We challenge Buhari to a debate – By Reuben Abati

Article written by president Jonathan’s spokesman, Reuben Abati. Read…

last time Nigerians enjoyed something really close to an exciting
Presidential debate was during the 1993 Presidential elections. I recall
the colourful and memorable encounter between the late Chief MKO Abiola
of the Social Democratic Party and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National
Republican Convention.  At the end of that debate, it was clear who
among the duo was better experienced, much more intellectually capable
and more endearing to the electorate in terms of readiness for the job
being applied for. That is what a debate, under these circumstances, is:
it is a job interview.

entire country is the panel and whereas actual measurement of impact
may be tentative, especially in a developing country where there are
challenges of illiteracy and access to mass media, the performance of
the candidates ordinarily reshapes the conversation and can
significantly influence voters’ choice. Unfortunately, in the lead up to
this year’s Presidential elections, it seems certain that voters will
be denied this opportunity for comparison, assessment, interaction, not
to talk of the excitement and drama.

man to blame for this denial is General Muhammadu Buhari, the
presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Getting
him to debate the incumbent, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has been
an uphill task.  To say that the man is scared, practically running away
from an opportunity to debate his ideas against the incumbent’s, is to
be charitable.  He doesn’t want it. Every effort to get him to the
podium has been rebuffed by him and his handlers.

Jonathan received, ahead of the INEC rescheduling of the dates for the
2015 elections, two requests for a Presidential debate. The President
enthusiastically accepted and looked forward to both debates. But
General Buhari was not interested. There is no gainsaying the fact that
President Jonathan and General Buhari are the main contenders in this
election. Every Nigerian would love to see the two of them debate. That
would be good for our democracy.

first group that approached President Jonathan was represented by John
Momoh of Channels TV; Emeka Izeze of The Guardian, and Nduka Obaigbena
of ThisDay, Arise TV and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of
Nigeria. They said they were in talks with the APC. They needed us to
agree to a debate. We checked our campaign schedule, and since Sundays
were left free for review meetings and further consultations, we
suggested that a Sunday
date would be most convenient for us. That was when the drama began.
The would-be organisers soon informed us that General Buhari did not
want a debate on a Sunday, because according to him “he does not work on Sundays.”

thought that was rather odd. President Jonathan works every day. The
job of a President is a round-the-clock, all-year-round engagement. If a
Sunday date would be inconvenient, may be a Monday then. Feedback from the Buhari camp: Monday was not okay either. Eventually, the contact persons reported that a Tuesday
date had been agreed upon. This coincided with a day when we were
supposed to have rallies in two states of the North. Nonetheless,
President Jonathan directed that he will keep the date, and that rallies
for the day should be fast-tracked. We adjusted our schedule and
intensified preparations for the Jonathan encounter with Buhari.

days to this debate that would have been, I received non-stop frantic
calls from the troika of Momoh, Izeze and Obaigbena. There had been a
development, they said. The fresh development was that they had met that
same evening with General Buhari and he did not agree anymore to a
debate with President Jonathan. Rather, he wanted a town hall meeting,
in which he would be the sole participant. Another town hall meeting
could be organized the same day for President Jonathan and both could be
aired back to back. That was his request and wish. Momoh and Co wanted
the President to agree to this.

rather have the two candidates say something on whatever platform than
say nothing at all. The President’s response was that a town hall
meeting is not the same as a debate. He wanted a face-to-face debate
with General Buhari. He also told Messrs Momoh, Izeze and Obaigbena that
if he wanted a town hall meeting, he could always ask his Presidential
Campaign Organization to arrange it. And General Buhari was in a
position to organize his own town hall meeting as well. Should there be a
change of mind and an opportunity for a proper debate, he, Jonathan,
would be available at the shortest notice. We haven’t heard from the
trio since then.   

One of Buhari’s spokesmen later announced that he was pulling out of that particular debate because the organisers had been “compromised” by government and the integrity of the debate platform they were offering was therefore doubtful! Questions: The
same media houses that grant APC disproportionate amount of attention,
and which they patronize to push their propaganda? And who are the media
managers on the APC side questioning the integrity of their old-time
comrades, and one-time fellow hunters just so they could be seen to be
committed? I leave these posers to the well-known parties involved to
sort out among themselves, as they surely will when all of this is over.

second group that invited us to a debate was the Nigeria Elections
Debate Group, anchored by veteran journalist Taiwo Alimi in conjunction
with a few media houses.  The NEDG has been organizing election debates
since 1999, and has been so successful that it has been invited to do
the same thing in other West African countries.
Buhari camp again rejected this invitation on the grounds that the
media houses involved were pro-government and therefore partisan.

of course, the puerile protestations of Buhari’s handlers are
meaningless. A debate is what it is: an intellectual duel requiring
skills, knowledge, comportment and the ability to persuade the
listener.  The medium may even be far less important than the message
and the messenger.  I have no doubt that Buhari’s handlers have enough
sound knowledge of this elementary truth, but they are insecure. Each
time they are asked to produce their candidate for a debate, they invent
a ridiculous reason.

General Buhari seems to be afraid of engaging every other Presidential
candidate. He needs to be reminded that a Presidential debate will not
require him to work out on a treadmill, or jog the distance, or recite
the national pledge, or spell his running mate’s name. President
Jonathan was and is ready. With Buhari fleeing the arena with his tails
between his legs, there were suggestions that the President could end up
debating other candidates from “smaller parties”, but he waved this
aside, insisting that every candidate is important. As it then turned
out, INEC rescheduled the election dates just the night before and the
NEDG group on their own, postponed the debate.  

is worrisome that any Presidential candidate will shy away from a
debate out of timidity and fear of inadequacy. And yet a President’s
work is one of perpetual debate. He will have to chair meetings, where
ideas will be expressed and he must understand what works and may not.
He will attend international meetings where he is expected to contribute
to discussions, often in the format of a debate.  Without that ability
to assimilate, process and discuss ideas, nobody should be trusted with
even the management of a local council not to talk of the whole of
Nigeria.  A debate also provides a candidate at this level, an
opportunity to communicate his vision of leadership, and to explain to
the electorate in his own voice, why he deserves their vote.

Buhari needs to come out of his comfort zone and undertake this test.
He has been campaigning on the issues of security yet his supporters
preach hate and violence. He talks about the economy yet he couldn’t at a
town hall meeting differentiate between the excess crude account and
the foreign reserve. He projects himself as an anti-corruption angel yet
he is surrounded by a large crowd of morally conflicted persons; to
worsen it all, he doesn’t even know the name of his own running mate.
When he grants interviews, his responses are cryptic and elliptic,
demonstrating such shallowness that confuses an informed audience.

deliberate avoidance of a Presidential debate is akin to an act of
examination malpractice. It is not good enough for a man who wants to be
President of our country. He is short-changing the Nigerian electorate
by denying them the opportunity of assessing him properly in an open
debate.  While a Presidential debate is not a constitutional
requirement, it is an established convention that deepens and enriches
the democratic process.

Jonathan is ready to meet him in an open debate, any day, any hour, and
at any venue of his choice.   We invite General Buhari to take up the

Abati is President Jonathan’s official spokesman and media adviser.

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