The essence of pres­i­den­tial de­bates

Sunday Trust - - COMMENT & DEBATE - By An­thony Aki­nola Aki­nola is the au­thor of Party Coali­tions in Nige­ria, among other books

Even with the ma­jor­ity of Nige­ri­ans not hav­ing ac­cess to tele­vi­sion and elec­tric­ity, the cul­ture of tele­vised pres­i­den­tial de­bates has crept in and should be warmly em­braced. The very essence of such de­bates is to iden­tify a can­di­date with the com­pe­tence and san­ity to pro­ject and de­fend na­tional in­ter­est. Na­tional in­ter­est, sim­ply de­fined, is the very rea­son why a na­tion ex­ists. It is about the pres­tige of such na­tion and the well-be­ing of its peo­ple. It is be­cause of na­tional in­ter­est that a na­tion goes to war, and it is also be­cause of the same na­tional in­ter­est that a na­tion with­draws from a war it can­not win. While the rights of the in­di­vid­ual are sacro­sanct, such rights can only be up­held when they do not con­front the very essence of the state. In a democ­racy, a na­tion goes through a va­ri­ety of po­lit­i­cal rit­u­als to iden­tify, pe­ri­od­i­cally, a can­di­date with the right cre­den­tials to up­hold its in­tegrity, and one of such rit­u­als is to en­gage com­pet­ing can­di­dates in de­bates or some kind of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­views that would cul­mi­nate in an elec­tion. The cul­ture of or­gan­ised pres­i­den­tial de­bates em­anated from the United States of Amer­ica and is one of the many cul­tures we have copied from that great na­tion.

That in­ter­est­ing tele­vised de­bate of the pre-2011 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in­volv­ing Mj. Gen. Muham­madu Buhari of the then Congress for Pro­gres­sive Change (CPC), Malam Nuhu Ribadu of the then Ac­tion Congress of Nige­ria (ACN) and Malam Ibrahim Sheka­rau of the then All Nige­ria Peo­ples Party (ANPP), sug­gested it was one cul­ture that was grad­u­ally tak­ing root in our so­ci­ety. The then in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent, Good­luck Jonathan, of the Peo­ples Demo­cratic Party (PDP), seek­ing to be elected into the po­si­tion he oc­cu­pied hav­ing suc­ceeded Pres­i­dent Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who died in of­fice, did not par­tic­i­pate in the de­bate or­gan­ised by NN24. It will be re­vealed later in this ar­ti­cle that such ab­sence was not un­usual, as it hap­pens even in the US.

It may in­ter­est stu­dents of po­lit­i­cal his­tory to know that 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”. It was an un­mod­er­ated de­bate and what was then at stake was a sen­a­to­rial seat in the State of Illi­nois. Abra­ham Lin­coln lost that elec­tion, but a his­tory in po­lit­i­cal de­bat­ing had al­ready been made.

Abra­ham Lin­coln would later win the pres­i­dency in 1860, in an elec­tion which fea­tured no po­lit­i­cal de­bates. In fact, there were no de­bates be­tween pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates un­til 1952 when the League of Women Vot­ers or­gan­ised de­bates be­tween pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. The cul­ture of tele­vised de­bate would later be­come for­malised with the tele­vised de­bate be­tween John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The hand­some and more charis­matic John Kennedy won the tele­vised de­bate while an ear­lier ra­dio de­bate had been won by Nixon. Mr. Nixon was said to have ap­peared rather “shifty” on tele­vi­sion, sug­gest­ing he could hardly be trusted, and that con­trib­uted to his loss of the elec­tion.

If tele­vised de­bates could prove the down­fall of a can­di­date who oth­er­wise could have won in an elec­tion, why bother to par­tic­i­pate in them? Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son re­fused to de­bate with Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter in 1964; he was lead­ing in the polls, and pub­lic speak­ing was not his forte. Sim­i­larly, in 1968, Richard Nixon who again con­tested the pres­i­dency with Sen. Ge­orge McGovern, re­fused to de­bate. Nixon was the front run­ner in the opin­ion polls and his non-par­tic­i­pa­tion in a tele­vised de­bate might have been in­formed by his ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ence with John Kennedy in 1960.

Just as Sen. John McCain was about to do in one of his 2008 pres­i­den­tial de­bates with Barack Obama, say­ing he was at­tend­ing to ur­gent leg­isla­tive mat­ters in congress, Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter in 198O re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate be­cause it in­cluded in­de­pen­dent can­di­date, John Anderson.

Carter, how­ever, at­tended sub­se­quent de­bates and that mem­o­rable ques­tion by Ron­ald Rea­gan did him great dam­age: “Are Amer­i­cans bet­ter off to­day than they were four years ago?” The state of the econ­omy and the Amer­i­can hostage cri­sis in Iran sug­gested it was the right ques­tion that would nail the cof­fin of the Carter am­bi­tion.

The of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion for the ab­sence of Good­luck Jonathan at the de­bate or­gan­ised by NN24 in 2011 was that he had com­mit­ted him­self to an en­gage­ment in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of other na­tions. It was as if the pres­i­den­tial de­bate was nei­ther im­por­tant enough nor pre-ar­ranged. With the ills as­so­ci­ated with his po­lit­i­cal party - the PDP then - the sug­ges­tion that Good­luck Jonathan might have “chick­ened out” could not have been far-fetched.

Of course, lack of con­fi­dence in pub­lic speak­ing could be a rea­son one might not want to de­bate with a ri­val or op­po­nent.

One did watch a record­ing of the 2011 de­bate or­gan­ised by NN24 along with some Nige­rian friends with­out hear­ing from some­one, “You can see that the man is talk­ing sense” each time the can­di­date of his choice took the stage. Peo­ple seemed not to see any sense in what other pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates were say­ing! This lack of ob­jec­tiv­ity on the part of our peo­ple sug­gests that the real value in the Nige­rian pres­i­den­tial de­bate still be­longs to the dis­tant fu­ture.

The essence of a pres­i­den­tial de­bate would be fully ap­pre­ci­ated in a so­ci­ety where the peo­ple see it as an op­por­tu­nity to eval­u­ate the poli­cies, pre­pared­ness and de­meanour of those who seek to gov­ern them.

It must, how­ever, also be warned that a can­di­date of great po­ten­tials may not be the best of de­baters. In fact, crooks or con­men are not un­known for their great elo­quence and charisma.

In the US where tele­vised pres­i­den­tial de­bates have been around since 1960, or in Great Bri­tain (GB) where de­bates be­tween po­ten­tial prime min­is­ters took off for the first time in 2010, the out­come of elec­tions tends to be de­cided by those al­luded to as “float­ing vot­ers”. Float­ing or un­de­cided vot­ers, as op­posed to par­ti­san vot­ers, seek to be con­vinced about why their votes should be cast for those who so­licit them. They are nei­ther friv­o­lous nor emo­tional in their vot­ing de­ci­sions. This is more so in the US where the out­come of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion could be dra­mat­i­cally in­flu­enced by an event on vot­ing day. The one por­trayed as a front run­ner could sud­denly find him­self or her­self strug­gling to catch up in the opin­ion polls! We are not there yet!

Our con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal be­hav­iour is largely in­formed by big­otry and pri­mor­dial sen­ti­ments. It will take many years of po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion and im­prove­ments in the eco­nomic well-be­ing of our peo­ple to over­come eth­nic or re­li­gious big­otry. There is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly Nige­rian in what one is say­ing here be­cause over­com­ing big­otry has been a his­tor­i­cal strug­gle even in the US. There was a time when a Barack Obama would not even re­veal a dream that he was walk­ing near the lawns of the White House. Such a dream might have been in­ter­preted as that of a black per­son fore­see­ing that he was about to be lynched!

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