Nigerians will go to the polls in less than a hundred days to select a new crop of leaders. The challenge in our growing democracy is having an issues-based campaign to ensure that the electorate is informed enough to make the right decisions on future leaders. This often helps citizens hold their elected public servants to account by making reference to their pledges, manifestos and campaign promises. After the 2015 elections, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) launched the Buharimeter to monitor and track promises that the then-candidate Buhari made while seeking the presidency. This helped evaluate the performance of the government while helping citizens know exactly what they were voting for during the campaign period.
Ahead of the coming elections, CDD and Arise Television have partnered to host a series of town halls focusing on presidential candidates. Both sessions to date have focused on security and the economy while featuring representatives from eight parties over two weekends. Understandably, as with all political activities, there have been disagreements and different opinions on policies, procedures and even personnel. But one thing that is certain, is that many Nigerians have appreciated the opportunity to engage with candidates aspiring to the highest office. The issue has come when certain parties, with widespread support and prominence, have refused to engage with citizens they aspire to lead. It is why, for all the extensive rhetoric, coverage and umbrage that parties, candidates and platforms have shared over recent town hall and debate arrangements, there is one sad salient fact that remains. No successful Nigerian president, in the Fourth Republic, has participated in a debate prior to their election.
In 1999, PDP candidate Olusegun Obasanjo avoided a debate with the APP/AD candidate, and former minister and secretary to the government of the federation, Olu Falae. This trend was repeated in 2003, and again in 2007 when Umaru Yar’Adua’s documented health challenges precluded him from being actively engaged. In 2011 and 2015, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari alternated their willingness to engage in debates – with the candidate not debating with others, going on to win the election. And now, the APC and PDP candidates have not taken part in any debates involving other party candidates.
The argument is often anchored on the belief that strong candidates do not need to take part in order to avoid exposing themselves to unnecessary criticism – this lending to the argument that frontrunners do not need debates. The idea is that by engaging with other candidates, they serve to only weaken their standing since the election is theirs to lose and ‘weak’ candidates can only be promoted by appearing in concert with them. However, this deprives these candidates of being able to refine their positions and test their ability to defend their policies. Debates not only afford us the opportunity to hear from different candidates but also help inform the path forward from different perspectives. But most candidates forget that the best salesperson for an idea or a party is the flagbearer themselves. Many controversial issues, or campaign mistakes, can be aptly and adequately discussed without the implied limitations that a spokesperson has since they aren’t the candidate themselves. Ultimately it speaks to a level of respect for the citizens that candidates seek to serve, and that should be at the basis of their decision to seek elective office.
The cycle has seen candidates engage with different communities, from industry-related conferences to select lobbying groups, seeking their support. The difference is that public debates, often moderated by broadcasters, allow the public the opportunity to watch, follow and engage with the candidates and their ideas. This also adds to the different opinions and perspectives that will help inform future leaders if they are privileged to get elected to public office.
This election cycle has also seen the necessary inclusion of fact-checkers in the process, which highlights the need to ensure that misinformation is reduced significantly. Yet the most important part of this process, and one that is shared by all citizens, is the responsible rhetoric and engagement during this campaign period. There are increasing reports of ethnoreligious fuelled violence and incendiary comments and this can only lead to a more heightened and sensitive political environment. Everyone, from candidates to citizens, has the responsibility of making sure that the campaigns focus on the issues that affect all Nigerians and help make sure the electorate makes an informed decision on the next set of leaders.
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