2011 GENERAL ELECTIONS DEBATES
THE 2011 general elections debates may have been over with the on-going elections across the federation and the citizens' anticipation of more election results. But the drama and controversies caused over the debate are worth examining, especially for future elections and debates.
The idea of candidates seeking elective positions coming to speak to Nigerians in a debate was mooted some few years back. The concept has been introduced since the return of Nigeria to democracy but it has not been free from controversies. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo declined to participate in a debate during the 1999 and 2003 elections.
His successor, the late Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who was his stooge also did not speak to Nigerians in a debate. The issue of refusal by PDP presidential candidates also reared its head in the build-up to the 2011 general elections.
First, it was the NN24 presidential and vice-presidential debate organised by a group of media practitioners to allow the aspirants reach the voters. Before the live broadcast, there were reports that the President's spokesperson, who represented the President at a meeting to discuss the modalities for the debate, had insisted on certain terms and conditions for his boss's participation in the debate.
The two major criteria for Dr. Jonathan's participation, according to his spokesperson, were that the questions to be asked at the debate must be handed to the President before the debate; besides, all the 17 other presidential aspirants must be present rather than the major contenders which the NN24 debate organisers had invited to participate in the exercise.
These conditions, among others, led to the disagreement between representatives of the three other presidential candidates who were present at the meeting.
Then came the day for the vice-presidential debate by the NN24. The vice-presidential candidate of the PDP, Namadi Sambo did not show up, though he later cited the clash of his official duties with the debate as a reason for his absence. Unfortunately, the programme was not aired live but was later shown to viewers after the opposition candidates' allegation of sabotage. With the Vice-President's apologies for not attending the debate, it was expected that the President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, would participate in the presidential debate.
The organisers also assured Nigerians that the President would be at the debate. But in the usual character of PDP presidential aspirants, the President did not show up. The debate was attended by the presidential candidates of the ACN, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu; that of the CPC, General Muhammadu Buhari, rtd and Governor Ibrahim Shekarau of the ANPP.
Conversely, in Lagos State , there were series of debates organised for Lagosians to hear from the aspirants. These ranged from those of the governorship to the senatorial debates and they were all attended by the different aspirants. But those contesting at the centre who were supposed to lay a good example for others to follow were busy ignoring debates.
Though the President has a right to attend or not attend presidential debates, not at this point in our national life when Nigerians have become increasingly interested in choosing their leaders. If President Jonathan had rejected the proposal to participate in the NN24 debate based on the tight schedule of his campaign just like President Barack Obama during the August 2008 debate, it would have been understandable.
But asking for questions before is quite disappointing for a man of his stature. President Jonathan is not the first presidential candidate to refuse the challenge of other candidates to a debate.
It would be recalled that President Obama and Senator John McCain were the main participants of the 2008 presidential debate despite the fact that there were other candidates such as those from the third party and the independent party and none of them rejected the 2008 US debate proposal based on the non-participation of the other candidates. Besides, it has become customary in countries like the USA to engage candidates of major parties in a debate.
Since Nigeria is yet to have a commission on presidential debate, any organisation that intends to organise a debate should be honored with aspirant's participation and presence. After all, the conduct of the NN24, What About Us and STV/Rhythm debates were all of international standards.
A debate is an opportunity to reach the electorate and one wonders why the President would not jump at it. It is irksome to know that President Jonathan agreed to an interview with a singer, D'banj, but refused to attend the NN24 debate.
Mr. BOLAJI AREGBESHOLA, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos.