By Chukwudi Nweje Acting Features Editor
As the February elections campaigns intensify, it seems Nigerians will be denied the opportunity of watching and listening to the two leading presidential candidates of the main political parties, President Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and his All Progressives Congress (APC) counterpart, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, engage each other in a robust debate on the real issues affecting the country and how they intend to address them. This will be opposed to the ongoing presidential campaigns that have centred mostly on mudslinging and names calling. The Presidential Debate would have offered the candidates opportunity to address some of the real issues like the economy, mass unemployment, insecurity and infrastructure deficit among others.
That will however not be. The APC has said it will not participate in the proposed electioneering public debates on national television and radio being organised by the Broadcast Organisation of Nigeria (BON). The party has accused key organisers of the programme of unhidden bias and campaign of calumny against the corporate political interest of the party and its candidates. The Director Media and Publicity of the APC Presidential Campaign Organisation (APCPCO), Garba Shehu, said in a statement on Thursday in Abuja that the Nigeria Election Debate Group (NEDG) that would power the debate was fraught with fundamental errors from the outset, by wearing the toga of government control, especially being composed mainly of agencies and allies of the PDP.
He said: “A salutary inspection of the composition of NEDG brings into focus the BON, National Television Authority (NTA), Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) and the Africa Independent Television (AIT), owned by a PDP chieftain. And going by the avalanche of inflammatory statements, misinformation and blatant lies being propagated by some of these media against our party and candidates contrary to the Kofi Annan-brokered Abuja Peace Accord, and the failure of these aggressors to desist and apologise, it has left the APC campaign with no option than to steer clear of any premeditated smear campaign that could be inimical to our prospective electoral success.” The organizers of the debate have however denied the accusation of bias saying that every participant will be exposed to the same set of questions that will give them the opportunity to enunciate their positions.
It is very saddening that in the February 14 presidential election, seen as the most intensely fought since return to civil rule in 1999, Jonathan and Buhari will again not stand on the same podium in a debate where they will answer questions on the problems facing the country they each hope to rule. The first opportunity in 2011 could not be despite two presidential debates holding that year. In the first Presidential Debate organised by NN24 and attended by Buhari alongside four other presidential aspirants, President Jonathan was absent. Then in the second debate organised by BON and attended by President Jonathan, Buhari and the other presidential candidates were absent on the basis of what they alleged as the impunity of the PDP.
Clearly, this has robbed Nigerians the chance of truly knowing the candidates and what they represent before the elections. Although they each had appeared at separate debates in 2011, there was no opportunity for each to interrogate the other. In the United States of America (USA) for example, the presidential debate provides a platform for the candidates of the two dominant parties – the Democratic Party and the Republican Party to sell their programme to the public and interrogate each other. The topics discussed are often the most controversial and topical issues of the time. Although the candidates are not constitutionally mandated to attend, they earnestly look forward to the debate, sometimes considered a de facto election process, as the polls are known to have been won and lost on the outcome of the debates.
Why politicians in Nigeria shy away from political debates is one puzzle analysts cannot agree on. Rather than engage each other on issues based campaign and canvassing of votes, the candidates appear to prefer running solo and throwing accusations. Analysts wonder if it is not because outcome of elections in Nigeria is hardly determined by the position of the candidates on national issues but often by tribal sentiments and religious affiliations. Worse still, they observe that election victory is sometimes now determined by decisions at the election petition tribunal rather than by votes cast at the polls.
Debo Adeniran, Executive Chairman, Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) argued that a debate would have provided a platform for constructive discussion but regretted that NEDG seems “to have shown some political leanings, which are making some of the candidates lose confidence in their ability to organise a free and fair debate. Some of the organisers have shown their partisanship.”
He however added: “If someone is sure of his projects and programmes, he should be willing to defend such programmes even if the umpire is biased. Even if the rival party has a fore knowledge of the questions the umpire would ask, is not enough reason to be scared, for a candidate who has done his homework well and knows what the content of his programme is. Any party, whose candidate cannot defend his manifestoes, would be doing the country, a great disservice.”