Written by Emmanuel Ogbeche

Presidential debate brouhaha

Even with the vast majority of Nigerians not having access to television and electricity, the culture of televised presidential debate has crept into our political culture. It is one of the many cultures we have copied from the United States of America which our presidential system is modelled after. 

Historians generally agree that televised appearance has a profound effect upon the result of any election. Since then, the importance of debates continues to grow. For many, these debates are what they rely upon to decide which candidate will receive their votes. 

Retrospectively, the first ever debate in the USA between rivals for elective political office can be traced to 1857 when Abraham Lincoln insisted on having a debate with Stephen Douglas on “the virtue of the republic and the evil of slavery”.

Ironically, Lincoln lost that election but a history in political debating had already been established. 

In 1960, the culture of televised debate became formalised with the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The handsome and more charismatic Kennedy won the televised debate, while an earlier radio debate was won by Nixon. Nixon was said to have appeared rather “shifty” on television and that contributed to his loss of the election. 

On home turf, the highpoint of Nigeria’s experience with presidential debates and the last time Nigerians enjoyed something really close to an exciting debate was during the 1993 presidential elections.

It was a memorable encounter between the late Chief MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, NRC.

At the end of that debate, it was clear who among the duo was better experienced, much more intellectually capable and more endearing to the electorate in terms of readiness for the job being applied for. That is what a debate, is capable of achieving. 

Regrettably, there won’t be a reenactment of the 1993 feeling. Since 1999, voters have been denied this opportunity for comparison, assessment, interaction, excitement and drama that comes with a debate of any sort. 

In 1999, for instance, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo refused to engage his counterpart, Chief Olu Falae of the Alliance for Democracy, AD in a presidential debate.

Again, in 2007, the candidate of the PDP, Alhj. Musa Yar'Adu did not engage his opponents in the presidential debate. In 2007, the then sitting president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan also avoided the presidential debate, while in 2015, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Muhammadu Buhari shunned the presidential debate organised by the Nigerian Election Debate Group, NEDG.

As in 2015, indications are that President Buhari will not participate in 2019 presidential debate if he emerges as the APC candidate. 

Ironically, and very intriguing too, those presidential candidates who refused to participate in the presidential debates won the elections from 1999 to 2015. 

In Nigeria, many are still of the opinion that presidential debates are mere rhetoric and sophistry and should not be the basis for voting a particular candidate into such high office.

Despite this position, there are those who argue that the nation's democracy and governance will be better enriched when voters have the opportunity to make the needed distinction in the offerings of those who apply to govern them.   

No doubt, presidential debates are a vital part of the democratic process because it will go a long way in assisting the public to make informed choices about those who want their votes. It is like attending a job interview, which will provide the prospective employer with an opportunity to assess individual candidates.   

It is one of the singular opportunities to discuss the economy, security, education and other sundry issues confronting Nigeria and Nigerians. The outcome of such polemic issues will definitely compel the media to hold whoever emerged as president accountable for his actions or inactions. 

It is therefore expected that the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, make political debates compulsory as part of the electioneering process in the interest of the electorate.

Even if there is no established law that compels a candidate to participate in a debate, every candidate should see it as a responsibility to talk to Nigerians.   

Nigerians on their part must insist that whoever wants to lead them must be ready to debate with one another. We don’t need accidental leaders and unprepared presidents anymore because debate affords candidates to sell themselves to the voters. 

It is therefore the opinion of this paper that any candidate that runs away from the debate has failed from the beginning. Nigerians deserve to be given the opportunity to hear directly from those who seek their mandate to occupy the highest office in the land.






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