The Pros and Cons of Political Debates in Nigeria

by Akintokunbo Adejumo
political debate

For the purpose of this short write-up, I have culled several definitions, which are by no means exhaustive, from the Internet.

debate (diˈbeit) noun

 a discussion or argument, especially a formal one in front of an audience. a Parliamentary debate

  1. A discussion, often heated, in which a difference of opinion is expressed:
  2. have an argument about something
  3. the formal presentation of a stated proposition and the opposition to it (usually followed by a vote)
  4. a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers.

What is the main reason for using political debates?

“The main reason for using political debates is that these are built around conflict. In other words, following the definition at the beginning of this section, if one of the participants achieves its goals, the others do not”. (Wikipaedia)

This write-up is actually composed of the opinions, views, and expressions on the WhatsApp platform of the Champions For Nigeria, to which I also belong, on the ongoing arguments surrounding the stand of some of our political contenders for high office of the Presidency of Nigeria, to take part or not, in Presidential (and also gubernatorial) Debates before the 2023 Elections. It is not necessary to name the contributors in full, but their first names will suffice.

Now the discourse from some Nigerians:

Harrison: Debates in my country is different from what it is elsewhere like the US. Out here, it’s fraught with all kinds of booby traps for specific candidates. When a TV station is overtly biased against a party and or it’s candidate, you don’t expect fairness from such a station.

Once there’s a trust deficit, a candidate would be dumb to partake in any debate organized by that station.

Paul: I don’t understand or rather let me slightly disagree with your perspective, Sir. Debates are very important especially considering events of the last 8 years or thereabouts, aside they are opportunities for voters to see the candidates on the same stage and hear their answers to the same set of questions, or at the very least discuss the same topics. One explanation for why we are seeing some candidates avoiding debates these days, or trying to schedule fewer of them, has to do with their perception of the risk of fumbling.

All these reports purportedly accusing organizations that sponsor debates as being biased should be totally rejected.

By deliberately or intentionally avoiding debates, we are being denied the opportunity of further scrutinizing the various candidates real time who are mostly excellent in dishing out scripted campaign messages.

Gbolahan: If there is no law forcing candidates to debate, the candidates who perceive the debate as advantageous should continue to participate. TV/Radio Stations that are less than professional should check themselves. It never helps. Even in Western nations, this happens. A democratic candidate in the US will refuse a Fox News debate.

The last time I checked, debates had never affected voting patterns in Nigeria since Independence. It probably will in the future. It is an illusion for anyone to believe that majority of voting Nigerians listen to the debates.

The educated class that does, sadly, are not seriously influenced by it too. The majority have made decisions or will make decisions based on their biases. They are mostly decided. Without any evidence, I feel confident to assert that even if we hold debates every week from now until the elections, it will not be the decider of voting patterns.

Even in big democracies like the US and UK, debates never win elections. India, the biggest democracy, never even promotes debates; they promote campaigns. Campaigns and scandals win and lose elections.

I am all for debates. I love them. I agree with the value. My main point is that we often exaggerate the importance of these things because we believe in them. These debates are in English. Our people do not speak English even though we claim they do. The candidates are not multilingual, so each with his mother tongue. It is complex and complicated.

I hope in the future, our democracy will grow to the point that debates will begin to matter. In my understanding today, they certainly don’t.

Candidates seriously don’t have a fear of debates. Obasanjo ignored Falae on NTA. Falae debated by himself, and he was eloquent; yet he lost. The Yorubas mainly voted for him. It didn’t help. He lost in all other regions of Nigeria.

Yar’adua avoided debate. He was abroad treating himself. Obasanjo was campaigning for him. He did not participate in a single discussion, yet he won. Jonathan is a PhD holder. English or public speaking should not be his fear. He refused to debate. He won.

Both Buhari and Jonathan avoided debate in 2015. Buhari won.

In 2019, we had a debate between Buhari and Atiku, that was not great. Buhari won.

If all the educated people listen to Atiku, Obi, Tinubu and Kwankwaso and all team up to vote for one of the four, they would constitute a minority in today’s Nigeria. Only the candidate that the grassroots and Nigerians with little education vote for will win. I don’t know who that will be.

I firmly believe the value of debates among presidential candidates is a futuristic dream. I will hope and wait for it.

Paul: But permit me to also draw your attention to the fact that a lack of information about elections in democracies such as ours can weaken the accountability of elected politicians and, consequently, decision-making. Hope you agree with me that giving voters access to information through debates between rival candidates can significantly improve their knowledge and increase democratic participation?

Another thing is that the organizers could go a step further by ensuring that the medium of communication is narrowed down to our local languages either by interpreting or mandating participants to do so.

In recent times, Nigerians have been misled or made to vote for criminals unknowingly due to lack of political information about the various candidates which is due to our young democratic structures and poor media penetration. Thus, our people vote for candidates with little knowledge of their policy stances, qualifications, previous performance, or potential remit.

This has to stop if we are to get it right come 2023. Even as you said that debates are not constitutionally binding; but it’s time for us, who are being governed over and, who are always at the receiving end of bad governance to use every avenue to compel the various candidates to talk to us. It should be our right to ask them to do so.

From now till the election proper, we the voters need to continuously have renewed perception about the various candidates due to its moderating effects, and any candidate that attempt to shy away from speaking with the people at any opportunity should have his/her scorecard reduced.

As you also pointed out that most candidates who have emerged winners in previous elections in Nigeria either seldomly participated or were not overwhelming in the debate is something that is peculiar to younger democracies like ours, but the perspective will change this time around. By 2023, we would have had 24yesrs of non-stop democratic experiences which cannot be undermined.

Nigerians are becoming more and more aware and conscious of the facts and information around them thanks to the effect of social media and ICT. They are watching and are not willing to be deceived any longer. If the performance of candidates in debates in older or more advanced democracies influence the outcome of voting patterns and eventual winners, then we should gradually expect same to happen as from 2023.

Prof Ayodeji: The evidence is that debates never really affected election outcomes. BUT THEY SHOULD. However, the one I enjoyed the most was Kingibe vs Ugwu(?) In the SDP NRC DAYS.

Otunba Eric: How many Nigerians, of those that come out to vote, watch these debates?

And how many people are actually swayed by these debates? Debates are usually targeted at undecided voters. For supporters, even if your principal could hardly string two sentences together on the TV debate…you stand solidly behind him.

And for detractors, even if their principal’s opponent produces the most sublime performance, they will still use the few areas of lapses to portray him as unfit for office. The campaign trail is where Nigerian politicians move their supporters.  And anyone who is still undecided can look at the various manifestos and follow the interviews granted by the candidates.

The TV debates is not a decisive factor in Nigerian politics it just provides ammunition for detractors to latch on to and distract from real issues.

Babatoks: The fact is Debates have never decided Elections in Nigeria. Before the 2011 Governorship Election of Oyo State, the NUJ Oyo State branch held a debate for the gubernatorial candidates in Ìbàdàn. I was the Moderator. Ajimobi of ACN declined to attend. Alao-Akala declined. I was one of the delegates that tried to persuade them to attend. They waved it away. Bayo Shittu of Buhari’s party, CPC then, came. Otegbeye of another party came. There were 4 other contenders other parties who came.

Everyone in Oyo State and outside knows it was between Ajimobi and Alao-Akala. And so, it was. The other candidates spoke their hearts out, they were never in contention.

Gbolahan: Paul, everything you wrote supports my views. I was looking for something to disagree with, but I did not find any. I am saying that what you and I want can only happen in the future. We are a young democracy with a massive lack of education. That you and I are educated and can use these debates as yardsticks you talk about to make a wise decision and raise the game’s profile is not in doubt.

What is unfortunately sure is that we are very few who will behave like this. We do not even make up to 10% of the electorates. If we all agree and vote for a single candidate, we are still not a majority. But you also know we would disagree even though we are all educated. As I said previously, we have our biases and other reasons (reasonable or not). We cannot ignore that problem.

You also agreed language is a barrier and made valuable suggestions about interpretation. Again, you must agree it is in the future because, as I wrote, it is complex and complicated. Where I have a problem is when we simplify these severe problems and ignore them. We then merely wish that our desires will materialise. I guess that is what you book people call wishful thinking.

It is the responsibility of electorates to scrutinise candidates in all ramifications – their programmes/manifesto, pedigree, ability to communicate articulately, working in teams and using people with skills and experience, holding firmly to democratic values, among others.

Now while you and I on this platform can do all these wisely and efficiently, can most Nigerians do? Will they?

In the US, Democrats and Republicans will vote massively for their voters. In the UK, the Tories and Labour voters will stand behind their parties and candidates. The so-called undecided voters, as you correctly put it, are often less than 10% in most countries. They are the so-called objective people who want to listen to the candidates in a debate to help them decide.

On this platform, as I type, I make bold to say at least 90% of members ALREADY know who they will vote for among Atiku, Obi, Tinubu and Kwankwaso, if they were to vote today! Many may, for political correctness, argue that the debate would help them decide. I wish this were true, but sadly it is not!

Otunba Eric: Why should debates decide elections though? Are we saying that eloquence and gift of the garb should trump experience, well documented achievements and legacies of previous positions held? Debates have their place but cannot and should not be taken as the Almighty deciding factor. Trump will not appear on any CNN organised debate. Nor would any right thinking Democrat appear on a Fox TV organised debate.

Lawrence: Debates are not compulsory or legally provided for. My take however is that such debates should be organized by perceived neutral bodies or combination of bodies so that participants will all feel safe. None will want to appear before a known partisan enemy. For example, if management of The Nations Newspaper organizes such a debate, will Peter Obi and some others be free or comfortable to come and show their strengths? Let each of them get to the electorates whichever way they deem fit. The baseline is that no law is broken.

One of the presidential candidates has, and rightly so, stated via his press office that since he couldn’t conceivably appear on all TV interviews, rather than to pick and choose, he will not appear on any. Let all the TV and radio stations collaborate and have one big debate platform. But of course, they won’t want to do that since their partisan questions and leaning would need to be toned down.

Abdullahi: Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr. Obama, Trump, and Biden illustrate your point.

You may also like

Leave a Comment