Everyone’s talking about the presidential debates –who impressed, who flopped, who weren’t invited, who shunned it, who organized it, who---. It feels suddenly like a debate bug has bitten deep into our national fibre. Politicians, being what they are, have begun scheming and play-acting, masking their fears behind a veneer of tough-talk. The outcome is an intense propaganda war between Team Umbrella (President Jonathan-PDP) and Team Coalition (Buhari-CPC, Shekarau-ANPP and Ribadu-ACN). Let’s examine some questions raised by contending camps in this debate wahala.
1. Was it wrong to host a debate on the NN24 platform?
Team Umbrella’s argument that to participate in a debate organized by NN24 –a 24-hour news station hosted exclusively on a foreign network, DSTV –denigrates our own institutions is disingenuous. The location (Lagos), ownership (Tony Dara- founder/CEO), management, programming and staff of NN24 are Nigerian through and through. If our leaders have no qualms delivering breaking news to foreign media outlets, flying to foreign hospitals for treatment, importing foreign toothpicks, leaking information to foreign embassies and stashing money in foreign banks, why then is it difficult to have a debate on a TV station simply because it is hosted on a foreign network?
Team Umbrella made a good point, however, in mentioning that many Nigerians don’t have access to NN24/DSTV. But even that is insufficient excuse because the contestants could easily have attended the NN24 debate, as well as that of any other organization with a wider reach. What’s the big deal?
2. Did President Jonathan have a right to abstain from the NN24 debate?
Debates aren’t the only avenues available for separating the positions/visions of candidates. Manifestoes, campaign events and the antecedents of the contestants are others. There’s no law binding contestants to face off in televised debates. When former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to take on his Republican challenger Wendell Wilkie in a debate, the heavens didn’t fall; he still won. Obasanjo and Yaradua did not debate anybody. By abstaining, President Jonathan did no wrong, technically or legally.
However it solidified people’s perception of him as being intellectually inept and idealess, especially given the inconvenient revelation that he sought to obtain the debate questions (expo) beforehand.
3. Did the opposition have a right to shun the NEDG/BON debate?
Well, if the PDP candidate has the right to pick and choose, surely other candidates have same rights. Some pundits have accused the opposition of being reactive and immature. I beg to disagree. The PDP candidate is the incumbent but he is still just another candidate. It would be a psychological blow to opposition supporters if their candidates bend over at his every whim. It was disrespectful of President Jonathan to ditch the NN24 debate without an apology even though his team had actively participated in the pre-debate negotiations.
However I think the opposition’s reaction was overdone. Saying that they “will not honour any debate session with President Jonathan in the 2011 elections,” was a bad move. Let’s face it –they need the free airtime the debate provides more than the president whose campaign has more resources and hence more visibility. They should have shunned only this particular debate, and then publicly hinged future participation on the condition that all parties involved meet again to decide on a date, format and organizers acceptable to all. That would have given them the upper hand –more visibility and more positive press. It would also have been an important service to the electorate who are desperate to see the debate happen.
4. Did the opposition have a right to suspect the president’s embrace of the NEDG/BON debate?
Reno Omokiri, one of President Jonathan’s fiercest supporters, argued that the opposition candidates showed their lack of national pride by their refusal to participate in the BON debate. That is balderdash. The US presidential debates used to be sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV). They withdrew in 1988, saying: “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign trail charades, devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The league has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Withdrawing is an honourable path to take when one suspects an uneven playing field. The president had attempted in the past to lay hold on the debate questions beforehand, what is the guarantee that he wouldn’t/didn’t try again? The opposition must have reasoned that in a country where even judges are not above reproach, prevention is better than cure. As they said in their joint statement, it’s not like the people running the agencies under BON lack integrity, “but the awesome power of the presidency may be too much for them.” I agree.
PS: Are debates not overrated? Mallam Shekarau is touted to have won the last two debates, yet we don’t see any real upsurge in his favour. Do the debates really matter?