The presidential election in the United States holds lessons for Nigeria
The recently concluded presidential election in the United States of America has presented different nations with a diversity of takeaways. For us in Nigeria, the lessons are many but the most significant, as we reiterated even before the contest, is the value of open debate in presenting an electorate with a rounded picture of the candidates contesting for the highest office in the land.
The American system may not be perfect but nobody will deny the fact that the voters usually have an idea of who they were voting for and what they represented. On the contrary, our presidential candidates have mostly ascended office without any ideas about policies, programmes and the people they would need to help them actualise such vision. The situation is not helped by the fact that the political parties are, without any exception, just platforms for winning political offices.
In this regard, it is commendable that the Senate has under consideration a bill to establish a Presidential Debates Commission. This bill should be expeditiously passed to make it mandatory for scheduled debates to hold among those who seek to lead Nigeria at specific intervals in the course of the presidential campaigns. The value of such debates would include elevating national discourse and raising the standard of leadership selection process among political parties.
As we stated recently, Nigerians must begin to imbibe a culture by which those who aspire to lead our people, especially at the gubernatorial and presidential levels, are subjected to a rigorous process of public engagement. If we must develop as a nation, we cannot continue with the current arrangement where our leaders are practically handpicked and anointed by rabble factions of some renegade conclaves while most of them neither understand nor can they articulate national issues and problems.
While the US presidential campaigns lasted, the world was exposed to a multi-dimensional picture of both Donald Trump who eventually emerged winner and Hillary Clinton. The two candidates were challenged to air their views on all aspects of the society they aspired to govern. More importantly, it was an opportunity for the media and the public to rigorously interrogate their moral credentials and past records.
These debates were thorough and all encompassing. They were above all accompanied by campaigns that were virtual road-shows. At the end, the major candidates traversed the length and breadth of the United States to canvass their programmes and views.
To cap it all, there were three major national debates which gave the American public an opportunity to assess, first hand, the depth, character, knowledge, comportment, temperament and sincerity of the candidates to carry the mantle of national leadership.
The winner in these debates did not necessarily have to win the election.
But the polity was enriched and better enlightened on the great issues at stake, and how the candidates conform to their own expectations. Regrettably, in Nigeria, we have run a democracy of virtual silence especially at the presidential level. In a handful of states, some attempts had been made over the years to hold debates among candidates. These attempts were volitional rather than mandatory, hence most contestants ignored them. Even in instances where these contestants turned up, what usually followed could not be described as debates in the true sense of the word.
At every election cycle since 1999, presidential candidates had routinely refused to debate their opponents or chose what debates to attend. In any case, the fickle attempts at organising presidential debates had been under the auspices of amorphous organisations not backed by any legislation. As we therefore seek to build our democracy on meritocracy, we must also accept that a process that involves such rigorous interrogations will definitely bring out the best and worst of the candidates thus making it easy for the electorate to make informed and rational choices.