The 2019 Presidential debate passed with a whimper but the fallout provides fodder for querying the future of politics, leadership and education in Nigeria.
President Muhammadu Buhari was absent on stage, so was main challenger Atiku Abubakar. The president says his achievements mean he does not have to debate. In any case, he was on the campaign trail across states and got into Abuja on the evening of the event. By the way, the debate organizers fixed the event same day he had a campaign trip. Meanwhile, the schedule was busy and hectic.
Atiku, for his part, got to the venue, waited, got wind of Buhari’s intention not to show up, spoke to newsmen backstage and left.
As a result of both men’s absence, the debate did not turn out to be a debate. Candidates of YPP, ANN and ACPN made their cases eloquently, but the atmosphere – bar the cheering, good-mannered audience, was low-zest. At one moment when a candidate responded to what he perceived an attack from another – Moghalu on Ezekwesili’s jab at his optimistic 2020 budget percentages for health and education (more on that in subsequent pieces), it felt the first match of fireworks had been struck. But that the closest it got to being intense.
There will be elections in coming years, but should there be a presidential debate? We are asking this because of three other questions arising from the dispiriting 2019 edition:
What point is a debate with an absent contesting incumbent?
Buhari did not debate in 2015 but won the elections. It never looked like he would change his mind this time and as Nigeria’s laws do not demand that candidates debate, he did not have to. Contrary to views that have become popular in the past days, presidential or governorship debates are not same as job interviews and it should not be necessary to mandate it a condition.
Debates are desirable, and when they hold, we should get all key players on show. Should future candidates boycott debates when a contesting incumbent fails to show up? Or should they debate anyhow, building a movement on the hope that one day debates will matter for electoral victories and defeats?
Does social media make debate unnecessary in this age?
Atiku’s supporters say he has spoken through many forums and that his plans are in his policy documents. Bashir Ahmaad, an aide of Buhari’s, cited the president’s projects as proof that he did not need to debate. Maybe they are both right: what really is the essence of a live debate when there are now several mediums of communication to audiences?
Social media in particular makes information dissemination easier and quicker in our day, and given the ability to provide one’s views in an instance, does it make a separate, special platform for debating superfluous?
What does debate culture say about quality of leaders?
When Babatunde Badamosi routed his fellow candidates Babjide Sanwo-Olu, Jimi Agbaje and others at a debate few weeks ago, it showed the importance of having debates. The last governorship debate to be as interesting was the one in Anambra for the 2017 governorship elections. But this presidential debate has dampened spirits again, reawakening truths about our culture that will still take time to overcome.
We have a fear of conversation, of logical discourse, of defining issues without feeling attacked at the slightest demand for explanation. That is why politicians are usually dismissive of journalists and this problem shows up as a frustration for academic researchers.
Many Nigerians do not know how to argue logically. Many cannot do so without fiery emotions getting in the way, insults flying in the air. The National Assembly is the biggest evidence why debate culture is poor in Nigeria; if lawmakers are constantly fighting, may be we should not expect people to turn up for televised debates with confidence?
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