The absence of President Muhammadu Buhari of the APC and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP at the presidential debate of January 19, 2019, should be called what it was--sheer arrogance from the biggest political players in the land and a total lack of respect for the Nigerian voter from the establishment politicians. No more, no less.

I have taken the time to read the flimsy excuses from Atiku and Buhari’s camps on why the candidates didn’t show up and what immediately hits you is that these guys don’t rate us. They have never rated us, anyway. 

Buhari’s campaign organization says the man couldn’t make the debate because of a hectic campaign schedule. Buhari was wooing voters in Niger and Plateau States on the day of the debate. But the debate dates were announced as far back as December 11, 2018—long before the APC constituted its presidential campaign council and drew up a campaign timetable for Buhari. The debate didn't suddenly happen upon us.

Buhari campaigns in Edo State (Presidency)
Buhari campaigns in Edo State (Presidency)

Surely, the APC could have factored in the debate in its “busy and hectic official campaign schedules of Mr. President” if it really considered it important.

The APC has got to admit that after Buhari’s soporific and insipid performance at the town-hall event of Wednesday, January 16, 2019—the one in which Vice President Yemi Osinbajo saved the day for the incumbent—keeping the president away from probing questions and close shot cameras, has been added to the party’s campaign strategy document drawn up for the election.

Everyone in the land knows that eloquence and gift of gab aren’t Buhari’s strongest suits. Which is okay as long as he does the job voters elected him to do. The president and the APC could have formally declined the debate invitation as soon as he was issued one back in December, instead of making it look like he changed his mind at the last minute. He was never going to attend the debate ab initio. And how far is Plateau, Buhari’s last campaign stop on the day, from Abuja where the debate was happening? We are talking a couple of minutes in presidential jet mileage here. 

This was the APC artfully dodging a debate because the trio of Kingsley Moghalu, Obiageli Ezekwesili and Fela Durotoye would have made minced meat of their candidate, and nothing more. 

Atiku’s reason for dodging the debate is even more galling. He flew all the way from the United States for over 12 hours, arrived the Transcorp Hilton venue of the debate, inquired if Buhari was going to attend and once he was told that the president wouldn’t be showing up, he asked that the microphone be yanked off his agbada and beat a hasty retreat from the hall. 

“We came here for a presidential debate, not a candidacy debate”, Atiku said afterwards. “And I, Atiku Abubakar cannot challenge or question an administration where the man at the helm of the affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies. After all, you cannot shave a man's head in his absence. I do not believe in attacking a man who is NOT here to defend himself”.  

For Atiku therefore, this debate was in no way about selling his candidacy to millions of Nigerians, making a case for himself and the PDP or about defending his time in government as Nigeria’s vice president from 1999 to 2007. This for Atiku was about Buhari and attacking Buhari.

In the history of political own goals, this has got to be right up there among the best.

For a man who fancies himself Buhari’s biggest challenger ahead of the February 16 presidential vote, here was an opportunity for Atiku to position himself as the bigger man who honours debates and engagements and who isn’t afraid of a stage brimming with younger, smarter, more eloquent contenders. Here was an opportunity for Atiku to tell Nigerians that he is a lot more credible than his opponent who had just dodged the debate.

Atiku flew all the way from the United States to refuse to participate at the debate (Atiku media)
Atiku flew all the way from the United States to refuse to participate at the debate (Atiku media)

Instead, Atiku threw a tantrum, became petty, yanked his toys out of the pram and turned his back on first time voters and several others. The debate was about Nigeria. Atiku made it about Buhari. It was an opportunity missed and a daft move from a PDP campaign strategy point of view. 

Shout out to Ezekwesili, Moghalu and Durotoye who respected Nigerians and the debate organisers by showing up and contesting ideas and policy proposals for three hours. That exactly is what our democracy should be all about, going forward. On that debate stage were the best of us, the kind of leadership materials we should be looking out for if we were anywhere near a sane society and if we are desirous of emerging out of the woods.

Ezekwesili, Durotoye, Moghalu during 2019 presidential debate (ChannelsTV)
Ezekwesili, Durotoye, Moghalu during 2019 presidential debate (ChannelsTV)
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For 20 years, the PDP and APC have shown us how bad they are at governance and everything else. By dodging the debate, both parties again proved right the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Cut from the same cloth, these guys again showed voters that they don’t really need them to win elections. And that, right there, is the underlying problem with our nascent democracy--one we should try to remedy.