Nigeria Decides: In these final weeks

By Tolu Ogunlesi

At a press conference last week, the Young Democratic Party, Nigeria’s newest political party – its emergence as a party based on a recent surprise ruling by an Abuja High Court – asked the Independent National Electoral Commission to immediately reprint the ballot papers for the March 28 presidential election so that it includes the name of the party. If INEC is unable to do that, the party executives said, it should postpone the elections.

Also during the week, several groups, ranging from MASSOB to an array of political parties including the Peoples Democratic Party, called on INEC to jettison the use of card readers in the forthcoming presidential election. The PDP is turning out to be one of the leading voices in what seems to be a grand campaign to undermine the electoral body and its efforts at instituting greater levels of transparency in the elections.

Going by what we’re seeing, it seems to me high time we renamed INEC the “Intimidated National Electoral Commission.” I’m trying to imagine what it feels like to be Attahiru Jega, buffeted from every side by a flurry of court cases and snide attacks – most of them from the same ruling party that appointed him and has before now flaunted him as evidence of its commitment to electoral reform in Nigeria. The PDP and its sympathisers are not leaving anything out of their line of fire – the Permanent Voter Cards, card readers, and Jega’s credibility.

President Jonathan has done a lot to position himself as a champion of electoral reform. It was in line with this that he appointed Jega, a respected former Academic Staff Union of Universities president, to replace the widely discredited Maurice Iwu as the Chairman of INEC. All of that reputation is however now being undermined by his seeming nonchalance to the virulent attacks on INEC by the ruling party and by his aides and associates. (It is interesting that one of the claims to fame of the spokesperson of the YDP is his authorship of a book titled, “Without Shoes”, about a character called “Lucky” whose life closely parallels that of the President).

Away from INEC, as the rescheduled elections approach, the issue of a presidential debate has again come to the fore. In a statement released on Saturday, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati challenged Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, and the All Progressives Congress to a debate. Abati said: “Getting (Buhari) to debate the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, has been an uphill task. To say that the man is scared, practically running away from an opportunity to debate his ideas against the incumbent’s, is to be charitable. He doesn’t want it. Every effort to get him to the podium has been rebuffed by him and his handlers.”

In the edition of this column that appeared on October 27, 2014, and titled, “Let’s insist on presidential debates for 2015”, I said: “I’ll be looking forward to debates at which Jonathan, Buhari, Atiku Abubakar and whoever else is seeking to rule Nigeria between 2015 and 2019 are all made to confront their records in word and deed. I believe we ought to have at least three major presidential debates before the election in February 2015, moderated by credible, courageous and knowledgeable people who can hit the candidates with tough and uncompromising questions.”

So far, none of those debates has taken place. In the two weeks left before the elections, there’s still a chance to make at least one debate happen, and provide an opportunity for Buhari and Jonathan to square up against each other. They have both travelled across Nigeria, selling their credentials and advancing reasons why the other side should not be given an electoral mandate. They are now both focusing on smaller gatherings; the APC on town hall meetings, President Jonathan on visits to traditional rulers and elders especially in the swing South-West zone.

Abati’s piece recalled the famous debate between Bashir Tofa and M.K.O. Abiola shortly before the June 12, 1993 election. “At the end of that debate, it was clear who among the duo was better experienced, much more intellectually capable and more endearing to the electorate in terms of readiness for the job being applied for,” Abati wrote. “That is what a debate, under these circumstances, is: it is a job interview.”

The PDP’s insistence on a debate is evidence that the party is becoming increasingly confident about exposing the President to public media scrutiny. You only need to look at the number of media interviews Jonathan has done in the last few weeks to know that a remarkable shift has taken place. In his first four years in office, apart from the rare presidential media chat, and the occasional CNN interview in Davos or elsewhere, the President mostly stayed away from direct, extended media contact. Now we’re in a season of “One Day, One Interview”. Local and international media are all cashing in on this bonanza.

Buhari has also been speaking a lot, granting several print and television interviews to the local and foreign media. Neither of the two men is a charismatic or compelling speaker in any form, but at least they have demonstrated a willingness to face cameras and dictaphones more than ever before.

Now what we need is a chance for both men to face each other, in a credible debate. The only memorable public encounter I can recall is captured in a video from the Abuja peace forum that Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku chaired. In it, an animated President Jonathan awkwardly embraces a staid Buhari. They both seemed genuinely respectful of each other. It would be good to put them in a room again, in front of millions of Nigerians, and a probing moderator, and see how they handle the pressure, as well as the challenge to convincingly sell themselves.

Just in case it seems as if it is only the PDP side that is pushing for a debate, let me remind us of the words of the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, at an event organised by the Kukah Centre in Abuja last year (I quoted him in my October 2014 article): “Debates help you to test the candidates and be able to form an idea; that this candidate has an idea what the problems are. Those are the things that help people to make choices,” Fashola said. He also highlighted the 1993 Abiola-Tofa debate, adding: “Immediately Tofa could not answer what the price of fuel was, it became clear to Nigerians that this was the candidate who was disconnected.” His conclusion: “We should not have people seeking high office without participating in debates.”

Abati’s statement explains that President Jonathan has received debate proposals from two groups. The first is the trio of John Momoh (Channels TV), Emeka Izeze (Guardian) and Nduka Obaigbena (This Day and Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria). The second is the Nigeria Elections Debate Group, led by Taiwo Alimi.

In January, the APC presidential campaign made it clear that it refused to participate in the NEDG debate because it believed the group was strongly biased against it. In a statement issued in January, the APC said the NEDG was made up of state-owned media like the BON, NTA and the privately-owned AIT (whose founder and owner is an influential member of the PDP); it accuses these organisations of being at the forefront of broadcasting “misinformation and blatant lies” about the APC and its candidates.

It is therefore understandable why the APC is not disposed to an NEDG debate. But it is not yet clear why the party is opposed to the Channels-Guardian-ThisDay debate. I do not want to believe it would be impossible to find a credible and trusted and competent moderator, one acceptable to both parties. As the elections approach, and the poison and tension in the political atmosphere intensify, a bipartisan approach to solving the problem of setting up a credible debate would be a fitting symbolic move that solidly demonstrates that our politicians can make the effort to rise above acrimony for the benefit of the people who truly matter the most: The electorate.

 

* This article was first published on The Punch Newspaper