Presidential democracy and the culture of debate


Eze Onyekpere

Politics is about the contestation of ideas of how society, groups or other formations should be governed and administered. It is defined as the set of activities that are associated with decision-making in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. In everyday life, the term ‘politics’ refers to the way states, national and subnational authorities are governed, and to the way the governments make rules and laws. It is from politics that the adjective ‘political’ is coined. Generally, politics is about governance, ideas and postulations on how society is or should be governed, administering reward and punishment as well as allocation of resources to different contending interests.

This discourse reviews the culture of debate in a presidential democracy and recent developments in Nigeria, where contestants for the office of the presidency have decided not to make themselves available for a one-on-one debate. Some have sent proxies to take their place at scheduled debates and indeed, one of the contestants, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, has literally declared that he will not be available for any future debate. In the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, the incumbent President literally avoided debates and Nigeria’s position today testifies to the poor quality of thought processes manifesting in poor and weak governance which a debate would have laid bare.

The political path chosen by the 1999 Constitution is the politics of democracy, participation, the rule of law, basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. In the contestation of power, the person(s) who present themselves as candidates are expected to propose ideas of governance that will form the basis of their administration of the state when elected. The candidate not only puts up a manifesto but also vigorously canvasses and defends the ideas in it at all available fora. Considering the reach of the media, presidential candidates ordinarily court the media so that their voices can be amplified to reach very distant audiences. This is the background to various debates, and town hall meetings organised for presidential candidates to reach out to the electorate.

In a society with so many cleavages and divisions, such as Nigeria, the opportunity for a presidential candidate to discuss his manifesto, answer questions relating to the positions held, interact in a civil manner with other candidates and generally to be seen and heard on his ambition is a fundamental prerequisite for a successful presidency. So many reasons provide a grounding for this assertion.

The first support for this position is that the President is the Chief Executive Officer and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He is expected to provide leadership and inspiration; he should be a charismatic personality and therefore must be in a position to communicate his ideas and thoughts, and be able to motivate citizens. He should not be suffering from any infirmity of mind or body that will prevent him from effectively communicating his ideas to the people. Such an infirmity of the mind or body will even if he is elected, to the extent that it impairs the performance of the duties of his office, be a ground for impeachment proceedings.

The second support proposition is that the office of the President is not one to be run by proxy or through assistants because the President leads from the front. He is to provide comfort and soothing words in times of adversity and to motivate and inspire citizens to reach great heights in providing solutions to national challenges. There are communications to be made by the vice president, a minister or an assistant of the President. However, there are key ones that must be made by the President himself. Therefore, the power of great communication is a very key qualification for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Clarity of thought processes is usually reflected in the clarity of explanations of policy goals and ideas. The President will lead Nigeria’s delegations to international and regional meetings, including the United Nations, Africa Union, etc., and will present speeches on behalf of the country.

The third support for the position is that the President should be a knowledgeable person. It is not enough for some consultants to write speeches and ideas of governance for the President. He should agree with the postulations, understand them and be able to defend them. The President is the one who faces the electorate to make promises and being on the ballot, the electorate will elect or reject him on the basis of their overall assessment of his suitability for office. Candidates are, therefore, expected to make themselves available for exchange, debates and interrogation in an open and transparent manner.

The fourth support is that the media is constitutionally charged with holding the government accountable to the people, educating and informing citizens as well as setting agenda for governance and other aspects of economic, political and social life. For the media to perform this role, it must have the opportunity to publicly engage contestants of power. Avoiding debates at the point of contesting for office, when a candidate is begging to be accepted by the electorate, shows the likely scenario if per chance the candidate is elected. Granting media interviews or addressing the nation will be treated as a great privilege and Nigerians will be kept in the dark as to the policies of the administration. A policy is best explained by the chief formulator and implementer. Media debates interrogate the veracity, accuracy, authenticity, practicability, etc., of ideas of governance.

Again, supporters of the candidates who have been avoiding the media have asked for the legal provisions that make debate compulsory. Asking such a foundational question shows vacuity and a very poor understanding of the tenets of democracy. It is not everything that is written down in black and white but there are irreducible minimums. If the culture of debate is taken away from democracy, such a system loses its democratic nature.

Any candidate who has anything to hide, coming from a shady past, either in terms of parentage, academic qualification, involvement in drugs and other crime may be averse to facing the media so that the issues will not be escalated. However, Nigeria cannot afford such a shady character at this critical time when we have sunk to the bottom of the pit. Any further attempt to get lower will mean the destruction of the spirit of the nation, which will make it extremely difficult to resuscitate the nation in future.

In conclusion, to refuse to partake in a debate demonstrates a lack of qualification to be in the race, having something to hide, a condescending attitude towards the electorate and preparation for dictatorship if elected to office. Fellow Nigerians, the ball is back in your court.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here