Can I, a son of the soil, do an objective opinion piece on the Ondo State 2012 gubernatorial debates organized by the Chief Taiwo Alimi led Nigerian Elections Debate Group (NEDG) without being biased? I will try!
Several phone calls, SMS and eventually, social media commentaries by Nigerians jolted me to the real impact of the first day of the debate, particularly its potential of creating a new world perception of the average Ondo State person. Before now, the average person from that state was perceived as brilliant and industrious. ‘Olodo’ (dullard) was never a descriptive word for the Ondo people until that first day. On Nairaland (see http://tinyurl.com/cmmvvrk), one commentator said “Worst debate I’ve ever watched in my life. I had to switch over(sic). Horrible”. Another said “Now this shows the caliber of people in ONDO Politricks” while a female candidate said “the state would collide(sic) with Power holdings”.
How did these people emerge as candidates?
Thirteen years of rule by the leading political parties have successfully shielded many of the smaller parties from public scrutiny while some over the years have become the conclaves of a few opportunistic individuals who turned them into avenues to obtain yearly subventions from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Their selfish desire to maintain a firm grip on their tiny empires is the main reason they would never search for the best amongst their people and field them as candidates in order give the larger political parties stiff competition.
Does debate matter?
The ability to articulate one’s vision matters. Alluding to the holy book, ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’! Often, when the mouth is unable to speak sense, the probable cause could be that the heart is shallow. The implication of a shallow heart on communication could include incoherence and uttering mediocre solutions to serious challenges as Ondo State people witnessed during the first debate. On whether the English language matters, yes it does. Apart from English being the nation’s official language, it is not sheer legislative accident that the constitution mandates a minimum education requirement for aspirants. We are in a world that is getting further globalised with each passing day. A governor or deputy governor would never govern in isolation. He or she would attend several national and international events. He must be able to interact with other leaders, communicate his ideas and messages as well as exchange sophisticated modern ideas with national and international players. More importantly, office holders should be inspirations to impressionable kids and older youths. If Nigeria’s founding fathers, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello spoke impeccable English and were capable of brilliantly articulating their views, how can we expect less from 21st century Nigerian leaders?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can all imagine what the quality of our democracy and the quality of leadership would have been had this type of debate been made compulsory since 1999. If we have this in place, even the godfathers of the various political parties would be forced to search for the best among them and would not just put forward any Tom, Dick and Harry as candidates.
So who won the debates?
Saka Lawal of the PDP appeared to be the clear winner in the deputy governorship category followed closely by the candidate of the ACN, Dr. Paul Akintelure. The LP lost in the deputy category because of the absence of its candidate, Alhaji Ali Olanusi which resulted in the speculation that it was a deliberate and well calculated political manoeuvring by the LP.
In the first round of the governorship category, it is my opinion that Chief Olusola Oke of the PDP and Dr. Olusegun Mimiko of the LP were the clear winners. The candidate of the ACN however appeared professorial, gentlemanly and laid back. He appeared to be at a public lecture as a resource person rather than as a candidate at a gubernatorial debate. His faux pas that “Ondo State people do not have housing problems” reminded me of American’s Mitt Romney’s 47%. Both Oke and Mimiko however demonstrated a strong grasp of issues that are of interest to the average person. They also exhibited strong political acumen and stagecraft needed on such occasions. Oke particularly showed uncommon equanimity at that first encounter.
In the second debate which featured only the three leading candidates, Olusola Oke of the PDP appeared to be the indisputable winner in my personal opinion. He exhibited candour, depth and came out smoking hot. The incumbent governor however did well in holding his ground while Akeredolu of the ACN improved upon his earlier performance. The debate was also richer on issues although the candidates could not escape the temptation of typecasting one another as they laboured hard to adorn opponents with the corrupt tag which was an avoidable distraction.
Need for fact checking
Several ‘facts’ were rolled out in torrents during the debates. The press owes it a duty to the public to promote fact checking. If a candidate knows he would be fact-checked, he might be circumspect in recklessly dishing out untruths. This could further help to strengthen the quality of future debates as well as help psychologically prepare the youths that truth matters.
How do we make debates compulsory? The nation can do this by establishing a non-partisan National Debate Commission similar to what is in place in the USA. Experienced faculties from our universities, non partisan public affairs experts and reputable broadcasters should be in charge of such a commission. Politicians should not be involved at all. The current Nigerian Elections Debate Group could even be adopted and transformed into such a commission. The National Assembly can kick-start the process by enacting appropriate laws for the commission that would cover qualification of members, venue security, media coverage, mandatory candidate participation and limited funding. The law could also contain appropriate sanctions to deter evasive manoeuvrings. Alternatively, the Commission could be made a quasi institute with no government oversight but wholly as a private corporation whose debates are sponsored by private contributions from willing foundations. Essentially, any model adopted should allow enough enforceable legislative protection to compel participation while being independent enough to avoid undue influence. This could raise the quality of internal democracy in political parties by indirectly forcing the hands of party leaders and members to select their best.
Finally and by the way, there was this claim by Dr. Mimiko where he pointedly challenged the legacy of his predecessor in the area of Information Communication Technology. My understanding of his claim is that if his four years is placed side by side with those of his predecessor, he ranks better. Really? Umm, over then to unbiased fact checkers, the jury is still out!