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We challenge Buhari to a debate – By Reuben Abati

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Article written by president Jonathan’s spokesman,
Reuben Abati. Read below…
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
President 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.
The 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
aSunday, because according to him “he does not
work on Sundays.”
I 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 Sundaydate would be inconvenient, may be
a Mondaythen. 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.
Two 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.
They’d 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.
The 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. The Buhari
camp again rejected this invitation on the grounds
that the media houses involved were pro-
government and therefore partisan.
But 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.
Obviously, 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.
It 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.
General 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.
His 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.
President 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 challenge.
Abati is President Jonathan’s official spokesman and
media adviser.

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