Who is afraid of a po­lit­i­cal de­bate?

Sunday Trust - - SPORT -

The pres­i­den­tial de­bate for the 2019 elec­tions will be held on Jan­uary 19, one month be­fore the event on Fe­bru­ary 16. The Nige­ria Elec­tions De­bate Group (NEDG), which con­venes and hosts de­bates for pres­i­den­tial, vice-pres­i­den­tial and gov­er­nor­ship elec­tions, is a non-par­ti­san coali­tion of pro­fes­sional, broad­cast and civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions groups com­mit­ted to deep­en­ing democ­racy in the coun­try.

The group has un­der­taken this task since 1999, with grudg­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion by the can­di­dates. It reaf­firmed last week that its sole in­ter­est is the en­trench­ing of a demo­cratic cul­ture through these de­bates.

The first in the cur­rent se­ries, for vi­cepres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, will be held in two weeks, on De­cem­ber 14.

Sev­eral par­ties im­me­di­ately in­di­cated their readi­ness to par­tic­i­pate. But not one: the rul­ing All Pro­gres­sives Congress (APC), which had two months ago strangely in­di­cated it would send the Vice-Pres­i­dent, Yemi Os­in­bajo, to de­bate for Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari, say­ing the pres­i­dent “has noth­ing to de­bate with any­one.”

In a con­tri­bu­tion at the time, I com­mented on the ab­sur­dity of Mr. Os­in­bajo fill­ing in for his prin­ci­pal, a prece­dent that, down the road, is cer­tain to yield a Min­istry of­fi­cial fill­ing in for the Vice-Pres­i­dent or even a for­eign or­a­tor fill­ing in for a gover­nor.

Nonethe­less, the APC an­nounce­ment last Septem­ber and the state­ment by the pres­i­dency last week that a “de­ci­sion” is to be made about Buhari’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, are dis­turb­ing. They arise ei­ther from the mis­taken or mis­chievous be­lief that the de­bate is a favour to the or­ga­niz­ers or the elec­torate, or fear that Buhari may per­form atro­ciously.

“By the time we know how the de­bate is be­ing or­gan­ised and the rules of the de­bate, then we will let Nige­ri­ans know whether we will de­bate or not,” said the spokesman of the Buhari Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paign Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Fes­tus Keyamo.

De­bates for po­lit­i­cal of­fice are sim­ply cam­paign op­por­tu­ni­ties, and have be­come stan­dard all over the world. Only two con­di­tions pre­vent a can­di­date for a top of­fice from fail­ing to take ad­van­tage of them: ar­ro­gance or ig­no­rance.

To spurn an op­por­tu­nity-the only op­por­tu­nity to be seen and heard through­out the net­works of the Broad­cast­ing Or­ga­ni­za­tions of Nige­ria and mo­bile and so­cial me­dia plat­forms such as YouTube, Face­book, Twit­ter and In­sta­gram, spilling over into What­sApp and other video and text ser­vices-is to mis­un­der­stand and dis­re­spect the demo­cratic prin­ci­ple and the voter. Worse still it is to sug­gest that you rely on some­thing other than your ap­peal at the bal­lot box to win power.

For Nige­ria, three things are now pos­si­ble. The first is that Buhari does not show up. That would lead to a de­bate in which con­tes­tants for his job will have a field day pre­sent­ing and mis­rep­re­sent­ing him to the Nige­rian peo­ple and the world. It would be a griev­ous act of po­lit­i­cal cow­ardice bor­der­ing on sui­cide.

The sec­ond is that he con­trives to throw Vice-Pres­i­dent Os­in­bajo into fire. Mr. Os­in­bajo is an ed­u­cated man and an ex­pe­ri­enced lawyer, but a de­bate podium in which he will be hold­ing fort for his prin­ci­pal, be­gin­ning with try­ing to jus­tify his very ab­sence and hav­ing to speak in am­bigu­ous pro­nouns, would not be a com­fort­able place to be.

In ad­di­tion, an elec­tion de­bate is no court room, par­tic­u­larly when he must de­fend and ad­vo­cate above his pay grade, in­clud­ing in poli­cies and pre­pos­ses­sions he clearly nei­ther un­der­stands nor shares, and on be­half of a man who is con­tent to watch him squirm on live tele­vi­sion while teth­ered to the re­mote con­trol at home.

The third sce­nario is that Buhari does as he should, and par­tic­i­pates. That is the path of hon­our and would be a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the cause of Nige­ria’s jour­ney as a democ­racy.

I hope Buhari sees the wis­dom of get­ting on to that podium even-and par­tic­u­larly-if his party doubts him, be­cause the prin­ci­pal loy­alty of a pres­i­dent is to his coun­try. In the eyes of his­tory, that podium would be the safest place to be on the evening of Jan­uary 19 than any­where else, es­pe­cially if he even­tu­ally loses the elec­tion.

Buhari’s cam­paign has ex­pressed worry about the for­mat and rules of the de­bate. The ba­sic ap­proach to these events is the same, which en­ables a com­mit­ted can­di­date to pre­pare ad­e­quately. It is that within a prea­greed time-frame, the can­di­dates answer ques­tions from the host or a de­bate panel-and some­times the au­di­ence and even view­ers or lis­ten­ers-on man­i­festoes, world­view, char­ac­ter, track record and suit­abil­ity for of­fice. Within the ebb and flow of the event, the can­di­dates take pot­shots at each other, with the le­git­i­mate aim of punc­tur­ing holes in op­pos­ing can­di­da­tures and boost­ing their own.

That gen­eral for­mat is to be ex­pected by ev­ery can­di­date, and there is noth­ing to dis­suade any­one from par­tic­i­pat­ing with the in­ten­tion of seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to pro­mote his or her can­di­da­ture.

It is to be ex­pected that the NEDG-not the gov­ern­ment and cer­tainly not the pres­i­den­cy­will de­ter­mine the struc­ture and rules of the de­bate, and at­tempt to be fair to all can­di­dates, with no fa­vors be­ing done to any. This is stan­dard prac­tice.

“Among oth­ers, the de­bates will focus on the is­sues that mat­ter most to work­ing fam­i­lies; restor­ing our econ­omy, pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity, cre­at­ing jobs, se­cur­ing health care for ev­ery Nige­rian, mak­ing and achiev­ing ex­cel­lence in ev­ery Nige­rian school and en­sur­ing safety and se­cu­rity for Nige­ri­ans,” NEDG chair­man John Mo­moh said last week.

Mo­moh also pointed out that Nige­ri­ans would ex­pect the lead­ers of all po­lit­i­cal par­ties to be chal­lenged in a very pub­lic and ro­bust way in the de­bates, and that is as it should be.

“Our na­tion is strong­est when our elected lead­ers are trans­par­ent, ac­ces­si­ble and ac­count­able to its cit­i­zens, ex­plain­ing their de­ci­sions and an­swer­ing tough ques­tions,” he said. “This stan­dard of open­ness must start long be­fore elec­tion day.”

He is right. But the for­mat also favours the in­cum­bent. For a can­di­date who has had four years un­der the bright lights of pres­i­den­tial power and priv­i­lege, it is a golden op­por­tu­nity to ask of the elec­torate not so much an elec­tion but a val­i­da­tion: an en­dorse­ment or tenure­ex­ten­sion. It is an op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate how the past four years have been spent ful­fill­ing prom­ises in the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the 2015 man­i­festo. No other can­di­date on the podium will have that weapon.

For Buhari, this means he can ar­gue he has led by ex­am­ple; has en­forced change from the evil ways of his pre­de­ces­sor; has de­feated Boko Haram (not tech­ni­cally or largely, but com­pletely); has con­quered cor­rup­tion (not tech­ni­cally or largely or in the PDP or among his en­e­mies, but demon­stra­bly); that the Nige­rian econ­omy has re­gained vi­brancy, with elec­tric­ity and jobs ev­ery­where; or that health­care is now avail­able and af­ford­able and no­body has to travel to Lon­don to live or to die.

It is also an op­por­tu­nity for him to in­flict stab wounds on the man­i­festoes of his op­po­nents and their opin­ions of him on the big­gest stage with two wins at stake: his job, and pro­tec­tion of Nige­ria.

I imag­ine that the Com­man­der-in-Chief and for­mer army gen­eral would see that as an easy bat­tle­field. • son­[email protected] • @Son­alaOlumhense

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