Nigeria and The Value of Debates

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In the days following the botched presidential debates between five ‘leading’ political parties, opinions have been divided concerning the inability of two ‘major’ political parties to participate in that debate. While the presidential candidate of the APC, Muhammadu Buhari said that he was too busy to attend, the PDP candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, even though he was there at the venue left thereafter insisting that he was keen on ‘debating’ Buhari and Buhari alone. In a statement he put out, he said that it was not in his character to shave off a person’s hair in his absence. He eventually challenged his opponent to name any place and date for the debate.

But if both candidates thought that Nigerians were stupid, they got something coming. For Buhari, most Nigerians saw the initial idea of sending his deputy to represent him in a debate for which he would personally present his scorecard and request a second term somewhat childish. In their own Vice-Presidential debate, Vice-President Yemi and Peter Obi acquitted themselves creditable. And for most Nigerians, the Presidential debate was to have been the thriller, a royal rumble of the decade – a true litmus test where sparks would fly, igniting the political space with the excitement you get from watching a local derby.

Yet, after Atiku Abubakar left without debating because Buhari was absent, opinions prevalent in my part of town maintained that the Atiku blew an opportunity to whitewash his opponent and actually shave off his hair in his absence. After all, this is politics – campaigning is usually carried out in poetry, rendered in grandiloquent phrases and posturing, with politicians seizing on any and every opportunity to score a brace or a hat trick.

For us at the Civil Empowerment & Rule of Law Support Initiative (CERLSI) we were very disappointed at the botched outcome. We work hard at getting the voter to understand the import of the vote and how they can use it to influence pre-and-post election circumstances. First, a debate is not a western or American political concept. A political debate is not a personality contest and definitely not an event you take for granted. It is serious affair not to be taken lightly as both candidates did. With a debate, you can be certain to come off with something at least to help you make up your mind on who to cast your vote. What happened with that botched debate was that there are already very strong positions at the highest levels of governance against the very idea of a debate. We know this because as soon as we made our position known, these elements took us on. They told us that a good debater never really makes a good leader, and that debates are opportunities for a display of eloquence. Is this true?

Most presidents around the world never really lead. They work hard to make the environment an enabling one. Most are salespersons. And what’s the use of a salesperson who cannot talk? Without people who can talk or be eloquent, there is no democracy. President Obama did not become US president because he can talk or because of his oratorical prowess, no. Part of the reason was that he was able to use his power of talk to lay bare his mind, programmes and the general direction he would take the US in eight years.

Others were talking as well but something in the way Obama put his nouns and verbs together verily convinced Americans to literally put their life in his hands for eight years. Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, together with Ted Cruz were all amazing talkers but the American people chose one man, and this was because he easily connected with those who voted him in as president. Atiku and Buhari are great talkers. Yes the one is slow and a bit belaboured (and with proper handlers that would be his greatest weapon) and the other said to be articulate. See what happened to Mitt Romney in the 2012 debate against Obama – Romney outtalked and outmaneuvered Obama in nearly all the debates but see how Obama floored him.
Without the rule of law, there is no democracy. Part of what makes democracy tick is the application of the rule of law, hinged on the four quartets of openness, justice, fairness and accountability.

Take notice of the first one – openness, and realize that that debate could have afforded those who have a disdain for talking or who think that they have issues with eloquence an opportunity to be open and lay bare their programmes, policies before Nigerians.
––Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku, CERLSI, Benin City.