook a one-man debate in his preferred platform. It was only in 2015 that the main opposition candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari shunned the debate of the time. Many however did not blame him for his decision considering that much earlier, there were numerous personal attacks on him and his family by certain media outfits that were part of the debate organizers. As a result, no meaningful debate was held in 2015. Only two weeks ago we witnessed the failure of the candidates of the two main political parties to participate in the 2019 edition. While President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressive Congress APC claimed to have had other commitments which made it impossible for him to attend, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP declined to participate because of the absence of Buhari.
The candidates had ample notice for the debate. Indeed, their running mates had theirs more than a month before the main presidential one scheduled for January 19, 2019. On this note, the argument by the APC candidate that he was otherwise engaged is not strong. The PDP candidate who rushed back from as far as the United States on the day of the event appeared ready for the debate but his last minute refusal to participate deprived Nigerians of getting fully educated on his electoral mission. Why do our politicians especially incumbents detest debates? Why are they never willing to employ the powerful medium of television to explain to voters their manifestoes and election promises? What exactly are they hiding? To unravel the inexplicable posture, we call for another debate and appeal to the candidates to attend. It is true that we have seen them at open rallies canvassing for votes, but television debates are no doubt the most effective form of political broadcasts. In the first place, television ably shows how persuasive the speaker is as well as the level of confidence he radiates. In other words, television visibly portrays the competence of a candidate in putting across a diametrically opposed view-point to enable voters use comparison of performance for informed decision making.
While the concept of campaign rallies is not bad, the Nigerian variant hardly educates anybody as our political parties have over the years mastered the use of rallies to deceive voters. A typical Nigeria political rally which may take five to six hours devotes less than 15mns to the message segment. The better part of the rally features dances, acrobatic displays and merriment which add little or nothing to the voters’ understanding of the capability of the candidate to improve the living conditions of society. The message segment is often puerile as the speakers merely repeatedly shout the acronyms of their political parties. This is usually followed by unnecessary denigration of the symbols, emblems and logos of opposing political parties. Thereafter, the speakers become intemperate, dishing out hate speeches and abuses on all others who donot belong to the political party organising the particular rally.
Whereas television debates can enlighten the people, rallies are fast becoming death traps for Nigerians through stampedes. Our politicians have successfully confused many citizens into believing that large crowds at rallies signify popularity and ability to win an election but we all now know that the crowds at Nigerian rallies are rented. My former staff who is now a political scout, claims to disburse huge funds for renting the same people every other day for different political parties. If scarce resources are so squandered to give a false impression of popularity, of what use are political rallies? Perhaps, the development further escalates the commercialization of our election process. It is therefore not irrational to describe the development as the first leg of vote buying which everyone claims to deprecate. If rallies are capital intensive whereas presidential debates, by virtue of the provisions of the Electoral Act, are free, why then do the big parties run away from what is free? Why should we allow such big parties to stop the free flow of ideas among all parties especially those that cannot afford expensive large rallies?
Unfortunately, rather than using a political rally to focus on the challenges of society, politicians at rallies, divert attention to cosmetic and indeed annoying matters. The other day, one speaker at a rally explained that voters should not bring back the political party whose members looted our treasury for 16 years. It was obviously annoying that only a few months back, the speaker in question had been a chieftain of the alleged looting party where he served as governor for the last 8 of the 16 corruption-ridden years. In earnest, the social environment of rallies appears to make the speakers destroy their own parties; otherwise, how else are Nigerians expected to appreciate the fight against corruption if the national chairman of the ruling party says the sins of anyone who joins the government party would be forgiven? When the argument was that Atiku had been barred from visiting the US, everyone clapped for the APC, when Atiku’s eventual visit to the US was publicised, everyone clapped for the PDP. No one appeared to have paused to imagine how the places Atiku or Buhari can go or not go helps the rest of us?
Based on the adage ‘ seeing is believing’ Nigerians want to hear and see on television, not just what a candidate says he would do, we want to hear how he plans to do it. That is what normally happens in the US which has a long history of presidential debate. In that country which Nigerians often look up to and from where we copied the presidential system of government, the practice is that three days are set aside before any presidential election for the candidates contesting the election to engage one another in a series of televised political debates that are usually also relayed on radio. Their own debates are not on mundane issues such as we entertain here. Quite a large number of voters make up their minds on who to vote for only after hearing what each candidate offers. This is why we must urge our political class to follow global realities and desist from taking our nation back to the analogue days while at the same time promising to move us forward.
We still have room for another presidential debate where the candidates should spell out the modalities for implementing their campaign promises. Let’s have it.