Nigeria’s governance culture

By Tonnie Iredia

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)on September 28, 2022, formally gave an approval signal to all political parties and their candidates to embark on electioneering campaigns for the 2023 general elections. We are now in the seventh week of campaigns, but most political parties are yet to make any impact in explaining their manifestos to the public.

The mundane scheme of renting a crowd for rallies is what appears to be occupying the attention of our politicians. Painfully, messages delivered at rallies and processions are characterized by merrymaking, acrobatic displays and political violence making it difficult for people to easily assimilate whatever is said at such venues. While the abolition of rallies may not be directly advocated because they too produce unique results,rallies should not be used to discard other strategies particularly debates and public enlightenment.

All candidates must spend ample time to explain their manifestos for voters to easily identify who can best represent them. Although there have been interactive sessions with some interest groups, political broadcasts through radio and television that are designed to breakdown the promises of the candidates to the understanding of all and sundry using mass media organs ought to be prioritized in line with current global realities.

The preference for rallies is not surprising though because as history tells us,many candidates seeking to be electedinto political offices are either personally unfit or have no viable programmes to present to the public. Understandably therefore, it is getting clearer that debates which are the most potent of all political broadcasts may not hold in Nigeria this year.

Instead, our political parties are more comfortable with simple straight party talks which are never interrogated. This is because Nigerian politicians detest debates which clearly bring out visionary and knowledge-driven candidates. It has been so since 1999, as one candidate or the other gives some flimsy excuses for declining to participate. For example, the nation waited in vain for the candidate of the then ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 to participate in organized Presidential debates.

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 undertook a one-man debate in his preferred platform. In 2019, the candidates of the two major partiesincluding the incumbent president did not show up.

Already, the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, organizers of this year’s debates have cancelled the event. The group in an official statement said it took the decision after “a critical assessment of events surrounding recent engagements with the presidential candidates as well as subsequent statements from political parties.” The APC had indicated during the week that its flagbearer, Bola Ahmed Tinubu might not honour invitations for debates with other candidates.

In reaction, the Labour Party said its candidate, Peter Obi will no longer show up for debates if his counterparts in the other parties are not forthcoming.Certainly,Nigeria should frown at the continuation of such a retrogressive disposition.We cannot claim to be running the presidential system of government fashioned after the American type and be avoiding political debates which the same American system have shown to be the best way to compare contestants. 

In fact, the United States of America has a long history of political broadcasts; the presidential debate serving as the most popular. 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 debates. The debates are usually broadcast LIVE to the nation on Radio and Television.

As far back as 1960, when Nigeria was only just becoming an independent country, America could boast of exciting presidential debates.  Candidate John F. Kennedy who won the American election of that year, achieved the feat because of what was generally believed to be his superior performance over his rival, Richard Nixon during the debates. Some 62 years later, Nigeria is still unable to guarantee a presidential debate because some of the candidates are anxious to cover-up some deficiencies. 

Of all the parties, the APC appears to be the greatest culprit in this game of dodging debates. This is surprising because from what I knew of Tinubu when I had cause to relate with him while I ran the NTA, he was quite proactive. Why is APC shielding him from the debates? One can only hope that some ‘eye-service’ officials are not as usual doing a disservice to the man.

I recall during the Jonathan years when I ran into a forumwhere his officials, aides etc. spent ample time convincing him to not attend the 2015 debate simply because they believed it would give an opportunity to all other contestants to rudely relate to the then president during a debate.

From my experience as an election observer across jurisdictions, I can testify that each time a candidate is absent from a debate, the conclusion of the audience is that such candidate has something to hide. This is why I call on Tinubu today to listen to the voice of a few of his admirers who support debates and use the opportunity to engage with voters. The story out there that Tinubu intends to ignore his opponents who are said to be wasting their time discussing rumours about him is a puerile route. 

I recommend to the APC candidate and indeed all his fellow presidential contestants that information is power and communication is empowerment. I also call on the PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar to take advantage of the presidential debates to dwell more on his loftypromises such as his plan to strengthen ECOMOG to effectively patrol Nigerian borders andpromptly halt invaders who are the alleged champions of insurgency in Nigeria.

One successful political debate is better than 5 rallies and 5 chats with some interest groups combined. As a result, candidates should displace other engagements for the debate. After all, organizers are expected to find a convenient date for all before fixing it. PDP should desist from send a representative to whatever is called a presidential media forum as it did to the Arise Town hall meeting. And because there would also be a vice presidential forum, the running mate cannot be at all events. In any case, Arise and partners should not have allowed the representation.

In the case of the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, many people appear to easily reason with his new stand of not attending debates where some of his colleagues are absent. But that protocol is only good for an office-holder and not for a candidate. Having used all the events, he attends to underscore his visible competence, it would be self-stabbing for him to shoot down his strength.

It is for this reason that he too needs to revisit his decision to shun any debate. Again, it is expedient to say to all candidates that some of us and our few friends and families will not in this modern age vote for anyone who does not see the importance of persuading and convincing us about his capacity to change Nigeria’s stunted growth.

We dare say that lovers of issue-based campaigns and persuasive manifestos are not as few as is usually imagined in Nigeria. Of course,candidates who will not engage in issue-based campaigns will be the very first suspects wherever there are reports of political violence at rallies or cases of vote buying and rigging of elections.

In all that has been said above in favour of political debates, Nigeria still needs to depart from the obsolete order where party attack-dogs in the name of spokespersons attack their party’s opponents. Debates should no longer be venues for abuses and every form of intemperate language. Rather, everyone must be allowed to explain what he wants to do for the country. It is the failure of Nigerians to insist on decent political debates that has made it impossible over the years for the nation to pick visionary leaders who can implement viable programmes and remove Nigeria from underdevelopment.

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