Kicking off the Presidential Debate


From the reactions that trailed the heated debate between the campaign spokespersons of President Muhammadu Buhari, Mr. Festus Keyamo (SAN) and that of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Mr. Segun Sowunmi, it is clear that debate is inevitable in the nation’s electoral process, writes Shola Oyeyipo

Next year’s presidential election promises to be historic and expectedly, it is already attracting the attention of many Nigerians, who are expressing deep interest in knowing whether incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari will get a second term or one of his opponents, particularly the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar is capable of ousting the sitting Nigerian leader.

In the midst of the permutations and speculations, the general concern among well-meaning Nigerians has been that the debates leading to the election should be issue-based, devoid of character assassination, vituperative attacks, religious and ethnic sentiments and all such primordial extraneous emotions that shaped the 2015 presidential election.

Apart from harping on the need for a free, fair and credible election on the part of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), when he was speaking with THISDAY on the successful conclusion of the PDP presidential primaries in preparation for the 2019 general election, elder statesman and a founding member of political and cultural association of the Northern leaders, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, emphasised the need for issue-based politics.

In the estimation of the elder statesman, the 2019 presidential election presents Nigerians with a huge opportunity to elect a leader based on specified agenda and capability and not on the basis of sentiments that have no direct correlation on improving the quality of life they live.

“Since the candidate of the APC and the PDP are now in the same region, coming from the same ethnic group and coming from the same religion, there should be no politics of ethnicity, religion or sectionalism. It should be based on issues. It is what they are going to do for the people,” he said.

That, perhaps, explained the attention a lot of Nigerians paid to the heated debate between the campaign spokespersons of President Buhari, Mr. Festus Keyamo (SAN) and that of Atiku, Mr. Segun Sowunmi, when they both slugged it out on a live programme.

It was a fierce and no-holds-bar engagement. Keyamo fired all the salvos in his arsenal. He did not only accuse Atiku of failing in the management of public institutions during his days as vice-president between 1999 and 2007. He maintained that the PDP candidate could not run based on his achievements as a private businessman, but on his records as a government official, which he called colossal failure.

According to him, “How did Atiku Abubakar create jobs, when he was vice-president? What we saw was a colossal failure in terms of management of public institutions,” adding that “Under the privatisation programme, NITEL became a disaster.” Keyamo said as much during the interview on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily Monday.

But Sowunmi, while canvassing support for Atiku, assured Nigerians that his principal deserves all the support he could get from Nigerians to become the president of the country in 2019, because he possesses the requisite understanding needed to address some of the major problems confronting Nigeria such as insecurity and unemployment. He added that relying on his private sector experience, he would create jobs.

Whereas the APC-led Buhari government has continuously showcased its anti-corruption campaign as one of the major achievements of the administration, Sowunmi dismissed Buhari’s anti-graft war. His argument was that the Nigerian economy ran into a slump, because of the monumental corruption going on under this government and he was sure that a lot would be uncovered if Nigerians vote a new government from another party in 2019.

Sowunmi, a public affairs analyst, described the President Buhari government as one with zero integrity, and that the APC national leadership is not capable of fixing the economy.

He said, “The present administration under President Muhammadu Buhari has zero integrity. Whatever arguments they have now about fixing the economy is laughable. They say one thing in the morning, they do another. First, they said they don’t even know the meaning of subsidy. Right now, they can’t explain to us who is paying subsidy or who is appropriating it.

“All over the places where you turn, all the principal officers of this government are just deep in sleaze, made totally worse, is that they really have no care for any section of the country; when they are not calling young people lazy, they are telling the women that their position is just in the bedroom, whatever that meant. Worse is that they go all over the world shaming the whole country, claiming that Nigeria is corrupt, even applauding other nations who call us ‘fantastically corrupt,” Sowunmi said tagging the Buhari administration as “totally incompetent and unacceptable.”

He also wondered that having spent almost three and a half years in their various ministries, the government has not been able to reconstitute the cabinet, saying “how can they re-jig their cabinet when they don’t know what they are doing?”

But expectedly as a lawyer, Keyamo was not cowed. While he sustained his argument that the APC government has delivered on its promises, he observed that Atiku is working to ride to power on the emotions of Nigerians. He also harped on the corruption stigma pasted on the PDP candidate, laying emphasis on the corruption case against then Louisiana Congressman, William Jefferson in the United States, which allegedly involved Atiku.

Stressing that President Buhari has done well with the Nigerian economy such that the country is the best-performing economy in Africa, Keyamo said, “One of the best things that has happened to us as a party and to President Buhari is the emergence of Atiku Abubakar as the presidential candidate of the PDP,” and one of the reasons according to him is that he has baggage. The reactions that trailed the debate on Twitter as it was ongoing were clear indications of how interested Nigerians are about the content of character of their leaders, particularly at the presidential level.

For instance, Yung Mula said: Festus Keyamo spoke like an illiterate. He was asked why Buhari is a preferred choice and he was talking about Atiku. That is what you become when you follow an illiterate herdsman foolishly without thinking. Same rubbish Magu, Lai Mohammed and Buhari do. They can’t answer a simple question.”

But Mommoh Ismaila thinks differently, because to him: “Keyamo destroyed Atiku’s spokesman, wailers, IPOB and haters combined this (Monday) morning.” Also, in Yusuff Azeez’s opinion, the allegations of corruption against Atiku can be verified. “It is on US homeland security website and if you type Abubakar Atiku you will see all you need to know about the money laundering and bribery indictment on Atiku.”

Contending with Azeez, Bakare Olawale asked: “I want to know, please, does indictment also mean conviction? To my own understanding, the fact that somebody is indicted doesn’t mean he’s guilty. After being indicted, did they investigate and find him guilty of the offence? If yes, then let him be labeled as corrupt, if no, then everybody shut up!”

Chichi Onyewuchi said: “Sowunmi Segun, I doff my hat to you sir. That was top notch. That is how intelligent political discourse is handled. Give us hard facts and not mudslinging. It will be an honour to learn from you sir.” Similarly, Ogbiye Cormelavoga opined that: “In summary, Segun Sowunmi projected his principal, while Festus Keyamo spent his lot to attack Atiku. Sowunmi is superior!”

But Abar Sammy didn’t agree that Sowunmi was that impressive. He replied Cormelavoga by noting that, “I guess you never had time to watch it (the debate). In as much I am not for any of them, Atiku’s spokesperson just embarrassed himself for not even having enough evidence to defend his master.” Olayinka Alebiosu added that “If this is strictly about how people do their jobs properly, I salute Keyamo for bringing the discussion back to where it counts: public service records only,” saying “It would be the only solid basis for comparison.”

While not attempting to paint any of the debaters as superior to each other, the compiled reactions are simply indicative of one thing, that Nigerians are really keen about hearing what the would-be-leaders have in plan for them and that being part of a well-organised debate is one of the easiest ways to give the citizenry that opportunity to take informed decision on who to cast their votes for.

While President Buhari succeeded at avoiding the debate ahead of the 2015, it is clear that he may have a hard time escaping it this time around. Already, Atiku, a former Kano State Governor, Ibrahim Shekarau and other presidential aspirants interested in contesting in the 2019 election had challenged him to a debate ahead of the poll if they emergedw candidates.

Similarly, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Prof. Kingsley Moghalu; a former presidential candidate of the KOWA Party in the 2015 election, Prof. Remi Sonaiya; Publisher, Sahara Reporters, Mr. Omoyele Sowore; Prof. Iyorwuese Hagher; and Prof. Funmilayo Adesanya-Davies, have all indicated readiness to stand on the podium in a debate challenge against the Nigerian leader.

In fact, Moghalu, who is now the presidential candidate of Young Progressives Party (YPP), alleged plans by the APC to delegate Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo for the presidential debate, saying such move is fraudulent.

The articulate Professor of International Business, who suspects that President Buhari plans to evade the debate, said he should rather come out for a debate. He advised Osinbajo to debate with his fellow vice-presidential candidates and not with aspiring presidents.

As it is, it is either the ruling party begins to draw up a plan for the president to trade tackles with his challengers in a debate or score themselves low in the eyes of the interested public, who are obviously not only waiting to evaluate the bargain a would-be president has for them, but who also want to assess the intellectual capacity of the presidential candidates.