It is a common practice amongst social scientists and political philosophers that occupy themselves with the thought of how best to manage or improve their country and world to seek and study model places that they can use as example to embody their ideas and to convince those that should care about what to aspire to become. Nowhere is perfect, hence, models are hard to find. Thinkers are therefore forced to find their models in three ways: mostly by digging into the past, sometimes by cutting and pasting pieces from various states or even by inventing their own imaginary states.
History and political literature is full of such examples. Three of my favourites come from Niccolo Machiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas More. Whilst Machiaveli is known mostly for his short digest “The Prince”, most scholars agree that his most scientific and significant work is actually “Discourses on Livy” in which he used the ancient Rome as an example of what a republic should be. Rousseau in his classic “The Social Contract” used Geneva as a model city where men were free. Sir More invented his own Utopia to illustrate a perfect society.
As we look at the problems facing Nigeria and try to find best international practices and ideal types of solutions to offer to those in charge of affairs, one of the most recurrent comments one hears is “this is Nigeria, that idea cannot work here!” Those who make such comments base it on two main elements: their knowledge of Nigeria because they live there (or their being on ground as they say in the Nigerian parlance) and the so-called peculiarity of Nigeria.
The televised gubernatorial debate that took place in Lagos last week has forcefully placed Lagos state on a level that requires some considerations. In a year littered with uncertainty and doubts that things can really change for the better, one of the many things the event showed us is that a decent debate can be conducted in Nigeria and that if well-managed Nigerian politicians too can follow simple rules.
Lest we forget, having public debates constitutes both a symbolic and practical fundamental parts of any election because it is the only chance where voters get to place candidates and their ideas side by side in order to make an informed choice. Debates are also a symbolic democratic ritual that shows candidates have respect for and are accountable to voters. Generally, incumbents and those ahead in the polls try to avoid debates because it opens them to proper assessments and cross-examinations. On the other hand, contestants and those behind in the polls, tend to clamour for debates because that gives them the opportunity to reach audiences they might not ordinarily reach and above all to highlight the weakness of their rivals.
Elsewhere, the law or tradition, public pressure and a certain level of civic sense tend to force reluctant candidates to debates. In a country like Nigeria, where all these are not clearly and automatically in place, one needs to give kudos to the Lagos state governor for accepting to fully participate with his rivals. Lagos is quite a lucky state none of the candidates on the podium came across as a thug, dullard or a freak and although a few untruths were proffered, they all deserve our applause for behaving with dignity and trying their best to appear competent.
Beyond what divides or attracts us in each candidate that was on that podium, the debate also showed all of us that political confrontations should and can take place without bitterness or violence in Nigeria. During that public debate, those politicians did not fight each other so there is no reason for citizens and voters to fight each other. Each politician spoke with respect to voters and humbly put himself forward to be elected for the post of governor. That is the way things ought to be, that is the essence of democracy. Voters too should stick to that model and for no reason should they think or behave as if they are the ones that should be serving politicians, that of course does not mean they should be rude.
As expected, that debate has generated a lot of interest and attention from people across the globe, even after the TV programmes thousands of peoples are still following it on the internet via YouTube and other similar forums. Whilst more can certainly be done to better inform citizens, voters in Lagos now have a better idea of who their candidates are and what they have to offer. They know what to expect if any of the candidates win and people can prepare themselves for such eventuality. This is important for organised groups such as businesses and even other and rational communities such as schools and religious denomination that need to plan and project.
In 2011, all Nigerians of goodwill with honest and upright intentions, regardless of their political affiliations or the candidate they support should seek the Lagos model and clamour for public debates with incumbents fully involved. It will be a chance for those who are not sure of whom to vote to make up their minds. Those who are sure of their candidates will get to show other voters their strength. We all as citizens will get the chance to be respected and considered by our politicians.