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2023: High profile debate called off as leading presidential candidates develop cold feet

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EFFORTS to provide a platform for leading presidential candidates to come together and constructively address important issues ahead of the 2023 general elections suffered a major setback after the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) cancelled the ‘Presidential Debate on Economic Policy’, slated to hold at the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja on November 15.

The NESG was organising the debate in partnership with the Nigerian Elections Debates Group (NEDG), and with the support of the Broadcasting Organizations of Nigeria (BON), Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), Enough is Enough (EiE), BudgIT and the Radio, Television, Theatre and Arts Workers Union (RATTAWU).

The debate was conceived as part of the NESG’s #IfNotNowWhen? Initiative, aimed at sensitising stakeholders and citizens on peaceful, informed and accountable democratic participation.

A statement released when plans for the debate were announced in October, signed by the Chairman of NESG, Asue Ighodalo, and Chairman of NEDG, John Ugbe, said the event would help Nigerians make informed voting choices ahead of the 2023 general elections.

“Nigeria is at a decisive point in its history, and as we countdown to the 2023 polls, it is critical, like never before, to nudge Nigerians towards making informed voting choices.

“The challenge before us, therefore, is to ensure the evolution of transformational leaders with a broad knowledge of the issues and the political will to steer the ship of our great nation towards shared economic prosperity,” the statement said.

But, in an unexpected twist, the organisers announced that the debate has been cancelled.

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A critical assessment of events surrounding recent engagements with the presidential candidates, as well as subsequent statements from political parties, was given as the reason for cancelling the debate.

Noting that debates are essential to the election process and are increasingly regarded as a tradition and the bedrock of a healthy democracy, the NESG noted that it was was envisaged that the debate would have provided a unique platform and opportunity for presidential candidates to discuss their economic agenda in an environment of civil discourse.

However, the Presidential Debate on Economic Policy will no longer take place as planned due to ‘prevailing circumstances’.

“We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience this decision may cause our stakeholders and all Nigerians. As a non-partisan organisation with a mandate to foster the establishment of an economic foundation for democracy, the NESG will actively seek independent direct engagements with the candidates on critical economic policy reform issues and prescriptions.

“We envision a Nigeria where election debates are an integral part of the electoral process, and candidates are eager to engage citizens in discussions about their mandates, experience, ability, capacity, knowledge, and overall competence for the positions they seek. We remain committed to providing a platform for such engagements in the national interest,” the organisers added.

Leading presidential candidates dodge debates

Ahead of the 2023 presidential poll, leading candidates have developed cold feet for debates.

The first major debate for the 2023 elections – the town hall debate organised by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), in collaboration with Arise Television, held on Sunday, November 6, to a large extent flopped as All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidates Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar failed to show up.

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Atiku was represented at the event by his running mate, Delta State governor Godwin Okowa. Tinubu was not represented.

Labour Party (LP) and New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) presidential candidates Peter Obi and Rabiu Kwankwaso, and Kola Abiola of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), participated in the debate, but there were misgivings over Atiku and Tinubu’s absence.

The APC presidential campaign council later informed Nigerians that Tinubu would not be attending any of the 2023 election debates. Minister of State for Labour Festus Keyamo, one of the spokespersons for the Tinubu-Shettima Presidential Campaign Council, said the former Lagos State governor would not be available for any debates due to his ‘hectic campaign schedule’.

According to Keyamo, many radio and television networks in the country had indicated interest in hosting such debates and out of deference to them, the APC presidential candidate “will not be making selective appearances on some networks while ignoring others”.

“Secondly, the busy and hectic campaign schedules of Asiwaju Tinubu will not permit him to honour all such invitations by different radio and TV networks, hence our decision for him not to start with one TV station and later ignore others,” Keyamo added.

In apparent response to the absence of the APC and PDP candidates at the CDD/Arise TV town hall debate, Obi said henceforth, he would not attend debates if his counterparts in the other parties do not show up.

The LP candidate, who spoke through the Director General of the Obi-Datti Campaign Organisation, Doyin Okupe, said he would no longer debate with “surrogates and running mates”.

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Going by the statement released to announce the cancellation of the presidential debate on economic policy, it was certain that the fallout of the CDD/Arise TV town hall debate forced the NESG/NEDG to abort the high-profile engagement.

In Nigeria, leading presidential candidates dodge debates

In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari, incumbent and candidate of the ruling APC, shunned the presidential debate. Keyamo, who was then the Director, Strategic Communications for the President Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organisation, said Buhari could not attend the debate because of his hectic schedule.

“The busy and hectic official and campaign schedules of Mr President clashed with this programme,” Keyamo said, explaining Buhari’s absence.

Atiku, PDP presidential candidate, also failed to attend the debate in 2019. There were reports that Atiku actually got to the venue of the debate, noticed that Buhari was not there, and left.

In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, the PDP candidate, shunned the presidential debates. He went ahead to win the presidential election. It was the same scenario in 2011, when the incumbent PDP candidate Goodluck Jonathan won the presidential election after failing to show up for debates.

Buhari dodged the debates in 2015 but that did not stop his victory in the presidential election.

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