What has dominated national discourse after last night’s presidential debate is not the performance of the candidates that participated but mainly the absence of the two main contenders in the February 16 election.
President Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), and the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, were absent from the presidential debate
Some attendees described their absence as the height of disregard for Nigerians.
Fela Durotoye, Atiku Abubakar, Oby Ezekwesili, Muhammadu Buhari and Kingsley Moghalu are the five aspirants invited to take part in the debate.
Debate organisers told PREMIUM TIMES Saturday evening that all the candidates confirmed participation. However, when moderator Mark Eddo called them out to take the podium, only three appeared – Mrs Ezekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, Mr Durotoye of the Alliance for New Nigeria and Mr Moghalu of the Young Progressives Party.
While Mr Buhari failed to attend because “of his strict schedule,” according to his campaign team, Mr Abubakar, who was seen at the venue of the debate, said he decided to withdraw his participation, after learning Mr Buhari had chosen to stay away.
The three other candidates who participated did not buy their excuses. The three candidates momentarily put aside their ideological differences to characterise the two contestants as arrogant and disrespectful of the Nigerian people they aspire to serve when the moderator asked them their thought on the absence.
While Mrs Ezekwesili said the absence signalled the mark of their exit from the race. Mr Moghalu and Mr Durotoye also took shots, saying their inability to answer questions from Nigerians forced them out of the debate.
Some attendees who came to observe the debate live at Transcorp Hilton Hotels in Abuja were not surprised by their absence.
“I am not surprised because it has been a routine for popular candidates to avoid crucial debates such as this right from the inception of democracy in Nigeria. However, I will push the bulk of the blame on the incumbent (Buhari) because he created the precedence that made Mr Atiku not to attend,” Nicholas Iwerunonye, a correspondent of Daily independent said. “As a journalist, I feel disappointed that this has become the sad reality of Nigeria.”
For medical expert, Henry Ewononu, disappointment was a rather mild word to describe his thoughts on the absence.
“I feel utter disgust. I don’t know the right word that can convey how bad I feel. They have not only insulted the intelligence of Nigerians but also thrown a challenge to Nigerians to do our worse and that is the way I see it.
“Nigerians have been looking for this opportunity to hear first hand from this people how they would carry out their plans if elected, but they took Nigerians for granted and for me if I’m to prescribe appropriate sanctions I will say Nigerians should retaliate on February 16 with their votes.”
On Mr Abubakar’s decision to leave moment before the event started, Mr Ewononu said the former vice president never wanted to participate and had been looking for an excuse.
“At the last minute, he gave one flimsy excuse for not appearing for the debate. I see him as someone who is not even prepared for the debate. If he does have something to tell Nigerians, if he knew how to say it and he was sure of his conviction that those prescriptions will cure Nigeria, he would have grabbed this opportunity to talk to not just Nigerians but many viewers and listeners all over the world. It’s an opportunity he lost. It’s a pity.”
Peter Morgan, an Abuja based lawyer was also particularly critical of Mr Abubakar.
“I think for me, I will not take that decision because I am not running this campaign because of an individual in office. I am running because I want to work for the Nigerian people so he should have taken the decision to address Nigerians whether President Buhari appears or not because when he assumes office he is not going to put his leadership on Buhari.”
Zarihi Yusuf reechoed the thoughts of many other respondents who neither felt surprised nor disappointed by the absence.
“I know it’s something that requires intellectual stamina and quite frankly, I know the both cannot cope so I was not surprised.”
Respondents praised the debaters on their presentations and clarity of thought and vision for the country during the debate
Atiku Faces Social Media Backlash
Meanwhile, Mr Abubakr took to Twitter to explain the reasons behind his decision to withdraw from the debate.
“We came here for a Presidential debate, not a candidacy debate, and I, Atiku Abubakar cannot challenge or question an administration where the man at the helm of the affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies”, he explained in one of the many tweets in his official handle Saturday night.
But that too was greeted by fierce criticism by online commentators.
“I’m disappointed in you sir. Neither I or any member of my family will vote for you. You and buhari are the same”, another user, Chris Obanya, wrote.
“Sir, that strategy was faulty. You squandered the best opportunity to showcase the options you have. The debate is not about Buhari, but issues confronting the nation,” another user wrote.
Mr Abubakar, a former vice president, is seen as the main challenger to President Buhari in next month’s presidential election.