It is understandable why the Labour Party will withhold their presidential candidate from attending debates or similar public forums if his counterparts in the All Progressives Congress and Peoples Democratic Party do not show up. Appearing at such venues while fellow contestants get to pretend they are busy doing better things can diminish. Why fritter your worth on low-stakes engagements in a society where debates do not necessarily win you an election? Yet, the LP can do better than make Obi’s (dis)appearance a mere reaction to his counterparts. Debate forums are an essential aspect of democratic processes because they are spaces to advance and defend the ideas and ideologies that determine the fate of the nation.
Serious politicians use such platforms to coherently articulate their understanding of issues, advance their plans and projections, and highlight how they intend to deliver on their visions. That is also why you should hardly expect the APC candidate — and even that of the PDP who will take the cue — to refuse to show up. That is not how they know to win elections.
Yes, the APC presidential campaign rambled several excuses justifying the failure of their candidate, Bola Tinubu, to be at Sunday’s town hall meeting organised by AriseTV. He will possibly also avoid future gatherings where he will have to speak extemporaneously to a crowd not pre-selected for his benefit. Truth is, he would be foolish to attend presidential debates. He would be far better off being jeered for running away than risking the thorough self-demystification that will follow his appearance at those forums. There is no benefit for him to subject himself to any town hall meetings, debates, and even media interviews outside the arrangee shows his aides create for him.
First, their party is incumbent, and meeting the public to canvass for votes means he would have to defend their record. Honestly, there is no winning that game if he plays it. Nobody — and I repeat, nobody — thinks Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) has done a good job. Even the APC stalwarts are embarrassed about how he has turned out to be the worst leader in the history of modern Nigeria. These days, when even his minions appear on television, you can practically hear the hand-wringing in their voices when they inundate you with a litany of apologies like ‘recession,’ ‘oil price,’ ‘pandemic,’ ‘Russia-Ukraine.’ They started out in 2015 blaming every evil in Nigeria on the “16 years of the PDP” and are still not short of excuses. Tinubu, who also played a decisive role in planting Buhari into power, will have to answer for Buhari’s failures if he faces the public. Nothing about his career as a public officer suggests he understands accountability. The only language he speaks is ‘loyalty,’ not to any higher cause — mind you — but to himself alone.
Second, presidential debates are also a forum to put forward your record as a CV to the public and justify why they should give you a job. Of what can this jeun soke politician boast? Of course, they will mention ‘Lagos’ as his record of success, but even that is a negative. Look, no matter how many tantrums their errand boys throw on this matter, it will not stop me from pointing out how Lagos is a failure. The same political collective has ruled that state for 23 years, yet it ranks very low on every livability index. The crux of cityness is based on the quality of the public infrastructure that makes for good education, healthcare, security, mobility, leisure, hygiene, and shared community facilities. Of how many of these does Lagos boast? Recently, road transport workers in the state went on strike to complain about the extortion they suffer at the hands of the state-sanctioned louts managing their motor parks. The impunity and pure robbery that typifies the experiences of these beleaguered road transport workers are illustrative of the genius farce that runs the state. There is no real substance to all their lauded achievements; much of it is merely extractive. The only thing that works for them is the propaganda architecture that allows the papering over their daily raid of the lives and livelihood of the people.
The third factor is the amount of physical and mental stamina required to withstand a public forum like a debate while absorbing the hostility expected to exude from both the in-person audience and those viewing the broadcast on millions of electronic devices. Presidential debates are a space for gladiators who can endure such and still stand. They typically have some practice in the art of rhetoric, the simultaneous contestation and defence of ideas. The political debate culture was built around people who can think on their feet, not tired men who cannot recall the last time they had a fresh insight. Not enough politicians in Nigeria have been trained for the process. Many of them cut their teeth through one-way dialogues with hired crowds who throng the campaign grounds — not to listen to anything the politicians have to say — but merely wait for the right cue to break into the song of “on your mandate we stand.” The audience knows the process is a farce, and theirs is to supply the background noise.
Outside those spaces, Tinubu is very vulnerable. His handlers will be smart to keep him away from scrutiny. I do not expect him to go to any debate they have not specially curated for him to shine. If Tinubu should attend a presidential debate, I can imagine how flustered he will be if he has to answer the lingering question of how he became a bagman for a drug cartel and the moral implications for the nation. For a man whose gaffes already supply comedians, skit makers, meme-makers, and TikTokers with content, he will be a self-writing joke for a whole week. He has survived his public engagements by depending on a battery of ghostwriters, speech writers, and spin doctors who pretend they can extract sense from the incoherence of a man whose political philosophy is built on the infrastructure of the stomach.
The question for the rest of us is how to proceed from here. Debates are crucial to inscribe the ethos of democracy, but what do you do when the candidates of the so-called major parties are unlikely to attend them? They are wedded to the tactics of winning elections based on the sentiments of religion and ethnicity, and public debates expose them. The PDP vice presidential candidate represented his team on Sunday but asking presidential candidates to debate the vices (pun intended, yes!) of their opponents is demeaning. If the APC/PDP candidates continue to stay away from public forums, it will be unfair to continue to ask the third-party candidates to perform the mental and physical labour while the APC and PDP reap the benefits of not getting scrutinised.
At the same time, I worry when parties like the LP calibrate the public appearances of their candidate on who else shows up or not. The point of having a third party was not to merely replicate the toxicity that characterises the supposedly big two. It was to break the stasis they represent. The goal was to depart from the standard political means — which had become wholly oppressive and entirely non-regenerative — and to begin forming new habits. Obi’s handlers should rethink how they can balance the ethical necessity of subjecting their candidate to public dialogue without risking his overexposure.