A bill to empower the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) to organise public debates for political candidates has scaled second reading at the Senate.
This includes candidates of political parties running for the offices of president, vice president, governors and deputy governors.
The bill was first introduced in the Senate in November 2019 and is sponsored by Buhari Abdulfatai (Oyo North). It seeks to amend the Electoral Act to give INEC these powers.
Leading the debate, Mr Abdulfatai said the bill, if passed, will strengthen Nigeria’s democracy and bring it in conformity with the practice of other renowned democracies of the world.
He said the exposure made possible by mandatory political debate will definitely save the country from electing a tyrant.
The legislation, he said, will be used to sample the candidates’ knowledge on a wide range of issues, like a detailed analysis of how they intend to drive the economy, foreign, health and education policies among others.
He highlighted that the election debate will serve as a national job interview for the candidates as it gives them the opportunity to speak on a wide range of issues.
“This gives the people an opportunity, through their representatives in the National Assembly, to ask the ministerial nominees’ varieties of questions in order to test their knowledge on a wide range of issues and for Nigerians (to) have (the) opportunity to assess their ‘to-be’ ministers at their screening in the Senate.
“Their responses inform the president on their appropriate designation after confirmation. If the ministers that will work under the President, as well as the State Commissioners, can be adequately assessed by their respective legislative assembly before appointment, it is logically imperative for the president and governors who shoulder more responsibilities to be adequately assessed through a formal national debate,” he said.
While lawmakers took turns to support the bill, a few argued that an independent body be charged with such responsibility.
Ibrahim Oloriegbe (APC, Kwara) stressed the need for electorates to test the ability of the candidates.
The best way to test one’s ability is to have them answer questions, he explained.
He also noted that in past elections, parties without ‘potential’ attend such debates.
He also said the law, if signed, should be made mandatory.
Adeola Olamilekan said in a time where everybody wants to be something in Nigeria but barely know about the country, the bill is simply letting Nigerians know their candidates.
On his part, Barau Jibrin said the debate should be made optional.
He explained that if the debate is made mandatory and a candidate ignores it, the case could be taken to court and the said candidate will be at risk of losing his candidacy.
“I think it should be optional.”
Aishatu Dahiru (APC, Adamawa) noted that Nigeria’s electoral umpire is dependent on the federal government for funding.
She said such responsibility should be given to an independent body.
“The task of producing good candidates already lies with the political party. I think an independent group like the Nigerian Election Debate Group should be given this responsibility.”
Smart Adeyemi (APC, Kogi West) said the media and Nigeria Labour Congress should organise and conduct such debates.
The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on INEC for further legislative work.
Many Nigerians have described the bill as timely, judging from the events of the last elections.
In the build-up of the last general elections, a presidential debate was organised by the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria.
However, candidates of major political parties like President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party failed to show up for the debate.