A mild drama ensued on Saturday, 19th January 2019 at the Congress Hall of the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja where the Nigerian presidential debate took place. The debate which was graced by just 3 out of the 5 invited candidates, witnessed the absence of the 2 major candidates of the election; President Muhammadu Buhari and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
The moderator, Mark Eddo, was just about announcing the name of Atiku Abubakar when he was passed a note. Atiku Abubakar had returned from the U.S and arrived the venue of the debate but he refused to debate without Buhari as it would make him appear smaller politically. The candidates, audience and viewers were all shocked that Atiku particularly would not come up onto the stage, even if Buhari who has been faltering publicly of late is lazily excused.
Notwithstanding, the debate proper began with the moderator introducing the other 3 candidates present – Oby Ezekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Fela Durotoye of Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN) and Kingsley Moghalu of the Young Progressive Party (YPP).
While the candidates spoke on their lofty plans around issues ranging from security, economy, job creation, education and so on, the contestants did not hesitate to throw heavy jibes at both Atiku of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and the incumbent President Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) whose administration has been abysmal. Long before the debate, at every opportunistic moment, some of these 3 candidates do hit at Atiku especially and then at Buhari as being too evil to continue with attempts at ruling the nation. So it was with gusto that they seized the opportunity of the absentees to sell themselves as the better candidates to millions who watched the debate.
Knowing how politics operates across the world, even in advanced countries, all of the dirty things which unfold before and during campaigns is often regarded as fair in times of real politicking. So a lot of accusations and allegations which could have passed as libellous do go scot-free.
But then, weighing the odds of realpolitik, what chances do these 3 presidential candidates who debated among themselves beautifully have at the polls? Debating without any of the 2 major party candidates felt like an echo chamber where brilliant folks came to express their fantasies of governing a complex nation like Nigeria. Everybody knows that these three political candidates which make up a part of the legendary Third Force parties have no regional or local party structures; they have hardly been to the Northern part of the country on campaign runs; they have also hardly ever engaged widely enough to stand a chance of booting out the candidates of APC and PDP, Buhari and Atiku respectively.
It is also interesting to note that the Red Card Movement, headed by Oby Ezekwesili, which championed the PACT deal was originally designed to produce a single candidate among Kingsley Moghalu, Fela Durotoye, Yele Sowore and others. But when the pact failed with Moghalu walking out of the deal upon the announcement of Fela Durotoye as the winner, Ezekwesili herself went ahead to pursue her own presidential ambition in the late hours. One wonders how much more weight the Third Force would have been able to pull if the PACT had succeeded in presenting a consensus candidate.
While Atiku Abubakar would later expatiate his reasons for being absent, he said that he exited the debate because if he would not be debating policy direction with the incumbent President Buhari, then he does not see the point. Buhari also later released a statement through his aides that he could not attend the meeting due to his hectic campaign schedules. No flimsier excuses had ever been presented on avoiding presidential debates ever.
The presidential debate on Saturday can, therefore, be said to be as much of a credibility de-marketing for Moghalu, Ezekwesili and Fela as it equally vilifies the lack of regard both Buhari and Atiku have for the electorate who care about political debates. Although debates are not mandatory yet in Nigeria, according to the electoral act, it is very much mandatory in advanced democracies such as in the United States which we can emulate as well.
And as it is widely believed that the coherence a leader or political candidate shows in a gruelling public debate is a good additional test to prove the readiness and capacity of politicians, it is right about time that citizens make up their minds on who they feel has the best plans for the progress of our nation come February 16th, the presidential election day.
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