Should electoral debates be mandated by law?

Preparations for the 2023 elections in Nigeria are in earnest with less than eighty days left. At present, the candidates have all provided us with their manifestos which highlight different visions for Nigeria and its people.

For the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Ahmed Tinubu, it is “Renewed Hope 2023 – Action Plan for a Better Nigeria”, which focuses on enhancing national security, economy, power, agriculture, and healthcare. Abubakar Atiku of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) calls his manifesto – “My Covenant with Nigerians” and plans to restore unity, social justice and cooperation among Nigerians, build a strong and resilient economy , promote true federalism, improve and strengthen the education system. And from the Labour Party’s Peter Obi’s recently released manifesto, “It’s POssible: Our Pact with Nigerians” which focuses on moving Nigeria from a consumption to a production-centred economy, entrenching the rule of law, enhancing human capital, among others.

They have also indicated an intention to protect the rights of Nigerians to an affordable and efficient healthcare system, security of lives and property, accessibility to justice, the list goes on.

The theory of social contract enunciates that both the ruler and the ruled are in some sort of social agreement where individuals submit to the authority of a legitimate government in exchange for the protection of their other rights, in which case they would naturally want to know what to expect from any group of persons who intend to form the government.

While these visions are, on the face of them, laudable, what is missing for the earnest electorate is the how and why. How will this vision be achieved? Why have they been prioritised as a focus for the Nigerian people, and how does all of this lead us to the Nigeria we want? This is the space that public debates fill in the election process within the social contract.

Candidates, especially those vying for the presidential seat, have been invited to talk about their manifesto on various platforms including town hall meetings, programs and on national television. While some candidates honour the invitation, others do not.

While Peter Obi of Labour Party has constantly been available for these events, Atiku Abubakar of PDP has shown up at some and Bola Ahmed Tinubu of APC has a track record of refusing to attend. One example is the townhall meeting organised by the Nigerian Bar in August. While Obi, Atiku and some other candidates were present, Tinubu was represented by Kashim Shettima, his running mate. The fact is that it is not enough for presidential aspirants to have these plans up their sleeves, it is vital to the electoral process and the future outcomes of the nation that Nigerians are aware of these plans and the actions that will be taken.

Citizens must know what to expect from each candidate so that they can hold them to the promises in their manifesto. This indeed is what the doctrine of social contract posits.

The theory of social contract enunciates that both the ruler and the ruled are in some sort of social agreement which defines the rights and duties of both parties. As a leading doctrine of political legitimacy, the argument is that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of a legitimate government in exchange for the protection of their other rights and the preservation of the social order.

Thus, citizens would naturally want to know what to expect from any group of persons who intend to form the government.
In the article “The Nigeria We Need” by Pascal Dozie published by BusinessDay, the author states that the Nigeria of our dreams may be well encapsulated along three interrelated lines thus: a strong and united nation bound in brotherhood, despite our diversity; a nation where no one is oppressed or discriminated against on account of tribe, sex, religion or status; and to build a nation where no one is oppressed, where peace and justice shall reign and one where youths are taught the truthful national history.

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These words contained in Nigeria’s national anthem are what the author describes as the lofty dreams of Nigeria’s founding fathers. To achieve these dreams, the author highlights nine growth areas which hold true for Nigerians.

They are: the practice of a true federalism; entrenchment democratic principles; the recognition that Nigeria is a secular state; enhancing the participation of the private sector in the economy; unifying the education system, developing more inclusive institutions; recognizing that fundamental human rights are inalienable and therefore central to human development and sustenance and lastly; to never lose sight of the Nigeria envisioned by the founding fathers.

As earlier stated the candidates have given us several visions for the nations, the rights they wish to protect and the obligations they will fulfil, however, we are still lost on the how and why.

For instance, Tinubu plans to focus on national security, economy, power, agriculture, healthcare. His action plan for agriculture will focus on access to finance for agricultural activities and reforming the Bank of Agriculture to enable the bank to fulfil its core mandate to provide farmers with access to low-cost loans which should contribute to improving the economy by enhancing participation in the economy and helping to build a more inclusive economy for all Nigerians.

However, because he has consistently avoided the citizens, we still can’t ask pertinent questions about the details of how these are to be achieved.
According to Atiku’s manifesto, building a dynamic economy for prosperity is at the core of his campaign. The policy document itemised Atiku’s plans to restore the nation’s economy to the pre- 2015 level, where the country was the strongest economy in Africa, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $546.7billion, as against the current GDP of $440billion. To achieve this, Atiku explains that he plans to follow three basic principles which are re-affirming the criticality of private-sector leadership and greater sector participation in development; while also repositioning the public sector to focus on its core responsibility, as well as breaking government monopoly in all infrastructure sectors, including refineries, rail transportation and power transmission. This plan would also help improve the economy.

Although Obi, on his part has shown up for public debates more often than other candidates, the purpose of the debate is rarely achieved by the presenc of one party. The point of a public debate, is not simply to hear the candidates speak on their visions but for them to be reviewed side by side on similar issues critical to citizens. In the United States of America, for example, debates, although not constitutionally mandated, form an inseparable part of the election and are mainly targeted at swaying undecided votes.

A report by the National Democratic Institute, an American Non-Governmental Organisation, that works with partners in developing countries to increase the effectiveness of democratic institutions, shows that countries from all regions of the globe are increasingly trying to integrate candidate debates into their electoral processes. To date, debates have been staged in more than 87 nations and regions.

The conviction behind the global trend debates benefit traditional and emerging democracies in many ways. These include helping voters make informed choices; focusing candidates on policy issues rather than personality, religion or ethnic loyalties; reducing the potential for violence in countries emerging from conflict and; holding elected officials to their campaign promises.

Presidential debates were introduced in Nigerian elections in 1999 when it returned to democracy, Olusegun Obasanjo of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) who won the election that year, declined to take part in a debate, refusing to have a debate with Oku Falae, the Action for Democracy/All Peoples Party candidate. Obasanjo would go on to win the 2003 elections even though he refused to attend the debate that year. In 2011, Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP refused to take part in the presidential debate organised by a group known as the NN24, a 24-hour tv station on Multi-choice DSTV because he could not jettison the debate of the National Electoral Debate Group which been organising debates since 1999 in favour of another platform. He also believed that the debate “was deliberately being heated up by those who now see what the President will do or not do as an opportunity for political capital”. Jonathan won the election. In 2015, Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) refused to participate in the debate but he won.
Thus, the belief presents itself that that election debates have no real effect and may even perpetuates the false fallacy that whomever avoids the elections ultimately wins. Perhaps this has informed the resistance on the part of some candidates in the present elections. But this is simply untrue.

The first time a presidential debate was held in the US was in 1960 and was between John Fitzgerald Kennedy of the Democratic Party and Richard Nixon who was the Republican flagbearer. Among other factors that led to John F. Kennedy’s success at the election, his performance at the presidential debates was an advantage. This was the first televised presidential debate. A 2010 report by Slate stated that “there is no doubt that Kennedy looked better than Nixon that night. Wearing a dark suit and flashing his boyish smile, (obviously younger than Nixon), the junior senator from Massachusetts radiated charisma”. It is obvious that debates are not only an opportunity for citizens to listen to the aspirants talk but to look at appearance, fitness to govern, disposition to situations, appearance. Nixon, just recovering from a knee infection and a cold, “looked gaunt in his gray suit which blended in the walls”. Nixon’s press aide at the time, Herb Klein, also noted “everybody in this part of the country thinks Nixon is sick. Three doctors agreed he looked as if he had just suffered a coronary”.

Share America in 2016 reports that South Africa’s first presidential debate in 1994 was part of the nation’s turning-point election between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk . More recently, Justin Trudeau’s debate performance is thought by some to have helped his Liberal Party win the general election in 2015.

While there is no codified requirement to attend such debates, the modalities of a democratic state would often require such. This is because the foundation of every democracy is the people and the people must be aware of how they are to be governed. More so, citizens under the social contract theory are relinquishing part of their freedom to the government, it is only right that they understand what such would achieve. Thus, although debates are not usually mandated by law, they have become an intrinsic part of the electoral process in various democracies.

How the law can help
A law to require attendance: The most compelling way to ensure that candidates attend debates is to include it in our laws. The law should require that candidates attend debates to explain to citizens their plans if they are elected or risk disqualification. By doing this, candidates will be unwilling to contravene an established law. However, candidates attending debates have always been part of an unwritten law and are usually not compelling, but it is important that citizens know why they are relinquishing their rights. The people who intend to make up the government owe them such a show of commitment.

A body set up for organising presidential debates: Just like the US Commission on Presidential Debates, a body can be set up to carry out the duty of organising debates. This is to ensure neutrality and independence. This can be easily done by the Independent National Electoral Commission or some other responsible body empowered by law. Paragraphs 15 (f) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution empowers the INEC to monitor political campaigns and provide rules and regulations which shall govern the political parties. Since INEC has the inherent power to conduct elections and ensure a smooth election process, adding a unit responsible for conducting debates may be instrumental.

This may also ensure that candidates take debates more seriously.
Modalities: It is important that the modalities for such debates are set. The time for such debates, which should not be fixed at a time that cuts off a particular candidate, the questions to be asked during such debates, which should not be partial or motivated by malice, and among other necessary criteria.

In conclusion, such debates allow citizens to know the candidates and afford them the opportunity to analyse candidates objectively, understanding their dispositions to the questions asked and what they would do in the face of certain situations. It is important that further steps of properly entrenching debates in the electoral process are taken.