Nigerians will on February 16 and March 2, 2019 go to the polls to decide the leadership of the nation through the ballot. A presidential debate is among activities expected towards the elections, but is it going smoothly?
It will be a deciding moment where the electorate will exercise their franchise by choosing from among the many presidential candidates of the various political parties.
Those who have emerged candidates of the parties at different levels had before the primaries, campaigned within their parties’ folds to get delegates’ votes, making promises and projecting what they intended to achieve if they emerged victorious.
Daily Trust learnt that the Election Debate Group has scheduled December 14 for the debate among vice presidential candidates and January 19 for presidential candidates.
Political pundits say some voters use debates to decide which candidate to receive their vote. But currently generating curiosity within the polity are the body language and an alleged calculation that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo will represent President Muhammadu Buhari in the presidential debate.
Buhari as the APC candidate declined participating in the presidential debate prior to the 2015 general elections. The All Progressives Congress Presidential Campaign Organisation, APCPCO, later announced the commencement of town hall meetings as a deliberate strategy of the campaign ahead of the presidential poll.
Buhari and his running mate, Yemi Osinbajo, explored the opportunity to explain directly to citizens the policy thrust of their envisaged administration and how the set objectives would be achieved.
APCPCO said in a statement in Abuja that the town hall meetings kicked off in Lagos with a robust interaction between Buhari/Osibanjo and the organised private sector.
A statement signed by Garba Shehu, the Director of Media and Publicity of the organization, said the party was compelled to chart the course because of the compelling need to have a person-to-person interactive session where pertinent questions would be asked and responses provided by the candidate and his running mate.
Analysts say if Buhari declines participating in the debate this time, it would send a wrong signal to the nation and the international community, especially as many Nigerians and even the political class consider the 2019 presidential race as a straight battle between him and the PDP candidate, Atiku Abubakar.
The PDP National Chairman, Prince Uche Secondus, told Daily Trust that President Buhari should not participate in the debate by proxy but be physically present to tell Nigerians his achievements so far.
“You can’t debate by proxy as a presidential candidate. Let him (Buhari) come out and debate on issues with our presidential candidate,” he said.
A founding member of the PDP from the North, Alhaji Aminu Yakudima, told our correspondent that debates were very crucial to the electioneering process as they help voters to make informed choice.
“With the 2019 election approaching and the debate cycle beginning, it is so important that voters are given the opportunity to hear candidates discuss and debate key issues prior to the elections,” he said.
But a chieftain of the APC, Chief Jackson Lekan Ojo, told Daily Trust that Buhari’s participation in the debate is discretional and must not cause ripples.
He argued that the debate was an informal way of enhancing the electioneering process, adding that no section of the Nigerian Constitution or the Electoral Act stipulates that a presidential candidate must participate in the debate.
“Is the election debate recognised by our Constitution? If it is not in the Constitution or the Electoral Act, it is not binding on anybody. There are people who have a lot of money in this country and they can buy some persons to organise this kind of debate simply to embarrass their political opponents.
“I want to tell Nigerians, it is not binding on Mr President because the law does not recognise it. And I want to tell you this, if anything is not binding on him by law and he goes there and anything happens to him it will be a public embarrassment. And a public embarrassment of Mr President is embarrassment to the entire Nigeria as a political entity.
“So morally, he may decide to go, he may decide not to go, it’s discretional. If he decides to send his deputy, it’s okay, because they are running a joint ticket.
“By law, the vice president takes over in acting capacity when the president is temporarily absent. So if the president does not want to attend, he has the right to send the vice president to represent him.
“Every right thinking Nigerian will not take this seriously, because there is no law or act of the National Assembly that expressly provides that the president must participate in the debate,” he said.
Presidential debates are held in advanced democracies. The United States of America in particular considers it as a key element in the electoral process and provides opportunities for candidates to debate on critical issues that have direct bearing on the lives of the masses.
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in the second 1960 presidential debate held in the NBC studios in Washington D.C. and moderated by Frank McGee. During presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for candidates of the main parties – currently, the Democratic Party (DP) and the Republican Party (RP) – to engage in a debate.
Pundits say the topics discussed in the debate are often the most controversial issues of the time and that arguably, elections have been nearly decided by these debates.
Candidate debates are not constitutionally mandated, but it is now considered as part of the electioneering process targeted mainly at undecided voters who tend not to be partial to any political ideology or party.
The two presidential candidates of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, in the last US election – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – also participated in a heated debate.
The two candidates clashed over jobs, terrorism and race in televised debates.
However, it is left to be seen whether President Buhari will personally participate in the debate this time or send in a representative. It is also left to be seen what the reaction of the ordinary Nigerians and the political class would be if he fails to appear to discuss the critical issues of public concern on the day of the debate.