Abnormal things happen in Nigeria and get justified. Nigerians love to copy what happens in the Western world. Nigerians love to cite examples of events that occur in the Western world. Ironically, most positive things that happen in the West are not allowed to happen in Nigeria by Nigerian leaders
Over the weekend, President Muhammadu Buhari, candidate of the All Progressives Congress, shunned the presidential debate. Former Vice President and candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, got to the venue of the debate in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, saw that Buhari was not in attendance, and left the venue of the debate. Before Buhari avoided the debate, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (in 1999), Dr Goodluck Jonathan (in 2011), and Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)(in 2015) had avoided presidential debates. Flimsy excuses were also given, and some people justified their absence. But analysts viewed their absence as the result of lack of trust in their capacity to express their views.
Interestingly, as far back as 1993, Nigeria had a memorable presidential debate between Chief MKO Abiola, candidate of the Social Democratic Party, and Alhaji Bashir Tofa, candidate of the National Republican Convention. That debate helped many Nigerians to take a decision on whom to vote for. It also made Nigerians feel good that their country was acting like other developed and civilised countries of the world.
Twenty six years after, Nigerian presidential candidates have kept on dodging debates. It makes one wonder if Nigeria’s democracy is progressing or retrogressing. Curiously, those who justify the absence of presidential candidates at debates do not tolerate such at governorship debates. Similarly, those who tolerate presidential candidates with all forms of shortcomings don’t tolerate such shortcomings in their governorship elections. Most Nigerians insist on the best candidates as governors of their states but don’t mind having mediocre candidates at the national level. Ironically, most Nigerians are hoping for the growth and development of Nigeria, in spite of the deficiency of her leaders.
Are debates necessary in the choice of a President? Yes. For those who argue that debates do not prove who will be a good President or not, let us remember that the office of the Nigerian president is both about “doing” and “talking.” The President would be expected to intermittently address the nation, to speak at international events, to grant interviews, to address the media, and to participate in panel discussions. These forums give the President the opportunity to address grey areas, explain thorny issues, state government policies on certain issues, and sell the administration and nation to the internal and external publics, as the case may be.
It was, therefore, not in good taste that Buhari did not attend the debate held last weekend. It showed lack of respect for the Nigerian people. The reason given for his absence even worsened the situation. According to the Director, Strategic Communications for the President Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organisation, Mr Festus Keyamo: “… the busy and hectic official and campaign schedules of Mr. President (sic) clashed with this programme. Today (on Saturday), Mr. President commissioned (sic) the Baro Inland Water Port in Niger State and campaigned in Niger and Plateau states where his time was over-stretched by the tumultuous and mammoth crowds in both states (as seen by Nigerians on live television) and only returned to Abuja late this evening (Saturday evening).”
Speaking at a press conference on Monday in Abuja, the National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Mallam Lanre Isa-Onilu, added another dimension to the issue by saying that asking Buhari to participate in a debate with Atiku and other presidential candidates was an insult.
Onilu’s words: “The President doesn’t have to give any reason at all for not attending that debate. The debate is just one of the several platforms that are available for our candidate to engage with the public; we cannot exhaust all the platforms.
“So, we pick the platforms that are most impactful and we are the ones in the position to determine, which platform we want to use. Debate with who? That is an insult, that the President will come (and) debate with who?’’
Onilu said Buhari considered the engagement he had on that day (inauguration of projects) more important and rewarding.
Before leaving the venue of the debate, Atiku had said: “I am walking out because I expected to come and debate with Mr. President. The President has been in office for the past three and a half years. He is not here to defend that record. So, who am I going to debate with? If he is on his way, when he comes, I will come back. I came back from the US to participate in this debate but the President is not here.”
He soon followed that with a press statement which read inter alia: “We came here for a presidential debate, not a candidacy debate, and I, Atiku Abubakar, cannot challenge or question an administration where the man at the helm of the affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies.
“After all, you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence. I do not believe in attacking a man who is NOT here to defend himself.
“As a leader and former vice-president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, let me first apologise to all Nigerians, my fellow candidates and the moderator for the APC presidential candidate’s absence in this debate. His non-appearance is a slight on ALL of us and our democracy.
“With respect to my fellow candidates, Fela Durotoye, Oby Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu and to moderator, Mark Sugar, and with apologies to Nigerians here and at home expecting an interesting debate, I regret I will not be able to go on with this debate due to President Buhari’s absence.
“I, however, challenge President Buhari to choose a date and time for a debate where he will be present and I will be there, hopefully with the other candidates as well. Thank you and God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Some people have praised Atiku for not participating in the debate when he found out that Buhari was absent, while some have criticised him for losing an opportunity to sell himself to Nigerians. In my opinion, Atiku took the wise decision of leaving the venue when it was obvious he dodged the debate. If I were Atiku, the only thing I would have done differently was to wait for the debate to start and use the opportunity of my opening remarks to tell Nigerians how I cut short my trip to the USA to return home for the debate because of the respect I had for them, and why I would not go on with the debate in the absence of Buhari.
The 2019 presidential debate is about Buhari and his stewardship. It is for Buhari to present his scorecard and for his opponents to counter it and present themselves as the most compelling alternative. Even though there are over 70 presidential candidates, it is only Atiku, the PDP’s candidate, who has the capacity to beat Buhari. Without Buhari at the debate, it is a waste of time and energy to participate. The question would be: What will the candidates be debating without the incumbent President?
If it is about selling himself to Nigerians, Atiku has the opportunity to use different TV channels to do that, as he has been doing. The debate that will be meaningful and worthwhile to Nigerians is that which will feature the two key candidates squaring up on issues of governance. Even though the chances are slim, one hopes that Buhari will still agree to debate with Atiku before the February 16 election date.