Nigeria: Why there should be Presidential debates in Nigeria

By Ozodi Thomas Osuji – It seems that the major candidates for the upcoming presidential election in Nigeria are set: Jonathan, Buhari, Ribadu, Utomi and Saraki. From the look of things, however, it seems that of the five two are really in serious running for the presidency: Jonathan and Buhari. Thus, we can honestly say that two candidates, Jonathan and Buhari are running for the presidency and that one of them, all things being equal, would be the next president of Nigeria? That being the case, it seems to me that Nigerians ought to be given the opportunity to get to better know who these two gentlemen are and what they stand for.

Presidential debates have many functions, including having the candidates answer questions, unrehearsed, and do so on their feet. This gives the people the opportunity to judge how sharp or dumb they are. Seeing a man responding to questions that he did not know was coming to him pretty much tells you how sharp he is or is not.  It is one thing to prepare for speeches and or have other persons write them for one and one deliver them to friendly audiences and another to stand before a panel of hostile questioners each throwing  questions at one and one answering them, before a live audience, too. The individual’s psychological makeup generally shows up. Is he self-assured, confident and assertive or is he timid, shy, diffident and passive? Does he easily get angry when backed to a corner or does he smile and seek positive ways out of difficulties? How a man reacts when his back is against a wall tells us a lot about him.

We want leaders who stay calm when the going gets tough and others lose their heads; we want those who are cool and collected under pressure; we do not want persons who in crisis situations panic and run or seek persons to blame. We want captains who stay in their sinking ships and figure out ways to get their passengers to safety rather than seek their personal safety first; in fact, we want captains who prefer to go down with their ships rather than abandon them.

Does the candidate have understanding of issues facing the country and what to do about them or is he ill-informed and has no action-plan?

Presidential debates give candidates the opportunity to tell the country what exactly they plan to accomplish in office; it offers them the chance to tell the people why they are seeking political offices.

Modern countries are like big businesses and their leaders are like chief executive officers (CEOs); they must have good grasp of basic economics, finance (corporate and public), management of people in the process of seeking and attaining organizational goals and objectives and of course outstanding leadership qualities. No modern political leaders should have less than the equivalent of master’s in business administration, not  if the country expects to navigate the intricate interconnected world economy we live in. The era where politicians talked the talk (and did not walk their talk) and knew nothing about the global economy is over, certainly over for those countries who want to be players in the world economy (and not just be a periphery, plantation republic sending raw materials, such as crude oil, to the metropolis).

Modern leaders must have clear understanding of international politics and have foreign policies that they have given considerable thought. For example, we all know that the current African countries are the products of European colonial masters. Europeans put these countries together to serve their interests, not African interests. Diverse ethnic groups were hastily lumped together.   We all know that these fake countries must be restructured and made realistic to African needs.

(Some of us, Africanists, desire a unified Africa, an African federation where each ethnic group is made a state within the umbrella of one African central government.)

So, what are these candidates stance on this very critical issue, an issue that must boldly be addressed if Africa is to take her place among the nations of the world instead of always being a basket case asking for others to give her foreign aid that its thieving leaders squander?

One understands that in Nigeria we do not seem to expect our leaders to stand for something that they are running for office for; we seem only interested in having big men in office but big men doing nothing for us. Nevertheless, the purpose of elections in a democratic polity is to elect politicians into offices who are going to accomplish some goals for the people. We ought to know what the candidates see as the people’s aspirations and how they plan to satisfy them.

Most Nigerians agree on what needs to be done to rebuild the fallen house of Nigeria. We all know what Nigerians are yearning for, so the question is: do the candidates know them, and if they know them have they given them sufficient thinking and come up with plans as to how they would meet them?

Nigeria needs to be industrialized; Nigeria needs economic opportunities for its people so that they would have jobs (at present perhaps unemployment, especially among the youth is over 50%); Nigeria needs economic infrastructure; Nigeria needs political stability; Nigeria needs development of its health care facilities and perhaps provide all Nigerians with adequate health insurance coverage; Nigeria needs to improve its fallen school system so that all Nigerian children under age eighteen go to school and graduate from secondary school and subsequently, at least, thirty three percent of them go to universities and the rest to technical colleges.

Nigeria needs all kinds of things done and good leaders can make those things happen. With committed leaders it is possible to bring Nigeria to the level of the Asian tigers in thirty years. Therefore, we need to know how those who present themselves as candidates for the presidency plan to accomplish these needed tasks for Nigerians. We need to know why we should vote for any of the gentlemen wanting to become the president of Nigeria.

Presidential debates are well known phenomenon in the USA. Americans expect their presidential candidates to have, at least, three debates and their vice presidential candidates to have, at least, one debate. This has been going on since the famous Nixon versus Kennedy debates. One can say whatever one likes about these debates but the fact is that seeing the candidates’ debate each other gives the people opportunity to clarify their political ideologies and where they stand on issues of importance to the people.

Britain, which ordinarily is a parliamentary democracy and does not elect national leaders but elect each candidate to represent a local constituency, including the future prime minister, apparently, decided to copy the US presidential debate format for electing her prime minister. During the last election in Britain we saw David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg go at each other and the general consensus was that Cameroon is the sharpest of the lot and thus the British people elected him and his conservative party to office.(Mr. Cameron, by the way, is only 43 years old yet the British public expect him to do the better job for them; in Nigeria we tend to elect old but stupid men to office apparently on the misguided assumption that old men know what to do when in fact a young person may better know what to do and not old farts.)

We have seen the posturing of Jonathan and his rivals but we really cannot tell much about what these men stand for. Oh, we have heard their speeches at public election gatherings, but those speeches were probably written by their handlers and do not represent what is in their hearts. We want to know what authentic utterances from their real selves are.

We need to see these men speak to us in a spontaneous manner so that we judge their level of convictions. It is no use for some of these candidates to be trying to dodge debates so as to hide their lack of preparedness for the office they are seeking.

Whereas one should keep an open mind and not prejudge the candidates qualification until one actually see them in a debate but one must say that from their past records  some of them are not fit to become dog catchers, talk less the president of a modern polity.

Mr. Jonathan has been the president of Nigeria for some time now. During his watch nothing has really changed. Corruption is still as rife as ever. Nothing gets done in Nigeria without money changing hands. We all know this sad fact of Nigerian life and also know that economic development is not going to take place under such condition. I doubt that a reasonable foreign investor would invest his money in the thief-land that has become Nigeria (his money would be stolen by the thieves of Abuja).

We all know that Jonathan promised us that he was going to do something about the power sector in Nigeria. Yet Nigerians seldom go for twenty-four hours with uninterrupted electricity. We know that no economic development is going to take place in a country that does not have adequate electricity; factories run on electricity, you know.

We all know that the educational sector of Nigerian has gone to dogs. We know that graduates from Nigerian universities are now no more than glorified secondary school graduates. We know that most foreign universities no longer admit Nigerian university graduates to their graduate schools on the assumption that those are not even worthy to be undergraduate students.

(But who cares; Nigeria is a country where leaders do not care about the perception of their country by other countries; actually, they do care; they want to know how much money they can steal from the national treasury and while at it pretend to be decent human beings!)

If one may ask: how did Jonathan go from a poorly paid university lecturer to a man with millions of dollars in his bank after been in office as a deputy governor and or the governor of his state for a few months? How did that money come about? Clean money? Ill-gotten money? And if he made that much as a governor of a state how much has he now made as the head-honcho of the thief-land called Nigeria?

Wasn’t Jonathan’s illiterate wife or her surrogates involved in some sort of money laundering scheme: caught with tons of dough on her while trying to leave the country, and what has become of that case? Has the case been dropped and if so why? Inquiring minds want to know these things, for they cannot just be swept under the rug and forgotten.

(If we keep ignoring these egregious issues one can see a North African type revolution visiting Nigeria soon, or worse military intervention under the pretext of sweeping the thieves of Abuja out of office. One can see young military officers claiming desire to clean the empire of thieves as their reason for interrupting our nascent democracy.)

Regarding Buhari we know from his past that he is decisive and incorruptible but that is not enough; we want to know whether he can operate within the parameters of democratic institutions.  Is Buhari a democrat or is he an autocrat, that is what those of us who admire him want to know. Nigeria’s democracy is still in its infancy and needs to be nurtured rather than disrupted. If we disrupt it and go back to authoritarian rule, well, at some point in the future we shall start afresh learning how democracies work. So we want a Buhari who would strengthen democratic institutions in Nigeria while making sure that the thieves that currently inhabit the halls of power in Abuja are thrown into jail or run out of town.

Buhari, one must say, appears a man of integrity, a sincere man with no case of corruption against him. Nevertheless, we need to understand his goals and objectives, what he wants to accomplish for Nigeria. We want to know that he understands the difference between the command structure of the military where officers give orders and their subordinates obey them and civilian politics where the actors are equals; there are no officers and men in politics; all political actors are the same; one must negotiate with fellow politicians to get things done.

Politics involves bargaining, horse trading, log-rolling, and making trade-offs and compromises; good political leaders are men who know how to give and take rather than browbeat others into going their way or the highway. If you try to browbeat others to your way, well, you might stimulate a civil war.

To stand von Clausewitz on his head, politics is war fought through other means; politics is violence enacted through gentle means. We want to make sure that Buhari understands these matters. Much as one admires Buhari one does not want an obtuse military boy in Aso Rock!

Pat Utomi, Ribadu and Saraki appear to be in the race for vanity purposes and stand no real chance of winning the presidency so we might as well not waste our time and energy on them (nor do they really have admirable plans for Nigeria that would make us take them seriously; Ribadu seems very immature, Saraki seems inarticulate and undisciplined, Utomi appears like Jesse Jackson and is always running for office that he knows that no one is going to vote for him).

The die is cast; it is either Jonathan and his spoils-patronage boys or Buhari and his putative clean government wins. We therefore need to know more about these two gentlemen.

Presidential debates would give us the opportunity to get to know them. Our votes ought to be enlightened(and, hopefully, the election will not be rigged although such a hope appear to be idealistic and misguided; a realistic stance given that since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 every election in Nigeria has been rigged is to expect rigging).

Be political realism and cynicism as it may, we must hope for a free and fair election for without such hope all is lost. When hope for a better future is lost men die; we , as a people, are not yet ready to die and therefore hope that Nigeria, despite its corrupt past, would turn a new leaf, and  elect leaders who are committed to developing the country.

Let us, therefore, have presidential and vice presidential debates in Nigeria; these debates will enable us sort chaff from wheat.

Dr Osuji can be reached at; Dr Osuji teaches and writes on leadership and management matters.