Five lessons from Nigeria’s no-show presidential debate
Both the president and his main challenger failed to show up last Saturday, but the debate battled on anyway.
With general elections less than a month away, Nigeria held a much-awaited presidential debate on 19 January. Voters around the country tuned in for two hours on Saturday evening to hear what their next president had to say about governing Africa’s most populous nation.
Here are some lessons I learned from the debate.
1) Political debates are hardly unmissable viewing
Of the dozens of candidates running to Nigeria’s next president on 16 February, five were originally picked to participate in the presidential debate. But of those five, two were a no-show: namely President Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger Atiku Abubakar.
The president attributed his truancy to his “busy and hectic” schedule, suggesting he might need to hire a new secretary (or learn how to lie better). Atiku quickly condemned Buhari’s absence as “a slight on ALL of us and our democracy”, but then said he was going to have to miss it too. Jokers.
This meant that in the end just three contenders took to the stage: Former education minister and the only female candidate Oby Ezekwesili; business consultant and motivational speaker Fela Durotoye; and former Central Bank deputy governor Kingsley Moghalu. Over the course of two hours, the trio sold their agendas, took shots at the current administration, and stressed the need for voters to look beyond Nigeria’s two dominant political parties.
This hardly made for unmissable viewing. I doubt too many Nigerians tuned in to listen to three unlikely aspirants “blow grammar”. The lack of provision for pidgin or local languages did not help make the debate more accessible. Meanwhile, I’d bet my bottom kobo that the Arsenal-Chelsea match on DSTV depleted viewing figures too.
Moderator Mark Eddo fulfilled his role well, but the debate would have benefitted from shorter questions, longer response times, more consistency, and greater opportunities for follow-ups.
The most important way to make these debates worth watching, though, is for them to be taken seriously by the main presidential candidates. To do this, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should make them compulsory and disqualify dodgers.
2) Wasting your vote isn’t necessarily the worst thing to do with it
Aside from their last-minute excuses, the key reason Buhari and Atiku skipped the debate is because they assume voters have no viable alternatives. The dominance of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) means they most probably will jointly scoop up the vast majority of votes no matter how low they stoop.
Under their watch – the PDP for sixteen years and then the APC for the last four – Nigeria has seen poverty and unemployment rise, corruption thrive, doctors flee abroad, and the education system crippled by strikes. We’ve weathered a recession and watched journalists brutalised by security forces while terrorists ride over the county roughshod. And yet, despite both the PDP and APC’s poor track records, their presidential candidates think it is not worth their while to even debate their less prominent competitors.
And therein lies the problem. Nigerians are of the impression that a vote for a candidate such as Ezekwesili, Durotoye or Moghalu will be “wasted”, but for change to come, they must be prepared to “waste their vote”. We must be willing to shock the PDP and APC out of their complacency.
3) There’s no shortage of good ideas
In the debate, there was no shortage of good ideas on display. The candidates took turns to lay out their plans to build the economy, tackle insecurity and youth unemployment, and improve healthcare coverage and education.
Moghalu proposed recruiting 1.5 million Nigerians for the police force, establishing skills centres in all 774 local government areas, and retraining civil servants for entry into the private sector. He promised to bump education spending from 7% of the budget to at least 20% and end university strikes.
Ezekwesili vowed to train teachers and increase their remuneration to restore the profession’s prestige and update the curriculum. She proposed subsiding healthcare for the unemployed and providing incentives to slow the emigration of health professionals.
Durotoye talked of educating Nigerians to see the value of paying taxes and of prosecuting tax cheats to generate revenue. He promised to invest in agriculture as well as the construction of roads and housing.
4) There’s no shortage of complications either
At the same time, for every good idea raised, as many problems came to mind whether or not the candidates addressed them.
With national debt ballooning and Nigeria currently having to borrow to pay civil servants, for example, some large investment plans sound too good to be true. Meanwhile, remembering how many much-vaunted federal projects have been abandoned in the past, it’s hard not to be sceptical about seemingly solid ideas such as incentivising IT firms to relocate to rural areas or funding tech start-ups through private-public partnerships to tackle youth unemployment.
History also reminds us about other difficulties. For instance, Moghalu proposed removing oil subsidies, on which the government spends over 1.4 trillion naira ($3.9 billion) annually, and channelling those funds into education and healthcare instead. This might seem like a sensible plan, but it must be remembered that when President Goodluck Jonathan tried this in 2012, it sparked massive demonstrations.
Many other ideas similarly sounded promising but full of unaddressed pitfalls. Ezekwesili’s insistence that the civil service be trimmed to improve productivity might makes sense, for example, but this will only add to Nigeria’s 21 million unemployed people. Without coherent strategies, I fear many of the ideas put forward by the candidates are overly costly, unsustainable or simply un-implementable.
The sheer extent of the problems and difficulties facing Nigeria was perhaps most aptly demonstrated by the fact that one of the biggest was barely mentioned. Inconsistent electricity supply affects everything from running a business to powering classrooms, and Nigerians spend an inordinate amount of money on fuel and generators every year, polluting the air while we’re at it. Yet the issue was never even raised.
5) Voters care about substance, but there’s a long way to go
The presidential debate is a relatively recent concept and because people generally resist change, there has to be a drive to sensitise Nigerians to its benefits. In principle, the televised debate is a great platform for presidential contenders to present their policies and for the incumbent to defend their record. It’s a sieve to separate the wheat from the chaff. But until more voters are able to vote on substance rather than a party’s fame – and as long as the debate remains optional – we’ll keep riding and dying with the PDP and APC or whatever other party they merge with or split into.