Adedayo Akinwale writes that the decision of the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Senator Bola Tinubu not to honour any television debate or town hall meeting is not healthy for the country’s democracy
That the 2023 general election may be the most important general election in the country’s history is not in doubt. The reasons are not far-fetched. The precarious situation the country finds itself in at the hands of the All Progressives Congress (APC) of President Muhammadu Buhari explains it all.
Even though remarkable achievements have been made in the areas of infrastructure by the President Buhari-led administration, insecurity, high standard of living, rising debt burden, unemployment, high inflation and exchange rate, major neglect of the education sector and health services, among others, have rubbished whatever gains the administration recorded in building infrastructure.
No wonder the Metropolitan Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan said last Saturday at the 70th anniversary of National Association of Seadogs that: “All the usual statistics point to the fact that Nigerians are being progressively impoverished. This is not just a matter of dry statistics. It is a question of quality of life and level of livelihood, right down to the basic needs of our lives. What do we eat? What shelter do we have? How do we take care of health needs?.”
However, Nigeria didn’t get to this state by accident. When Buhari was contesting for the country’s number one seat in 2015, all efforts to get him to talk to Nigerians, to gauge his intellectual capacity, and share his dreams, vision, programmes and policies for the country proved abortive.
In his defence, the then spokesman for the media committee of APC, Garba Shehu, said Buhari’s decision not to feature in the debates was as a result of “unhidden bias and campaign of calumny by some key organisers of the programme against the corporate political interest of the APC and its candidates”.
Also, when he sought re-election in 2019. Buhari intentionally avoided all forms of media engagements. In one of the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria-organised debates, the PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar was present at the venue but refused to make an appearance because his APC counterpart, Buhari, was absent at the event.
Despite the present situation the country has found itself, Buhari has continued to address Nigerians through surrogates. Even during trying times when Nigerians are anxious to hear their president speak, he either maintains his perpetual graveyard silence or talks to Nigerians through press statements issued by his aides.
Determined not to experience a similar experience in 2023, Nigerians have taken it upon themselves to engage the presidential candidates of the various political parties ahead of the elections in order to take a decision on whom to vote from an informed perspective and a point of knowledge of the capacity of each candidate.
Generally, debates among competing electoral candidates have become a campaign centerpiece in elections worldwide. Debates help voters make informed choices and encourage candidates to focus on policy issues.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) described a candidate debate as a neutral, dignified forum where political party leaders or others competing for elected offices respond to the same questions, as posed by voters, a moderator or other debaters. Listeners are able to compare the candidates’ positions on issues.
According to the NDI, debates address issues — not persons, religion or ethnicity. Debates also help candidates prepare to campaign, or governance if elected. The NDI further explained that debates are often the only time during a campaign when candidates are together at the same time in the same place. This gives voters an opportunity to make side-by-side comparisons and gives candidates a chance to say why they are best suited for the elected office.
However, in spite of the unfettered advantages offered by debates or town hall meetings or any political engagements that afford the citizens to feel the purse of the candidates, the presidential candidate of APC, Senator Bola Tinubu has continually dodged various media engagements since the political campaigns started in September.
Prior to the first series of ARISE NEWS Channel and Centre for Democracy and Development Town Hall debate, a letter dated October 17, 2022 and addressed to Tinubu, was submitted at the office of Director of Public Affairs, Bayo Onanuga.
Expectedly, Tinubu refused to show up for the town hall meeting. But in a statement issued by Onanuga, Tinubu pointed out that aside from his gruelling campaign schedule, there were going to be several debates organised by and with different television stations and he would not be able to make them all.
At this point, he made it clear that to avoid accusations of ‘selective appearance’, he planned to decline all debates.
However, the decision of ARISE NEWS Channel to extend another invitation to Tinubu incurred the wrath of Onanuga who in a statement, not only accused ARISE NEWS of blackmail, but also insisted that Tinubu would not participate in any debate before 2023 elections.
“We want to reiterate for the umpteenth time that no amount of blackmail, intimidation and media bullying by the owner and management of Arise News will change the position our campaign has taken on this matter,” he said.
During his recent engagement at the Chatham House, London programme titled, ‘Nigeria’s 2023 elections: In conversation with Bola Ahmed Tinubu’, the former Governor of Lagos State said the media wanted to use him to make money, hence, his decision to snub debate.
Speaking on the decision of Tinubu to technically manoeuver debate and all media engagement, a Legislative Consultant and Public Affairs Commentator, Akinloye Oyeniyi, told THISDAY that in every contest, there are two sides: the electorate and the contestants; and both are premised upon rights to vote and to be voted for.
To him, while the electorate have inalienable rights to form any gathering to access, hear from, and scrutinise any contestant seeking their votes, it is also same for any contestant to either be present at such assessment gathering or not.
Oyeniyi said: “Example of the above, is the ongoing preparations towards 2023 general election in Nigeria, where Nigerians have formed different political gatherings to scrutinise contestants and the presidential candidate of the ruling party, APC, Bola Tinubu, despite seeking their votes has insisted on not participating in either debates or town hall meeting.
“When electorate call for meetings or debates of any kind, it shows the people are ready to participate in democracy promotion and consolidation. But when contestants decide to shun such debates or gatherings, it portends danger for democracy,” he added.
Oyeniyi pointed out that in economics, the seller must display his clothes for intending buyers to choose from, adding that in the electoral context, once that is not happening, it means the contestant has devised a means of forcing himself or herself into that position without the votes of the people.
He added: “When the above is the case, it means democracy is in danger and people will eventually have rulers or leaders they did not choose coming to power through violence etc to manage their affairs.”
On his part, the Spokesperson of the Atiku/Abubakar Campaign Organisation, Kola Ologbondiyan, said Tinubu had a record of avoiding debates and public interrogations for fear that Nigerians might take him to task on his alleged stinking corruption record, reported proxy treasury looting, obvious incompetence, ethnic bigotry, as well as his alleged masterminding of APC’s anti-people policies that wrecked Nigeria in the last seven and a half years.
He said Nigerians would recall that the APC presidential candidate did not attend the signing of the National Peace Accord in Abuja; and also failed to turn up at Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and also avoided the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Conference.
Ologbondiyan stated, “Senator Tinubu is also aware that he cannot face the public to answer questions bordering on his past, particularly, the question on his ancestry, the Alpha-Beta tax saga; as well as his alleged stranglehold on the business, politics and lives of Lagosians from 1999 till date.
“He is afraid of being exposed for fleecing Lagos State for eight years through multiple and harsh tax regimes with nothing to show other than rulership by brawl, breeding of touts and raising criminal street gangs, only to turn around now to attempt to claim the achievements of succeeding governors as his. While continuing to use Alpha-Beta to extort Lagosians for nearly 20 years. Alpha-Beta is the sole tax collecting agency in Lagos.”
In his intervention, the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) also took a swipe at Tinubu for refusing to honour invitations to debate. The party said it was an indication that he has nothing to tell Nigerians or he does not have the power to rule the country.
Many Nigerians have been wondering why Tinubu who claims to be a progressive has been dodging robust democratic debates despite seeking their votes to become their president. They are even more surprised that his media aides who should know better, are the people misleading him to think that some media houses are partisan.