Fresh from his victory of traveling successfully to the United States against the expectation of his rivals, Atiku Abubakar looked set to score more points at the 2019 presidential debate.
He arrived the Transcorp Hilton hotel, venue for the event, and was pictured backstage exchanging pleasantries with at least one presidential candidate, Kingsley Moghalu. But Atiku did not take the place prepared for him on stage with the YPP flag bearer and the two other candidates – Obiageli Ezekwesili (ACPN) and Fela Durotoye (ANN) who turned up for the night.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s snob of the debate, according to Atiku, meant he too could not stay. Here was his statement withdrawing participation:
“We came here for a Presidential debate, not a candidacy debate, and I, Atiku Abubakar cannot challenge or question an administration where the man at the helm of the affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies.
Afterall, you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence. I do not believe in attacking a man who is NOT here to defend himself.
As a leader and former vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, let me first apologise to all Nigerians, my fellow candidates and the moderator for the APC Presidential Candidate’s absence in this debate. His non-appearance is a slight on ALL of us and our democracy.
With respect to my fellow candidates, Fela Durotoye, Oby Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu & to moderator Mark Sugar & with apologies to Nigerians here & at home expecting an interesting debate, I regret I will not be able to go on with this debate due to President Buhari’s absence.
I however challenge President Buhari to choose a date and time for a debate where he will be present and I will be there, hopefully with the other candidates as well. Thank you and God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The aftermath of his withdrawal saw ‘Atiku’ surge to a top trend on Saturday evening Nigerian Twitter (on par with ‘Arsenal’ and ‘Chelsea’). Supporters and strategists of the PDP approved of his boycott, the justification being that as the major challenger to Buhari, it was specifically necessary that he faces him, rather than get frazzled by “underdogs”. Even one of the opposition chimed in with approval.
Of course passionate disagreements flooded in to neutralize such views in Atiku’s defense. His boycott (together with Buhari’s total no-show) reflected the disrespect and contempt that has debased politics and leadership in Nigeria for five decades. This is in spite of but rather demonstrated by Atiku invoking his status as a former Vice President to apologise on Buhari’s behalf, before pulling himself out. The “I am too premier for this league” tone was self-evident.
In fact, Atiku’s decision was, in the prevailing circumstance, the best move politically.
For all his popularity and the strength of his candidature, he is by no means beloved. Despite his US trip, there is international doubt over his capacity to be a president for the benefit of all Nigerians. Among other things, his recent gaffe of promising enrichment to friends would have made him, in Buhari’s absence, the fish to fry on that stage, ostensibly chipping away from any momentum amassed over the past week. He is smarter and more polished than Buhari but he would have been no match – on policy and oratory – for the other candidates. In his (and Buhari’s) absence, the event lacked an edge; combat was absent, throwing up more a sequence of presentations than a presidential debate, unlike the eventful Vice Presidential debate in December.
Choosing not to debate was Machiavellian; it was subtly amoral. But he extended the carrot by showing up and apologizing for his decision to discontinue, ensuring that in the reckoning about his and Buhari’s attitude towards debating, the records will state that he was more willing. And for good measure, he has challenged the President to a one-v-one bout, at a time and venue of the latter’s choosing.
The boycott hurts Atiku’s appeal to voters who have declared for the ‘Back to Daura’ agenda but want a values-based principle to cast their ballot for him. Atiku wants them but still believes, like Ayisha Osori wrote of her 2015 experience, that Love Does Not Win Elections.
By this political decision, he is not pretending to be the face of change. He is proudly of the Old Guard, of the stock Fela Durotoye, during the debate, referred to as one of “civilians in military clothes” who received political training from the class of ’66 and have no bother of conscience pulling devious barrack tricks from camouflage scout caps. Perhaps, while he waited backstage at Transcorp, radio messages from one General or two – location reading ‘Ota’ or ‘Minna’ – signaled the go-ahead?
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