Plans for a television debate this Saturday between the two leading presidential candidates in the country are today rooted in intrigues as handlers of President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar engage in a game of intrigues.
Buhari, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC has yet to commit himself to the debate planned for by the Nigerian Election Debate Group, NEDG, a coalition of government and civil society groups.
Buhari’s campaign spokesman, Mr. Festus Keyamo said yesterday that the decision on a debate has yet to be taken.
“The decision on whether to attend the debate has not been taken and it is a decision that is to be taken by the Presidential Campaign Council, PCC and it is not a decision that I can take,” Keyamo who serves as the director of strategic communications of the Buhari Campaign said.
With Buhari wavering, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP candidate is also shockingly wavering, saying that he would not attend a debate without Buhari.
“We will not come to any debate without Buhari,” a top source in the PDP campaign said yesterday. The source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that it would be a waste of time for Atiku to attend a debate without the incumbent.
“Who are we going to debate with? If not Buhari who are we going to debate with,” the high-level source said.
There are indeed no indications that any of the two candidates are preparing for the debate. While Buhari’s alleged aversion to a debate has been the butt of media speculation in the last few weeks, the apparent decision of Atiku not to commit himself to a debate with or without Buhari is one that is bound to surprise many.
At the vice-presidential debate last December, the APC’s Yemi Osinbajo put up an appearance that has drawn commendation in some circles. He, however, was not expected to do very poorly given his antecedents as a professor and lawyer.
However, with his principal, Buhari generally reputed to be a poor speaker, especially of late, it has been the expectation of the opposition to roast him in a debate.
The expectation of Buhari staying away from a debate has been egged on his poor accessibility to the Nigerian electorate and media. After a rather unpolished interactive media session in his first year in office, the president has stayed away from the periodic interaction with media executives that was taken for granted in the time of all his predecessors.
However, Buhari’s seeming aversion to debate only started four years ago. At the onset of his political career in 2002 he did not mind the keg light. In 2003, 2007 and 2011, he regularly attended the presidential debates even where the incumbent or the main candidate of the ruling party avoided such.
In 2003 when President Olusegun Obasanjo as in 1999 opted out of the debate, Buhari was present. He attended the 2003 debate with seven other candidates including an estranged wife of the then president, Major Mojisola Obasanjo (rtd.) who contested against her husband on the platform of Masses Movement of Nigeria.
In 2007, five of the candidates were invited, but only Buhari, the ANPP flag bearer and Prof. Pat Utomi of the African Democratic Congress, ADC attended.
Attahiru Bafarawa, Democratic Peoples Party, DPP Umaru Yar`adua and Orji Uzor Kalu of the Progressives Peoples Alliance, PPA boycotted the debate were the others invited who, however, boycotted for sundry reasons.
The pairing of Buhari and Utomi was particularly amusing to some as it pitched the professor of economics against the taciturn soldier.
As the debate progressed, it was obvious that Utomi saw deliberate gaffes in Buhari’s articulation to embarrass him, but Utomi pulled back. It is alleged that the courtesy given Buhari by Utomi formed the basis of the political alliance between the two men that, however, turned still born.
In 2011 it was a different kettle of stew as two presidential debates were organised.
Whereas the NEDG had steered the earlier debates, a new television station, NN24 brought itself into the fray when it organised a presidential debate that was attended by Buhari, now flying the ticket of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, Shekarau, the candidate of the ANPP and Mallam Nuhu Ribadu of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN.
President Jonathan who was invited opted out as his handlers said he would attend the debate organised by the NEDG.
Jonathan had earlier given indication of attending the NN24 debate and indeed, presidential body guards had arrived for the event, but at the last minute Jonathan pulled out. After waiting for one hour the debate went on without Jonathan.
The three other major candidates in a joint statement, however, said that they would not honour the NEDG show on the claim that they were dishonoured with the absence of Jonathan at the NN24 debate.
So, while the three of them, Ribadu, Shekarau and Buhari debated themselves, Jonathan stayed away and had a solo show at the NEDG debate.
In 2015 it was Buhari’s turn to stay away. He did not give any reason for his decision to stay away despite entreaties on him by the incumbent. Indeed, Jonathan proved to be the only incumbent president who attended the two NEDG debates organised during his time.
With Buhari gaining the ascendancy ahead of the 2015 election, it was suggested in some quarters that exposing him to a debate could turn into a major gaffe that could expose him.
The consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy capsulated by 19 years of uninterrupted democracy has given vent to some other democracy customs as practised in other lands. One of those virtues is election debate which has turned into a statutory practise in the United States, the country that is the standard measure for presidential democracy in the world.
However, repeated efforts to engrave this into a statutory requirement in Nigeria has until now failed. The most that has been achieved is the ascendancy and acceptance of the NEDG as a body to organise presidential debates.
Against the background of the controversy over the issue, a number of civil society advocates weighed into the matter.
“Any candidate who shuns the debate is actually insulting the electorate. That candidate either has anti-people agenda or is inept and unfit,” Evangelist Elliot Ugochukwu-Uko, secretary of the Eastern Consultative Assembly and a leader of the Igbo Leaders of Thought, ILT said.
Mallam Auwal Ibrahim, executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC said candidates must give priority to attend the debates.
“It is important for any serious candidate to face and respond to questions and issues before the election as this would show more commitment to public expectations and will serve as accountability to Nigerians if he/she gets elected.
“Public debate before the election is an opportunity to allow the general public to know your agenda and how you intend to run your government. It also allows public participation in electoral process.
“You must give priority to attend and participate in an open public debate in person not through proxy. Delegating someone amounts to running away from public accountability. You must speak and be engaged on how you plan to deal with public policy. For me delegating someone at this crucial time is an excuse that should not be taken serious because this is away to track promises and commitment when you are elected.”