2019 Vice Presidential Debate: Five Talking Points and Lessons

The third force movement, that loose appellation for candidates looking to break the PDP-APC duopoly on Nigerian politics, had a not-so impressive outing on Friday evening’s presidential debates.

Within the two-and-half hours of questions and answers, the vice presidential candidates of the ANN, ACPN and YPP were anything but remarkable. They often mumbled or mispronounced words, one arguing in a high pitch unbecoming for a televised debate.

It was a night of many lessons in the value of hearing from those seeking high office. Here are five main talking points:

Osinbajo’s Uncertainty

The Vice President started off like he had a loaded gun. He expected his co-debater to be impressed by his enumeration of the Buhari government’s efforts with regards to solving poverty with social investment policies. But there was a misfortune in making his opening statement before Peter Obi, who promptly buttressed rebuttals with a plethora of depressing indices on the economy, education and human development. It went low-energy from there for Osinbajo whose only other key moment of the night would be latching on Obi’s attempt at disparaging Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria.

Prof Osinbajo was as cool as usual, jokingly replying a question about the VP role being a spare tyre by drawing attention to the accelerated greying of his hair. But that was as good as it got for him. Usually a confident, powerful orator, having to defend an administration presiding over the poverty capital of the world seems to have taken its toll on Osinbajo.

Obi’s Facts and References To China

Peter Obi mentioned China so much during the debates that the country became one of the top trends of the evening. He was accused of being disingenuous, that the East-Asian giants are far too advanced to be an example for Nigeria to imitate.

In reality, Obi also severally mentioned Indonesia and South Africa. There is a sense in China not being a suitable example if consideration is made for the different form of government being practiced. But the essence of Obi pointing to them was that they took certain market driven steps to achieve their current economic status. Obi made repeated mention of the contributions SMEs should make to the Nigerian economy if it is to shed its poverty-capital tag, and that point required the repeated reference to China who have achieved remarkable poverty reduction over the last three decades.

A number of his claims, after fact-checking, did not turn out accurate though.

Cabinet Recruitment

Ganiyu Galadima did not do a good job for the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria’s case for the presidency. A supporter of Dr Ezekwesili’s campaign, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, acknowledged Galadima’s speaking deficits but defended him as what the grassroots looks like.

It is unclear whether that was a criteria for choosing him as the party’s Vice Presidential candidate. His being the party chairman, a presidential candidate in 2015, and also with his northern origin may have played a part. If so, that would not be the best argument for choosing people on the basis of competence and character, as Dr Ezekwesili often advocates. Selecting a running mate is the first recruitment a potential public-office chief executive makes. On the basis of Galadima’s showing, the former Education Minister’s ability to choose comrades for her cabinet has already come under intense scrutiny.

Same applies to Kingsley Moghalu and Fela Durotoye whose young running mates were, in many occasions, out of their depths in promoting their principal’s policies. Khadija Abdullahi, the ANN candidate, answered a question about diversifying power by criticizing prepaid meters and saying they want to improve the megawatts from what it is now to “more than it is now”. Umma Getso of YPP had to recover from an “I don’t think I have much to say” blooper to muster a response on fuel subsidy.

Looking at the five VP candidates for intelligence, you’ll rank them all highly. But on experience, capacity and even confidence to govern? Two seem clearly in favour.

Debates (Should) Matter

We could have an idea of the possible impact of Friday evening’s debate if there are numbers on the viewership. About 8,500 watched it live on Channels TV’s live stream on YouTube, but the figures for cable TV and radio are necessary to get a good picture.

Presidential candidates of the ANN, ACPN and YPP may well wish the numbers are about as low as the YouTube figures. Five weeks can’t pass soon enough for them to have their turns at reclaiming ground seeded by their running mates lacklustre performances. The plus side for the audience is that Ezekwesili and co will be sufficiently fired up for January 19, proving that debates are beginning to matter.

Vice Presidents Have Always Mattered

This debate did not have to be perfect. It just had to hold and thanks to Imoni Amarere’s capable handling of flow and decorum, we could witness a civil conversation unlike the new norm on Nigeria Twitter.

It was good of the candidates to turn up. If the last three years have shown anything, it is that Vice Presidents are important. Atiku’s role in staffing Obasanjo’s administration with the likes of Dora Akunyili was important, and Goodluck Jonathan’s non-grasping steady head during the Yar’Adua sick days was crucial to our democracy. Osinbajo’s presidential performance in Buhari’s 153 days vacation in London represent the best days of the Buhari administration.

Whoever becomes Nigeria’s president in 2019 should be healthy, competent and capable by him or herself. But life is unpredictable, so the constitution had to provide for an office of the Vice President, requiring same basic qualifications. He or she should be just as competent, as healthy, as relatable to the public.

And that’s why Friday evening matters for February 16. For those who will try again in 2023, some lessons will be learned from this and applied.

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