Debates among political office seekers are healthy for the democratic process
The vice-presidential candidates of five political parties on Friday held a debate to persuade Nigerians on how to exercise their franchise in February next year. As positive a development as it was, the debate highlighted a number of issues that should be interrogated in our efforts to establish a functional democracy that delivers on public good. Of the five candidates, only Vice President Yemi Osinbajo of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Mr. Peter Obi of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) displayed any real grasp of the developmental issues facing Nigeria. The other three vice-presidential candidates contributed little to the discourse and, in fact, were more of a distraction to what could have been a robust competition of ideas.
For many years, Nigerians have harped on the imperative of open debates that would present the electorate with a rounded picture of the candidates contesting for the highest office in the land and their running mates. The value of such debates include elevating national discourse and providing the public with the opportunity to assess, first hand, the depth, character, knowledge, comportment, temperament and sincerity of the candidates. The winners in these debates do not necessarily have to win the election but the polity would be enriched and better enlightened on the issues at stake.
As they therefore prepare for the presidential debate scheduled for 19thJanuary 2019, we commend the John Momoh-led Nigeria Election Debate Group (NEDG) which organised the session in collaboration with the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) and civil society organisations. But there are a number of lessons from the vice- presidential debate that should be addressed before the January 2019 presidential debate. For instance, the moderator needs to be more engaging and should endeavour to command the respect of both the candidates and the studio audience. There is also the nagging question of whether to expand the number of presidential candidates in the debate.
Judging solely from the performance of the vice-presidential candidates, one is tempted to suggest that a smaller number of candidates should be invited to the debate. This will probably avail them more time to present their arguments, debate each other’s positions, and clearly delineate for the public where each candidate stands on the important developmental issues.
Before the Friday session, Mr. Patrick O. Okigbo III had argued that only three parties should be invited for the debates. He made a case that the All Progressives Congress and Peoples Democratic Party should have automatic invitations as the two biggest parties in Nigeria while the other 29 political parties (with presidential candidates in the 2019 election) should participate in an online poll and the party that secures the highest number of votes should be given the third slot. Such a process, Okigbo reasoned, “would be an opportunity for the parties to sharpen their pitch and fire up the undecided voters who do not care much for either the APC or the PDP. Such a campaign for the ‘third slot’ could also be a back-channel way of building an effective ‘third force’”. Clearly, such limited number of parties will avail more time for the candidates to lay out their arguments and engage in a robust competition on ideas with the other contenders.
While it may be too late in the day to prune the list of the presidential candidates already invited for the January debate, this is a counsel that should be taken on board for consideration as the idea of debate takes root. One thing is for sure, excluding political no-hopers will provide more meaning for the sessions. In Nigeria, many of those who aspire to lead the people have always been shielded until they emerge in positions of power to display how ill-equipped and inappropriate they are to hold any office. Then an electorate that was indifferent to asking the uncomfortable questions begins to whine and grumble.
There are valuable lessons to draw from having this kind of debates between political office seekers, especially at the highest level of government in Nigeria. One, when people are involved in the entire process of selecting who governs them, such a system usually breeds accountability. Two, a process that involves rigorous interrogations will definitely bring out the best and worst of the candidates. Three, in this age of social media, claims can easily be verified so that the audience would know almost instantly those who are lying and those speaking the truth thus making it easy for the electorate to make informed and rational choices.
All said, Nigeria cannot continue to run a democracy of virtual silence or of limited spaces for rigorous debates on ideas as distinct from vacuous sentiments.
The value of such debates include elevating national discourse and providing the public with the opportunity to assess, first hand, the depth, character, knowledge, comportment, temperament and sincerity of the candidates