The VP Debate: Nigeria’s New Step Towards Issues-Based Politics?, By Dele Agekameh
…one must laud the organisers of the debate for giving Nigerians an opportunity to meet some of the candidates who may have been unknown to many before the debate. Some have already said that debates do not win elections, but one hopes that they have enough impact on voter decisions in the drive for issues-based politics in Nigeria.
Last week, the Nigeria Elections Debate Group (NEDG) and Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) hosted a debate featuring five candidates running for the office of vice president in the coming elections in 2019. The debate showcased the important, but slow, shift in our political space towards more issues-centric electioneering. After that debate, doubts about 2019 were further diminished; it might be another two-horse race after all.
Professor Yemi Osinbajo of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and former Governor Peter Obi of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) out-performed the other three candidates. Although one cannot tell how much their experience in governance or the stature of their political parties influenced their performance, it was clear that they handled the questions posed to them better. The contribution of the others seemed to lack the depth that a more thorough preparation could have yielded or the soundness that experience may have provided.
So as not to seem unduly critical of the other candidates, it is necessary to state that the general quality of the debate seemed below par, in comparison with political debates that one has had the opportunity to see in other, more advanced, democracies. It was obvious that it was untested ground in presidential campaigning in Nigeria. However, it is a welcome development, significant in so many ways and deserving of applause nonetheless.
The real debate appeared to be between the PDP and APC candidates, who sparked loud reactions from the live audience, much to the chagrin of the moderator. For all the talk about the PDP and APC being two sides of the same coin, Obi and Osinbajo nearly made one forget the deep (and largely unhealthy) interconnection between the two parties. Obi, being a numbers guy, and former banker, launched into a barrage of figures and statistics every time he was prompted to make a contribution, to show what, in his estimation, was evidence of a failed government. In contrast, Osinbajo, the incumbent VP and a legal practitioner, constantly reeled out a list of current projects and programmes with his trademark eloquence, to defend the administration and the direction it was headed.
…the impression that the PDP and APC candidates came out on top in the debate should not lead one to a hasty conclusion. However, whatever the failures or successes of the VP candidates in the debate, it will undoubtedly affect perceptions about the party candidates as a unit, at least in the mind of discerning Nigerians who pay close attention to details.
Umma Getso, the VP candidate for the Young Progressives Party (YPP), gave a mildly coherent performance, with the highest points of her contribution being a proposed N1 trillion venture capital fund for young Nigerians and small scale businesses and the promise of unprecedented female representation in a potential Moghalu/Getso government. Khadijah Abdullahi Iya of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN), made a remarkable suggestion about giving local governments far larger power than they currently have through allocating 20 per cent of proceeds from resources within their domains to the local government authorities. Mr. Ganiyu Galadima of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), was especially vocal in his criticism of the current fuel subsidy regime and the problem of unemployment in the country.
Gathering the views of the various candidates, it is safe to say that there was agreement on the fact that more and more Nigerians today are in search of jobs or financial intervention for businesses. The argument hovered around what policies can adequately address the development of the economy from what Obi called a “shallow economy”, keeping in mind the problems of infrastructural deficit and widespread unemployment. While Osinbajo expressed confidence in the impact of current programmes, others were unsurprisingly of a different mind. Opinions also differed as to the cause of our current situation.
Now that we have heard the VP hopefuls say their piece, one hopes that people can draw informed conclusions from the display of the candidates. The choice of a running mate is perhaps the first test of a presidential candidate’s judgement. The frontrunner must begin to show leadership through the way s/he navigates the pressure or influences involved in picking a well grounded running mate. As such, the candidates who stood for the debate last Friday are directly or indirectly representative of the decision making of the frontrunner and the kind of government s/he wishes to run.
With the above in mind, the impression that the PDP and APC candidates came out on top in the debate should not lead one to a hasty conclusion. However, whatever the failures or successes of the VP candidates in the debate, it will undoubtedly affect perceptions about the party candidates as a unit, at least in the mind of discerning Nigerians who pay close attention to details. There were attempts to play on emotions in that debate, mostly by the weaker performers on the night. In a country where emotions are stirred easily because of our attachment to things other than national unity, there is fear that the implication of the outcome of the debate may be lost on the greater majority in society.
The current administration has exposed Nigerians to just how important the office of the vice president is, outside the statutorily assigned functions of the office. To agree to a vote in a ticket with a weak number two is unsound reasoning, no matter how gifted the frontrunner may seem.
In pushing for issues-based campaigns, there is need to prepare the electorates for the objective consideration of issues, which one imagines will be no mean feat in Nigeria. For instance, one of the more sensitive topics was about fuel subsidy. Professor Osinbajo rightly said that the question every Nigerian needs to consider is whether they are ready to accept at least a N40 increase in the pump price today. It suggests that to remove subsidy will be to endure higher petrol prices in the short term, at least. Many Nigerians want fuel subsidy removed and yet want lower petrol prices today. This desire is based on the impression that “subsidy is a scam”, which was repeated by one candidate on the night. That view is bound to resonate with more people in a country like ours.
The lack of preparation of some of the candidates perhaps betrayed the irony of their views on one of the very first questions of the debate, which was whether there is truth to the notion that the vice president is merely a place holder for the president. If some of the presidential candidates of the parties that participated had stood in place of their deputies, the debate may have been richer, with more depth. Although some may argue that the reverse may have been the case with some of the other contestants, one may have to suspend those thoughts until the planned presidential debate on January 19 takes place. For the one we have witnessed, there was too much “confidence in the plan of the presidential candidate” and less of outlining those plans. If one did not know better, it would seem like just what a “place holder” vice president would say.
The current administration has exposed Nigerians to just how important the office of the vice president is, outside the statutorily assigned functions of the office. To agree to a vote in a ticket with a weak number two is unsound reasoning, no matter how gifted the frontrunner may seem. That is why one must laud the organisers of the debate for giving Nigerians an opportunity to meet some of the candidates who may have been unknown to many before the debate. Some have already said that debates do not win elections, but one hopes that they have enough impact on voter decisions in the drive for issues-based politics in Nigeria.
Relatively unknown candidates stand to gain more through a thorough performance in political debates, especially when televised nationwide as was done last week. As we saw, the familiar faces of Osinbajo and Obi stole the day and the reaction of the crowd showed as much. What this means for the search for a third force is that we may need to wait longer for that dawn to come upon us. It is believed that the candidates for president now have their work cut out for them come January. One solace is that the debates can only get better from here on out, assuming that they become a regular feature in our political space.
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