In what might be a first for a democratic country, a sitting President comes to a debate and is the only participant. The incumbent didn’t appear at either the debate organised by NN24 or that organised by Enough is Enough Nigeria, tagged ‘What About Us’. Ibrahim Shekarau and Nuhu Ribadu attended both. Dele Momodu and Muhammadu Buhari one each. Candidates Shekarau, Ribadu and Buhari boycotted the BON debate in protest at Goodluck Jonathan’s absence from earlier debates.
The result was that the BON debate became something of a farce on one hand, and a missed opportunity by the opposition candidates on the other hand. One of the main aims of a presidential debate is for an incumbent to be grilled rigorously on his record by the moderator/panellists and by his challengers. Those tough questions were in short supply. Nothing was asked about the Niger Delta or the solution to the Jos crisis, or indeed, why he didn’t go there in the aftermath of the latest disturbances. He did well on issues of agriculture, women participation in governance and questions on the petroleum sector, but his response on electricity and corruption left much to be desired. Questions about the direction of our national budget were also omitted. The moderator correctly said that due to time, not all questions could be asked, which does make one wonder just how the Nigerian Electoral Debate Group prioritise debate questions, and why despite visiting Lagos 10 times in about 2 months, President Jonathan could only find time for one debate.
That said, I think that the opposition candidates short-changed themselves by letting Jonathan have the reach of the NTA unchallenged. A lot more people get NTA in their homes than Channels or NN24. They also denied the viewing public the gift of contrast, of comparing the candidates as they stand side by side and make their points. A combination of Buhari, Shekarau and Ribadu would have put Jonathan under real pressure, even put him in the shade, and we will never know what the outcome of that would have been. They each lost a chance to make a last minute personal appeal to the voters, to change a few minds. Strategy and pragmatism should have taken precedence over making a point, as the latter gives no votes. If the PDP wins the Presidency again by a much narrower margin, the absence of the opposition from the BON debate could be seen as a factor. An appearance in front of several million people at once would be worth a lot of rallies and posters. One wouldn’t have expected such a lapse in judgement from a retired General, a retired policeman, and a mathematician. Maybe Jonathan is really lucky after all.