Presidential debates may not have effects on voters’ decisions or sway the outcome of an election but it is always a time for the candidates to sit together in a hall answering questions on how they will move the country forward. Such is a presentation of the candidates to the people who view closely and rate each candidate’s policies and plans for the country.
The first political debate took place between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. It wasn’t even a presidential debate; rather, it was for the Illinois senate seat. Both men argued on their respective policies which bordered on slavery. The success of their series of 7 debates birthed election debates. However, the first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Town halls are often organised by organisations or groups of people or media companies as organised recently by the Arise TV. These meetings and debates avail the general public opportunity to closely participate in the electioneering process. Many people seize the opportunity to get direct clarifications on what matters to them and their community from the candidates. It is also an opportunity to hear from the candidates, read their lips and hold them to account should they renege on their promises.
Debates and town halls avail the people the necessary insight into the personality, policies, and ideologies of the candidates and provide the candidates the opportunity to explain to bits the contents of their manifestos. But, Nigerian politicians have treated debates with disdain especially where they cannot control the outcome. They often cherry-pick the debates or town halls they want to attend or consider attendance based on the organisers.
In 2011, the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan did not attend the debate organised by NN24 TV, saying “he would participate only in one run by the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON).” His opponents – Nuhu Ribadu, Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Shekarau – said they were “suspicious” of his relationship with BON and they did not attend the debate, leaving Goodluck Jonathan to debate himself.
In 2015, the presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC) Muhammadu Buhari failed to attend the presidential debate and in 2019, Muhammadu Buhari and PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar shunned the debate.
As the 2023 election draws close, citing “busy and hectic campaign schedules” the APC has indicated their presidential candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu will not be honouring any debate rather will attend the town hall meetings organised by his campaign organisation.
The APC and their presidential candidates have a history of not attending debates and are shielded from the media except where they have control of the optics and narrative.
Criticism trailed the town hall meeting organised by the AriseTV. They were accused of bias in that the meeting was for presidential candidates as the organisers allowed the vice presidential candidate of the PDP to stand in for the presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar while the APC presidential candidate avoided the meeting. Also the moderator, Reuben Abati was accused of bias towards the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, The Labour Party has said it will not attend any such meeting or debate if the other presidential candidates will not attend.
The Nigerian media is not up and about. Given their position as the fourth estate, they should be forceful in criticising any candidate who shies away from such opportunities to tell Nigerians what they intend to do. They have allowed the politicians to make their position almost inconsequential in the electioneering process and eventual leadership.
The media could be accused of colluding with the politicians. Some journalists are partisan and biassed and have brought in their individual biases, partisanship into the mainstream and have not been able to interrogate the politicians adequately. But, as much as I criticise these journalists, I will also note that most media organisations and journalists are beholden to the government and politicians.
The Nigeria Election Debate Group (NEDG) should ensure trust in the organising and in choosing moderators where there will be no suspicion of bias or ambush schemed against any candidate in any form.
Avoiding debates or town hall meetings by these politicians is mostly an affront to the people and the media as well. This is why after winning the election, president Buhari shut out from speaking to Nigerians. He was shielded from the media and his administration has been termed failure and yet he cannot be held to account because he did not interface with the people.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu is being shielded from the media as well as Atiku Abubakar.
For the presidential debate not to collapse or fizzle out of existence in Nigeria, the media and NEDG must ensure a level playing field for all the candidates.