Presidential Debates In History, By Anthony Akinola, email@example.com
Even with the vast majority of Nigerians not having access to television and electricity, the culture of televised presidential debates has crept in and should be warmly embraced. It is one of the many cultures we have copied from the United States of America. The recently televised debate involving Major General Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Political Change (CPC), Malam Nuhu Ribadu of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Malam Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), suggests it is one culture that is gradually taking root in our society. President Goodluck Jonathan, seeking to be elected into the position he occupies (he is not seeking re-election), did not participate in the debate organised by NN24. It will be revealed later in this article that such absence was not unusual, even in the United States of America.
It may interest students of political history to know that the first ever debate in the USA between rivals for elective, political office, can be traced to 1857 when Abraham Lincoln insisted on having a debate with Stephen Douglas on “the virtue of the republic and the evil of slavery”. It was an unmoderated debate and what was then at stake was a senatorial seat in the State of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln lost that election but a history in political debating had already been made.
Abraham Lincoln would later win the presidency in 1860, in an election which featured no political debates. In fact, there were no debates between presidential candidates until 1952 when the League of Women Voters organised debates between presidential candidates. The culture of televised debate would later become formalised with the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The handsome and more charismatic John Kennedy won the televised debate while an earlier radio debate had been won by Nixon. Mr Nixon was said to have appeared rather “shifty” on television and that contributed to his loss of the election.
If televised debates could prove the downfall of a candidate who otherwise could have won in an election, why bother to participate in them? President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate with Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964; he was leading in the polls, and public speaking was not his forte. Similarly in 1968 Richard Nixon who again contested the presidency with Senator George McGovern, refused to debate. Nixon was the front runner in the opinion polls and his non-participation might have been informed by his experience with John Kennedy in 1960.
Just as John McCain was about to do in one of his 2008 presidential debates when he said he was attending to legislative matters in Congress, President Jimmy Carter in 198O refused to participate in the first presidential debate because it included independent candidate John Anderson. He, however, attended subsequent debates and that memorable question by Ronald Reagan did him great damage: “Are Americans better off today than they were four years ago?” The state of the economy and the American hostage crisis in Iran suggested it was the right question that would nail the coffin of the Carter presidency.
The official explanation for the absence of Goodluck Jonathan at the debate organised by NN24 was that he had committed himself to an engagement involving political leaders of other nations. It was as if the presidential debate was neither important enough nor pre-arranged. With no major achievement to flaunt in his one year of leadership and with all the ills associated with his political party – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – the suggestion that Goodluck Jonathan might have “chickened out” could not be far-fetched:. Of course this should be seen if he does participate in a future debate. Lack of confidence in public speaking could be a factor that makes one not want to debate with opponents.
One did watch a recording of the debate organised by NN24 with some friends. “You can see that the man is talking sense” was one sentence that a Nigerian kept on repeating each time the candidate of his choice took the stage. He seemed not to see any sense in what other presidential candidates were saying! The lack of objectivity on the part of our peoples suggests that the real value in the Nigerian presidential debate still belongs to the distant future.
The essence of a presidential debate would be fully appreciated in a society where the people see it as an opportunity to evaluate the policies, preparedness and demeanour of those who seek to govern them. It must, however, also be warned that a great leader may not be the best of debaters.
In the United States of America where televised presidential debates have been around for 50 years, or in Great Britain where debates between potential prime ministers took off for the first time in 2010, the outcome of elections tends to be decided by those alluded to as “floating voters”. This is more so in the United States of America where the outcome of a presidential election could be dramatically influenced by an event on voting day. The one portrayed as frontrunner could suddenly find himself or herself struggling to catch up in the opinion polls! We are not there yet!
Our contemporary political behaviour is informed by bigotry and primordial sentiments. It will take many years of education and improvements in the economic wellbeing of our peoples to overcome ethnic and religious bigotry. There is nothing particularly Nigerian in what one is saying here because overcoming bigotry has been an historical struggle even in the United States itself. Once there was a time in American history when a Barack Obama could not even have dreamt of walking near the lawns of the White House. Such a dream would have been interpreted as that of a black person about to be lynched!
Nigeria shall be a great nation and we as a people shall be where we deserve to be – in the comity of civilised peoples. Sadly, some of the leaders we have today – the so-called “His Excellencies” – have the natural dispositions of touts or thugs. Of what use would a political debate have been in a society where “new colonial masters” would decide on who and who not to canvass for political support in their “colonies”. These so-called leaders are the misfortunes of our society because they do not lead our peoples to behave appropriately and democratically. Can the new culture of political debates achieve much in a culture of “do or die” politics? We shall get to where we want to be even when the journey is still long.