I first of all acknowledge the peculiar political landscape of Nigeria. It is not easy to pitch opponents and their views of the country against themselves as it is done in the USA because of the proliferation of political parties, relevant or not relevant. Nigeria shouldn’t have so many political parties, especially given that the majority of these parties hardly register 5 votes in presidential elections. Secondly, such a large number of parties are a drain on useful national resources because they are given some sort of funding from our national coffers. For me, I would like to see a two-party system because candidates that eventually emerge would have met a great number of nationalistic criteria already, given the geopolitics of Nigeria. However, we can still effectively manage up to four parties, and at the most, five. If any other person wants to run for president, let them run as independent candidates and see how much fun that is.
It is also important that we begin to pay attention to economic indices. For instance, we do not know what percentage of eligible labour in Nigeria is unemployed. We do not have a social security system. We do not know what type of jobs the employed ones do, and what importance those jobs have to the economy of Nigeria, because some jobs have more value to the economy than others e.g manufacturing jobs. If we know these statistics and how they develop, it is easy to ask pointed questions about economic policies and what they would mean to us people, in the same way questions are being asked of Barack Obama’s policies. This way, no one can pull the wool over our eyes with mythical and unachievable digit-point agendas and year-tagged visions that are not based on any sound logic or cold math. We must quit being easily deceived and swayed by rhetoric. How do the items in your plan add up to a consistent policy framework? We should have had enough of fantasy propaganda by now.
Leopards will always remain spotted, so it is equally important to know what convictions the candidates have about national life. This, I feel, will better help the electorate make up its mind about whom to vote for. For instance, if I were an American and I’m confronted with the regular switch in convictions that Mitt Romney displays, I’d think twice before I cast my vote for him because I am not sure which person and what conviction would take the reins of government in future. We should pay attention to what these people say and do now, in whatever positions of authority they may hold so that when the time comes, we can ask them questions about these events. For instance, we should be able to ask President Goodluck Jonathan why crony capitalism continues to grow in Nigeria come 2015. We should be able to ask him why Boko Haram has remained a menace for so long, and what his specific plans are for tackling the problems they pose. We would of course ask the opponents what they think is wrong and what they would do to ease these problems if they are elected president. We should be able to ask and dissect what specific plans or how the president and his cabinet plans to go about diversifying the economy. How exactly do they plan to reduce the budget deficit and finance the national debt? What specific plans do they have to improve the energy sector? How important is education to them? How do they plan to fix our rotting educational institutions? What do they believe drives innovation and hence economic growth – a talking head in Abuja or investment in research? We know that at some point, Mitt Romney promised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade judgement by appointing conservative justices to the US Supreme Court. What appointments are these prospective leaders likely to make and how do these people measure up? We should be able to predict, with some certainty, where candidates stand on these issues and more. Politicians are what they are and they will always try to evade where they can, but the discussion that a debate allows would enable us understand how much understanding they have of what is to come.
Last time out, I watched with the utmost amazement as by some deft manoeuvring, Goodluck Jonathan was left to debate himself. Exactly what that whole charade was supposed to achieve still escapes me to this moment, although we could argue that he wanted to avoid any intellectual discussion. No one should become our president that isn’t ready to go head-to-head (or head-to-heads) with anyone to outline and defend how he would go about leading us. It should be made compulsory for presidential candidates to take part in at least three debates. The upside to this is that after the debates have ended on television, the back-and-forths move into the public domain and we become even more enlightened. After it is made compulsory, the organization of the debates should be taken away from bodies or TV stations that probably have a stake in the elections. An independent body, or committee (as favoured by President Jonathan), of media professionals should be tasked with choosing the locations for the debates and pooling together questions that will form the bases of the debates. Let each debate be based on the burning issues of the times. Now, these issues are the economy, insecurity, unemployment, falling educational standards ati bee bee lo. As with the American example, there should be a town-hall style debate where of course the questioners and their questions would have been chosen by this body of professionals.
Debates in Nigeria look like a massive jamboree to me, with all the regular trappings of Nigerian excessiveness. A presidential debate, as with all other political debates does not need a panel of judges or any such silly panel. Whatever “panelly” job ther e is must have been done before the debates and the spotlight should therefore only be on the candidates and the moderator. I watched a debate in 2011 – the Lagos “guvnorship” debate – where one Mr Olisa Agbakogba, whom I gather is a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, was a member of one of these panelly things. That day, Mr Agbakogba was overly combative and aggressive and got what he asked for when a candidate finally insulted him for his complete ignorance of the ideals of a political debate where he ordinarily should be a backdrop. A moderator and one moderator alone should be allowed to direct the course of any debate. This moderator has to be someone who understands the minutiae of policy – economic or otherwise – arguments and can ask appropriate follow-up questions; someone who is irreverent enough not to be cowed by the personalities on display to allow him/her carry out the job.
A proper debate, where candidates are forced to get into the fine print of their plans for the nation, can only be good for all. It doesn’t mean that these candidates will live up to the expectations they would have created. Hell, we could even get a George Bush after the event. What it does mean is that politicians aren’t given too much of a free pass at the presidency. It means that whoever wants to win the privilege to lead us has to knuckle down and develop some intellectual capacity to explain to us, and to his opponents, the hell what he’s gonna do as president so that we can hold him accountable.