#NigeriaDecides2019: Why Political Debates Matter! -Ishola Adebayo

January 18, 2019

The issues ahead of 2019 general elections are many and the candidates must talk through them for the people to make an informed choice. In some countries, political debates are often cumbersome to undertake. Nigeria is one of such countries because candidates in a Nigerian election are usually too many to engage in any meaningful debate.

Since their introduction in 1960, televised debates have been a key component in American presidential races. Even in the first debate, the implications and importance of it were clear. Writing on ‘The Role of Presidential Debates’, the Bill of Rights Institute, a United States-based organisation, devoted to educating individuals about a free society, gave a catchy and rather instructive description of the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and JF Kennedy as a critical marker of that year’s electrifying campaigns. It further contended that even the mere demeanor of the candidates weighed heavily on the results posted at the end of the day.

First, ponder this bit: “In 1960, a sweaty, nervous-looking, and makeup-free Richard Nixon squared off against a youthful and energetic looking John F. Kennedy in the first nationally televised presidential debate. Historians generally agree that this televised appearance had a profound effect upon the result of the election. Since then, the importance of these debates has grown immensely. For many, these debates are what they rely upon to decide upon which candidate will receive their vote.”

Political debates present an opportunity that is expected to be enthusiastically utilized by all; particularly small or poor political parties who cannot afford huge electioneering expenses on advertisements to publicize their activities. Rather than do that, Nigerian political parties, particularly those in the opposition, prefer to chase shadows, by leaving the debate proper for the politics of the debate. Rather than participate in every debate and use each to increase their political leverage, the opposition candidates in the 2015 elections ill-advisedly boycotted the only debate that has a national platform.

We can only hope that the 2015 experience will not arise in 2019. We should also look forward to more robust candidates who will this time embrace to debate rather than its politics. Such people must be different from some of the present ones who plan to study the Nigerian problem only after getting into office. 2019 beckons on those who can do it differently and not those who also promise to be effective with the old methods they currently run.

Organizers of the political debates at all levels should exercise the various candidates with a broader range of issues, which must include the structure of Nigeria; the share of the federation account between the federal, states and local governments; agriculture and water resources; the environment; citizenship; devolution of power; and youth, labour and sports. Others are energy; economy, trade and investment; foreign policy and diaspora matters; the rule of law and human rights; law and judiciary; public finance; property rights and land legislation; security. They should interrogate the place of the legislature and whether our democracy should continue to model the presidential system or revert to the parliamentary system of the First Republic.

Citizens expect from not just the candidates alone but also the political parties clear outlines of policy on these significant issues. We should discern from them a direction and continually ask questions. The people should be able to hold them accountable for the promises that they make.

A growing and prosperous citizenry ensures the survival of democracy by its greater independence and capacity to hold government accountable. The citizens are better informed and have access to all levels of government. We must stop leaving it to chance. Political debates matter and have changed and have become ever more involving and citizens-centric with the candidates as well as the parties and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.