The 2011 general election debates may have been over with the ongoing elections across the federation and the citizens’ anticipation of more election results. But the drama and controversies caused over the debate is worth examining especially for future elections and debates. Though the idea of candidates seeking elective positions coming to speak to Nigerians in a debate was mooted some few years back. The concept has been introduced since the return of Nigeria to democracy but it has not been free from controversies. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo declined to participate in a debate during the 1999 and 2003 elections. His successor, the late Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua who was his stooge also did not speak to Nigerians in a debate. The issue of refusal by PDP presidential candidates also raised its head in the build up to the 2011 general elections.
First it was the NN24 presidential and vice-presidential debate organized by a group of media practitioners to allow the aspirants reach the voters. Before the live broadcast, there were reports that the president’s spokesperson, Dr. Doyin Okupe who represented the president at a meeting to discuss the modalities for the debate had insisted on certain terms and conditions for the president, his boss’s participation in the debate. The two major criteria for Dr. Jonathan’s participation according to his spokesperson were that the questions to be asked at the debate must be handed to the president before the debate besides all the 17 other presidential aspirants must be present rather than the major contenders which the NN24 debate organizers had invited to participate in the exercise. These conditions among others led to the disagreement between representatives of the three other presidential candidates who were present at the meeting alongside Dr. Okupe.
Then came the day for the vice-presidential debate by the NN24, the vice-presidential candidate of the PDP, Architect Namadi Sambo did not show up though he later cited the clash of his official duties with the debate as a reason for his absence. Unfortunately, the program was not aired live but was later shown to viewers after the opposition candidates’ allegation of sabotage. With the vice-president’s apologies for not attending the vice-presidential debate, it was expected that the president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan would participate in the presidential debate. The organizers also assured Nigerians that the president would be at the debate but in the usual character of PDP presidential aspirants, the president did not show up. The debate was attended by the presidential candidates of the ACN, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu; that of the CPC, Rtd General Muhammadu Buhari and Governor Ibrahim Shekarau of the ANPP.
Conversely, in Lagos State , there were series of debates organized for Lagosians to hear from the aspirants. These ranged from those of the governorship to the senatorial debates and they were all attended by the different aspirants. But those contesting at the center who was supposed to lay a good example for others to follow were busy ignoring debates. Though the president has a right to attend or not attend presidential debates but not at this point in our national life when Nigerians have become increasingly interested in choosing their leaders. If President Jonathan had rejected the proposal to participate in the NN24 debate based on the tight schedule of his campaign just like president Barack Obama during the August 2008 debate, it would have been understandable but asking for questions before the debate smacks of what is expected of a man of his stature. President Jonathan is not the first presidential candidate to refuse the challenge of other candidates to a debate.
It would be recalled that president Barack Obama and Senator John McCain were the main participants of the 2008 presidential debate despite the fact that there were other candidates such as those from the third party and the independent party and none of them rejected the 2008 U.S debate proposal based on the non-participation of the other candidates besides it has become customary in countries like the U.S.A to engage candidates of major parties in a debate. Since Nigeria is yet to have a commission on presidential debate, any organization that intends to organize a debate should be honored with aspirant’s participation and presence. After all, the conduct of the NN24, What About Us and STV/Rhythm debates were all of international standards. A debate is an opportunity to reach the electorate and one wonders why the president would not jump at it. It is irking to know that President Jonathan agreed to an interview with a singer, D’banj but refused to attend the NN24 debate.
Funnily enough, the president called the candidates he failed to join in previous debates when it was time for the government owned Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON) debate. But unsurprisingly and expectedly, the presidential candidate of CPC, ACN and ANPP did not agree to the NEDG debates with the president. This led to Dr. Jonathan’s one man show at the debate. The other 17 presidential aspirants who president Jonathan insisted must be present were not at the NEDG debate but yet the president went live on air with his monologue. There was no reason for Dr. Jonathan to have come live on air without other aspirants. Guess the president was more comfortable with the NEDG debate because the organizers had no choice than to agree to his terms. Note that the vice-president, Architect Namadi Sambo was also the only man present at the re-run debate for vice presidential candidates by the NEDG. To cap it all, the president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was awarded a certificate of attendance for the only presidential debate he attended and which was organized by a government outfit.
Nigerian electorates are getting wiser by the day and can no longer be taken for granted. Politicians must learn to come forward and speak on issues that matter most to the voters so as to make the right choices. The influence of debates on election results may not yet be obvious but there will come a time when debates will decide a candidate’s victory in elections. Those politicians who refuse to participate in debates may as well forget their ambition of becoming elected. Nigerian electorate will certainly not vote politicians who refuse to lay out their plans for the people in subsequent elections. Definitely, the electoral process in Nigeria will continue to improve.