Opinion | Atiku’s Non-participation In The Presidential Debate

It is sad that instead of lamenting the absence of incumbent President Buhari in the Presidential Debate of 19/01/19, the whole focus is on his main challenger, Atiku for not participating!

By Chris Isike

It is sad that instead of lamenting the absence of incumbent President Buhari in the Presidential Debate of 19/01/19, the whole focus is on his main challenger, Atiku for not participating! But maybe it is a good sign for Atiku to be the subject and news headliner of a debate he did not participate in, instead of focusing on the brilliant candidates who participated and what they had to say. Maybe focusing on Atiku instead of on Buhari who didn’t attend the debate is sign that Atiku is the candidate to beat and not Buhari.

I am one of those whose initial gut reaction to Atiku’s decision not to participate in the presidential debate was of disappointment. My initial gut feeling was that this was a missed opportunity for him to showcase his presidential capability and experience, a missed opportunity for him to take the higher ground over Buhari and set him on the back foot for dodging, and for Atiku to generally win over undecided voters. However, within minutes, the emotions gave way and reason prevailed. I reflected on the essence of presidential debates both in the American and Nigeran contexts, their impact on elections, Buhari’s tactical refusal to participate in the debate and I realised like many of us that Atiku’s decision was correct on tactical and realpolitik grounds.

First, in terms of essence, presidential debates serve two purposes; to give electoral candidates an opportunity to present themselves and their policy plans to the electorates, and two, to give candidates an opportunity to dissect and critique the policies and actions of the candidate of the ruling party. Impliedly, a presidential debate without the candidate of the ruling APC is meaningless especially in the Nigerian context where there are other opportunities for candidates to present themselves and their policy plans as we have in TheCandidates where Buhari and Osinbajo did same on 16/01/19. They have actually now cited this as one reason Buhari decided to skip the presidential debate of 19/01/19. Atiku and Obi’s turn shall be on 30/01/19 and I am sure he shall speak for himself there, and we shall all have the opportunity to hear him and his policy plans. This shall satisfy the first purpose of a presidential debate. The second purpose which we may never realise unless Buhari is bold enough to accept Atiku’s challenge is the opportunity for other aspiring candidates to dissect and critique the policies of the ruling party and it’s candidate. It is therefore Buhari and not Atiku who owes Nigerians that.

Second, presidential debates both in the American and Nigerian contexts are not game changers. Research shows debates change 0 – 1% of voters minds. Impliedly the presidential debate does not make you win or lose unless perhaps in a very tight race where the difference can be less than 1%. In Nigeria where the presidential debate is still evolving and not compulsory, majority (over 70%) of actual voters and who are based in rural and inner areas will not be impacted by the debate and it’s results because they did not watch it for varying reasons including not having television, electricity, and or not even knowing about it at all. Most of these have already decided and some would change their minds before the elections due to other factors, not the presidential debate.

So for all those undecided, mostly elitist (urban) voters who truly wanted an opportunity to hear Atiku and his policy plans for Nigeria before deciding, you will get your chance in a few days from now. Meanwhile You can also hear these on his campaign trails where he talks a lot unlike Buhari who only says a sentence or two which he still does very poorly anyway.

Meanwhile Atiku scored a realpolitik goal over Buhari with his decision. As we all know, given Atiku’s involvement in governance under PDP, which can be both a blessing and a curse for him, he is the main contender to incumbent Buhari. Sadly, whether we like it or not, that makes Buhari and Atiku the two main presidential contenders, and this is the reality of Nigeria’s political structure which has been rigged since 1958 to unduly give and perpetuate the political hegemony of the North over the rest of Nigeria. This is why more intelligent and younger contenders such as Moghalu, Ezekwesili and Sowore will never get a chance to govern Nigeria unless we restructure our political system to grant every Nigerian equality of citizenship. Unequal citizenship is the fundamental problem we have as a country and it is the foundation on which other problems such as unpatriotism and unbridled corruption rest. So in the absence of social justice, the reality is that the 2019 race is between Buhari and Atiku. This explains why Atiku didn’t see the need to take part in the debate without Buhari. He however used the debate to achieve the following realpolitik benefits:

  1. That he can play dirty like Buhari and his APC, so bring it on. PDP will respond in same measure.
  2. Throw a direct challenge to Buhari for a debate of policies. Presidential debate ball back in his court.
  3. Prevent the APC from having campaign issues based on his debate points for the next week or two
  4. And of course, save himself taking unnecessary punches from other lightweight or undercard boxers (Moghalu and co) who would have probably focused on him instead of Buhari.

Just me musing.

Chris Isike is a Professor of African Politics, African Development and International Relations at University of Pretoria