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Promoting Good Governance.

The debaters, Buhari’s middle finger and Atiku’s own goal

By ‘Fisayo Soyombo

OBY Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu and Fela Durotoye must have woken up on Sunday morning feeling a measure of resentment towards Nigerians. Quite thanklessly for them, these are the same Nigerians whose votes they seek.

At Saturday night’s presidential debate, Ezekwesili spoke about her determination to lift 80million Nigerians out of poverty. She talked about removing barriers in the way of service-sector operators, as well as disrupting the current patterns of Nigerian politics and breaking the country’s perpetual cycle of leadership deficit. Moghalu harped on the importance of focusing on a holistic strategy for expanding small business and employment opportunities in the rural areas, and of electing a President who understands the economy.

With the exception of “I want a Nigeria where the son of nobody can become somebody without the help of anybody”, which made him sound like a motivational speaker rather than a presidential material, Durotoye made some interesting propositions, too, such as creating 30millions jobs by investing heavily in agriculture, housing and road construction.

Yet, more than 24 hours after the debate, the major conversations have been about the absentees — President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar — rather than the performance of the trio. How riled Ezekwesili, Moghalu and Durotoye must be — even if they won’t admit it — that their presence at the debate is being undermined by the relentless talk about the absentees. This development has clear implications; I will come back to that.

On the back of an error-strewn showing at APC campaign rallies all week, we have to extol the political innocence of anyone who expected Buhari to turn up at Saturday’s debate. In Kogi on Wednesday, Buhari slipped; were it not for the vigilant hands of his entourage, we might have had to deal with the ugly sight of our President sprawling on the floor. Apart from physically slipping, Buhari also made a slip of the tongue, claiming to have assumed office on May 19, 2015, whereas it was May 29. In Kaduna on Friday, he tripped; had a chair not be somewhere in sight, the President might have ended up on the deck. On Thursday in Delta, Buhari bizarrely described Great Ogboru, the APC governorship candidate, as the “governortorial candidate” — a phenomenal linguistic invention he made after first calling Ogboru “presidential candidate” and subsequently “senatorial candidate”. The same day, he also mixed up the dates he was Petroleum Minister, giving it as 1978-79 instead of 1976-78. Put in the mix his underwhelming showing at Wednesday’s town-hall interaction during which Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was largely his saving grace, and there was no way Buhari would be debating. His advisers who shielded him from the debate did their job well. Their selfish gain, though, is Nigeria’s loss. We will come back to this, too.

Conversely, Atiku’s 59th-minute-of-the-eleventh-hour withdrawal is a spectacular own goal — not so much because of the missed opportunity but because of the unintended exposure of the egotistical agenda oiling the electioneering machinery. Perhaps Atiku didn’t realise it, he didn’t necessarily need Buhari at that debate. The President may be his biggest obstacle to the presidency but the debate was no referendum on the Buhari administration. It was a forum for him to sell himself to the Nigerian electorate — to again defend himself against his popular perception as corrupt, his US trip and, more importantly, his plans for creating jobs, revitalising the economy and restructuring the country, three important anchors of his campaign. Anyone who has ever heard Atiku speak extempore will agree that he has never been found wanting in communicating his agenda for Nigeria. On Saturday, he proved even he had underestimated himself. Big, big missed opportunity.

Atiku’s explanation of the walkout has left a bitter taste in all our mouths. His explanation of coming for a “presidential debate, not a candidacy debate”, and his allusions to Buhari’s unavailability to defend himself, is self-damaging. Apparently, Atiku came for a presidency debate, not a presidential debate. Atiku considers Buhari’s absence “a slight on ALL of us and our democracy” but doesn’t think his own absence carries exactly the same significance? In any case, it is hypocritical of him to censure Buhari for skipping the debate. Olusegun Obasanjo, whose running mate he was, did not debate in 1999. Atiku is not on record anywhere to have publicly condemned it, or to have persuaded him otherwise in private. Buhari refused to debate in 2015 yet Atiku was one of his biggest backers; had Buhari given him front-line recognition in his government after his ascent to power, perhaps Atiku would be here today defending a debate-shy Buhari for 2019. But karma can be vicious, and Atiku can have no complaints.

Atiku has since clarified that his only condition for attending a debate is Buhari’s attendance. There is no denying that Atiku has always wanted to be President. He tried in 1992 without luck; he has tried again every election season since 2007. But his current attempt is evidently laced with vendetta; it is his chance to avenge his consignment to political oblivion by a man whose presidency he immensely contributed to securing. Vendetta and ego are two of the potentially numerous unedifying sub-themes of the Atiku presidential aspiration.

Coming back to Buhari, this isn’t the first time an incumbent President will be shunning the debate. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua skipped it in 2007; Goodluck Jonathan skipped the first of the two major debates in 2011 (leaving the contenders to boycott the second, which he participated in alone). But this is the time we must be most worried — because Buhari’s absence wasn’t completely occasioned by arrogance, but also by senility and the necessity to avoid a calamity. A President who can’t sit at a two-hour debate without embarrassing himself cannot last another four years without shaming us all.

The presidential candidates of the alternate political parties, with whom I kicked off this conversation, must be wondering why their performances have assumed lesser significance to the absence of ‘Butiku’, as coined by Ezekwesili. The answer is simple: 2019 is still about PDP and APC. It won’t continue forever, hopefully, but they have a say in how quickly the PDP-APC hegemony will be broken. May 29, 2019 may not witness the swearing in of a Moghalu, Ezekwesili or Durotoye as President, but not long after, we will know if they’re opportunistic presidential aspirants or they’re truly here to stay. We will know if, by 2023, these alternate parties would have recognised the need to fuse into a third force to be represented by only one but supported by all of them. We will see if they dismember their campaign teams or expand them over the next four years to build that structure that will count against them at the polls next month.

I have said it before and I will restate it: 2019 is already a lost opportunity for Nigeria. A second Buhari presidency is very likely, Yet Buhari, no matter how well-intentioned he is, is no longer in charge of even his own cabinet, much less the country. His coming back, if it happens, will be catastrophic. An Atiku presidency remains a probability; if it happens, the PDP looters already hovering over him will spearhead it. One potential consequence is that our treasury will be afflicted by kwashiorkor. And the alternate parties? Their debate can’t even overshadow the absentees — how do they hope to win?

Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo.

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