By Abimbola Adelakun
Shortly after the Vice-presidential debate in December, I noticed a few groups parroting the drivel that President Muhammadu Buhari need not attend the presidential debates because they make no difference to the votes he will get. While credible research shows that debates do not necessarily change people’s voting decisions, to think that reasoned exchange has no use in a democracy is unrelenting ignorance. Nigerians, like all democracies, need the planned debates. Debates indicate if a candidate is fit and proper for the varied chores of the office sought because its preparation is akin to a marathon. One who represents their thoughts well at a debate is partly ready for office. Candidates for office should know it is not enough for them and their campaign committees to bombard us with online videos and inelegant posters that carry no substance while they dodge hard questions.
This Saturday and next Saturday, two presidential debates will take place, and all Nigerians should take them seriously enough without the sneering cynicism of “who debate ‘epp’?” Expectedly, a lot of Nigerians will tune in to the debates as they are televised expecting fireworks. Alas, it might turn out anticlimactic. Since 1999, Nigeria’s presidential debates have had the troubling history of the leading candidates never facing each other; either, the incumbent or the main challenger runs from the battle. It started with Olusegun Obasanjo fleeing from Olu Falae; Buhari himself fled from Obasanjo in 2003. In 2011, Umaru Yar’Adua was absent, and in 2015, neither Buhari nor incumbent Goodluck Jonathan participated in the debates.
How exciting the 2019 debates will be, depends on Buhari’s appearance at the events because he is the incumbent that other contenders want to unseat. There are strong indications already that Buhari will not appear for the debate and if he will not, Atiku might not want to waste his energy debating those who do not pose much threat to his candidature.
For Buhari to hand over his campaign to someone else to run, there is a possibility he does not have the necessary physical stamina to withstand the rigours of the electioneering. Also, given that elections in Nigeria are not won based on the “work” of winning voters through ideas, but the work of “mobilisation” with dollops of stomach infrastructure and petty cash, he might not be that bothered. Buhari has shown scant regard for strategic symmetrical communication with Nigerians since he became President. Curiously, his popularity has not tanked in his strongholds. Why should he change now?
Another possibility is Buhari sending an emissary (most likely, Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice-President; the Bola Tinubu rumour is just rumour). If he sends Osinbajo or any other APC chieftain, the organisers should refuse to countenance a surrogate so as not to set a precedent where “mercenaries” will stand in for presidential candidates who do not want to swot their homework. If Buhari does not think this debate is worth his time, they should leave his space on the podium blank as a testimony to his legacy as the general who ran away when he had to face a war of ideas with his own peers!
Contemporary media technology has facilitated a more participatory system of democracy where constituents make more significant contribution to the rituals of electioneering. No longer is registering one’s voice in processes like debates an exclusive preserve of select elite shuttered in a room where they come up with soft questions for aspirants. For good or bad, the Internet and its concomitant social media have flattened access to candidates. Even Buhari, the most elusive President in Nigeria’s history, has social media accounts. In this spirit, I have crafted 12 questions as my contribution to the coming debates. I know the organisers have their own questions already prepared, but I enjoin other Nigerians to send in questions that the debaters might get asked as well. Whether the candidates get to answer them or not, they contribute -in their own little way- to the practice of the exchange of ideas that is integral to democracy.
Here are 12 of mine for all the candidates who show up at the debates.
One, in the past three years, Nigerians have witnessed a gross decline in the quality of their livelihood. From economic decline to issues of insecurity, the country faces challenges that require urgent solutions. If elected, what steps will you take in the first six to 12 months in power to bring about an immediate change in the state of things?
Two, if elected into office, what will be the governing philosophy of your administration and how will it impact your strategic ordering of the economy, social development, the rule of law, and other ideals promoted by democracy?
Three, Nigerian history is a chequered one, filled with a series of events such as nationalist movements, military coups and counter-coups, civil war, a mangled election in 1993 and, finally, the return to democracy in 1999. Which of the many historical events the country has witnessed has impacted your mind the most about the imperatives of nation building?
Four, the executive arm of government seems perennially mired in conflict with the legislative and judicial arms, and the maxim of separate but equal between these three arms gets serially abused. What, in your view, is the best way to facilitate a better working relationship between these three arms of government?
Five, the issue of corruption in Nigeria is not a new one. Since 1960, the problem of endemic corruption has haunted every military and democratic dispensation in Nigeria. What, in your view, is the cardinal reason for the persistence of corruption in Nigeria? What new methods do you propose for fighting corruption, and what institutional legacies will we look back at in say, 50 years, and attribute to your foresight on this issue?
Six, do you have a pre-existing medical condition that might impact your health adversely while in office and lead to you seeking medical intervention outside the country? If the answer is yes, can you tell Nigerians what to expect if you are elected into office?
Seven, one of the most lingering criticisms against the Nigerian Armed Forces is their penchant for brutality against civilians. If you are elected as the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, how will you go about sanitising the forces and injecting values that include respect for life, human rights, and ethical considerations into their overall practice?
Eight, the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria has increased by three million since the last published statistics. Also, according to the National Commission for Mass Literacy, a whopping 38% of Nigerians cannot read or write. In addition to these, those who are in the first years of schooling lack basic resources such as libraries. Taken together, Nigeria’s future with a growing army of illiterate population is a shaky one. What is your party’s strategy for qualitative early education for millions of Nigerians?
Nine, Boko Haram and banditry are straining the resources of many states. What will be your party’s strategy in curtailing the operational capabilities of Boko Haram and other menaces such as herdsmen? What should be done about Leah Sharibu and the remaining 112 Chibok girls that are still in Boko Haram captivity?
Ten, globally, fossil fuels investments are being drawn down, and reliance on them curtailed. Nigeria seems overwhelmingly plugged to fossil fuels. What is your administration’s vision of Nigeria in a post-oil global economy?
Eleven, industrial actions by teaching and non-teaching staff of academic institutions, from primary to tertiary establishments have become a permanent feature of Nigeria’s socio-cultural and political life. What are the long-term solutions your party will propose to tackle this problem once and for all?
Twelve, how do you propose to attract competent hands into your cabinet?