Gilbert Obika

Presidential debate ought to be a big issue in any election year of any country. It is very popular in the United States of America where we borrowed the president system of government with slight modifications. But presidential debate is not yet so in Nigeria. Nigeria’s presidential debate is a recent development.

Rather than face the television cameras and tell Nigerians what they intend to do or be subjected to controversial issues, some of them prefer to avoid the debate. At times, it is not taken serious by one or major contenders to the presidential poll. Most times, it is the candidates of the minor political parties that usually show much interest in the presidential debates. It is good that frontline presidential candidates should use the platform to market their manifestoes to the young and undecided voters. It has no force of law.

Unlike Nigeria, the US presidential debate has evolved since 1960 when the first general presidential debate was held. Before the 1960 debate, there were several other debates which were considered predecessors to the US presidential debates. Just as in Nigeria, in the US, the presidential debate is not constitutionally mandated, but it is now said to be considered a de facto election process.

In the US, the presidential debate is organized for the candidates of the two major political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

Such debates which dwell often on most controversial issues of the time have sometimes shaped the outcome of the election. The Nixon vs. Kennedy election serves as a good example. We cannot say exactly the same thing with Nigeria’s presidential election outcome.

The foregoing can explain why some Nigerians were furious over the absence of the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate in the February 16 Presidential and National Assembly polls, and incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and the boycott of the debate by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar although based on some reasons that will be shortly addressed in this article.

The January 19 presidential debate was organized by the Nigeria Elections Debate Group (NEDG) and the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON). The debate was organized for the presidential candidates of the APC, PDP, the Allied Congress Part of Nigeria (ACPN), Young Progressives Party (YPP) and Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN). While President Muhammadu Buhari was absent, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was present at the venue of the debate but refused to participate because of the absence of Buhari.

Despite having over 70 presidential candidates for the presidential poll, Buhari and Atiku remain the major contenders. They are the presidential candidates of the two major parties in the race. Some Nigerians were angry that only Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu and Fela Durotoye, the presidential candidates of the ACPN, YPP and ANN participated in the debate.  On why Buhari was absent at the debate, the APC Presidential Campaign Council was quoted as saying that “Our presidential candidate has taken full advantage of another town-hall meeting organized by another group which held on Wednesday, January 16, 2019…Today, Mr. President commissioned the Baro Inland Water Port in Niger State and campaigned in Niger and Plateau states where his time was over-stretched.

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On the other hand, Atiku Abubakar was quoted as saying that “I 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…you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence.” Atiku’s response is an indication that he is willing and ever ready to debate with the APC candidate any time soon. Those berating Atiku for boycotting the exercise in the absence of Buhari, his main contender missed the point.

The debate ought to be for two major candidates.  Atiku was right in backing out when it was obvious that Buhari was not forthcoming for the debate. There is indeed no doubt that the 2019 presidential poll is between Atiku Abubakar and President Muhammadu Buhari irrespective of the fact that there are scores of other presidential candidates for the poll.

It is probably because of the presidential debate that Atiku cut short his US trip. And he was present at the venue of the debate. This shows his readiness and willingness to participate in the exercise. It was Buhari’s absence that made him to boycott the debate. Buhari’s absence was not quite good for the presidential debate. And the response from his campaign council did not indicate any willingness to participate in future presidential debate.

Since Nigerians want to hear from the two leading presidential candidates, it will be advisable if the NEDG can organize a make-up debate for the two major presidential candidates, Atiku and Buhari at a time that will be convenient for both of them to participate. Let the organizers of the presidential debate give them a second chance to take questions from the organizers of the presidential debate so that Nigerians can appraise their responses to national issues.

Presidential debate is like an interview for the job of the president of the country so that voters can decide based on the outcome of the debate. The two major contenders for the presidential race must make themselves available for the debate. It is important that they do so. Nigerians are still waiting for them.  The candidates must appear and tell us why we should give them our votes on February 16.

Nigerian voters deserve to hear from these main presidential candidates before the poll. It is not yet late for NEDG to do so. There is still time for the make-up debate to be organized for Atiku and Buhari.

Nigerians have heard Kingsley Moghalu, Oby Ezekwesili and Fela Durotoye. They are waiting patiently to hear finally from Atiku Abubakar and President Muhammadu Buhari.

In future, it is advisable that the NEDG will organize one presidential debate for candidates of two major parties and one for candidates of few other political parties in contention. In that way, the protest staged by the supporters of the presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Mr. Omoyele Sowore, over the non-inclusion of the candidate at the debate venue would have been avoided.

Obika writes from Lagos