Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to attend the presidential debate organised by Channels Television, Arise TV and NPAN is creating recollections among some people. The debate, which was initiated by ARISE Television and Channels Television, THISDAY and Guardian Newspapers Limited on behalf the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), according to reports, is scheduled to hold at the Congress Hall of the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja. The belief among Buhari camp is that some of the media houses have compromised.
Analysts are tying the refusal to attend the media-organised debate to Buhari’s continuous disrespect for the Nigerian media. During Buhari’s two-year rule between December 1983 and August 1985, he introduced Decree 4 of 1984 which curtailed the freedom of the media. Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of Guardian Newspapers were the first victims of the infamous Decree.
Media observers stated that the Decree 4 was an indication of Buhari’s disdain for the media and they believe that 30 years after, the disregard is still playing out as he has refused to honour media invite for presidential debate to tell Nigerians how he wants to run the complex economy and govern 160 million people.
“Section 1(1) of the decree states that “Any person who published in any form, whether written or otherwise any message, rumour, report or statement or report which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.
Section 3(1) states “in any prosecution for an offence under this decree, the burden of proving that the message, rumour, report or statement which is the subject matter of the charge is true in every material particular shall notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any enactment or rule of law lie on the person charged.’’
According to media report, “The Decree No 4 made it an offence for anyone to accuse a public officer of the government of any wrong doing, even if the allegation is true.”
The analysts believe that the debate should have been an opportunity for Buhari who enthroned discipline through his War Against Indiscipline (WAI) campaign to correct impressions of his disregard for the Nigerian press which he symbolised through the enactment of the repressive Decree No 4.
Nigeria is no more in the military era when things were done by fiat. The country is moving towards progress in every facet of life. Through such public debate which cannot be overemphasised, most Nigerians who rely on the media on how governance is carried out will have the opportunity to weigh their presidential candidates on their ability of economic management.
To another observer, it would not be fair to Nigerians then to deny them the opportunity to understand how the economy will be handled under any of the presidential candidates. Without the media debate, what it means then is to blindly thrust the fate of Africa’s largest economy on just any individual.
According to the observer, the debate may even favour Buhari who will have the opportunity to challenge his opponent on some critical issues. As the same questions will be asked both parties. It therefore becomes difficult to understand Buhari’s claim of compromise by the debate organisers.
Apart from truncating democracy in 1983 which he is coming back to be part of 30 years after, according to the analysts, Buhari’s management of a corporate business to qualify him to manage complex economy like Nigeria since he left government 30 years ago is not clear. Nigerians need tested hands to improve on the economy for them.
Thirty years ago, the democracy under Shehu Shagari was stopped half way by Buhari.
Atedo Peterside, president of ANAP Foundation, said in his piece in BusinessDay that “past military rulers, who toppled democratically elected governments, should still be tried for treason so as to serve as a permanent deterrent to young and ambitious military officers who will then understand that the long arm of the law may get them even in their old age.”
In his piece in Vanguard recently, Douglas Anele said despite the egregious errors committed by Buhari, especially in the areas of human rights abuses and draconian laws (like Decree 4) that severely curtailed freedom of the press, Buhari and Idiagbon were praised all over the country for their efforts to instil discipline in Nigerians.
“For example, politicians found guilty of corruption by anti-corruption tribunals were sentenced to long prison terms and hefty fines, regular environmental sanitation exercise was introduced, and soldiers enforced the queuing culture, etc.
“With time, the feeling grew that Buhari is a disciplined anti-corruption crusader who is prepared to take on corruption even at the highest levels of political power” He said people still remember, though nostalgically the readiness and tenacity of purpose with which Buhari and Idiagbon tackled corrupt politicians, culminating in the failed attempt to repatriate Umaru Dikko surreptitiously so that he would face corruption charges levelled against him.
“Since his exit from government, Buhari has been trying to project an image of himself as an honest, detribalised and incorruptible political leader deeply concerned about the deteriorating condition of life in the country,” says Douglas.
Like any other person or political figure, Buhari has his strengths and weaknesses. Some people disapprove of him for military background and for being a coup plotter who truncated a democratically elected government, his repressive regime and his refusal to appear before the Oputa Panel and now debate square. Many say he is an Islamic fundamentalist and accuse him of complexities in the post-election violence that erupted in some parts of the North after he lost the 2011 presidential election.
In his favour is a mass following made up of largely Nigerians from the North and a some from the South who support his anti-corruption stance and his war against indiscipline back then.
One thing is clear though: a few days to the general elections sees the main opposition party candidate faced with so many question marks about his past as a military dictator; and about his competence in economic management of Africa’s largest economy in a period of austerity if he wins the February polls.
Citing bias by the organisers of the presidential debates being put together by various media groups and coalition, Buhari has shunned invitation to go head-long with the incumbent in a public debate. This is a situation the ruling political party and many public affairs commentators see as a deep-seated disdain for the media and one which Buhari and the APC have refused to try and change or correct. There are many things against and for him.
Whether these public perceptions of Buhari will be enough to stop his fourth attempt to occupy Aso Rock as a democratically elected president will become clear in days to come as Nigerians remain sharply divided by their perception of the man, Buhari.