buhariOn the evening of September 26, 1960, about seventy million Americans watched two men debate on a live television show. The men were both candidates for the office of President of the United States. The Republican candidate was Richard Milhous Nixon. The Democratic candidate was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. For the first time, presidential candidates debated on television.

People who were listening to the radio and only heard the debate were impressed by both candidates. However, the much larger television audience watching the debate seemed to prefer Kennedy, who looked handsome and appeared energetic, relaxed and sure of himself. Nixon, on the other hand, seemed tense.

After their first appearance, the candidates debated three more times on television. Both Nixon and Kennedy also travelled round the country and spoke to many groups. Nevertheless, their first television debate played an important part in bringing about Kennedy’s victory.

The image interwoven around General Muhammadu Buhari is that of integrity, modesty and honesty. There is a growing fear among a section of people that the General seems to have contempt for the people. For starters, the dust has still not yet settled on why he refused to appear before the Human Rights Violation Investigations Commission more popularly known as the Oputa Panel in 2001 to answer questions bordering on human rights violation allegations while he held sway as the Military Head of State between 1983 and 1985. While it was true that he was not compelled to attend, it would have been nice and enhanced his image if he had. The then President Obasanjo personally appeared.

The Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria in conjunction with the Nigerian Election Debate Group invited him and Jonathan for a televised debate. His campaign team withdrew on grounds that there was unhidden bias on the part of the organisers. Garba Shehu the campaign organization spokesman wasted no time in opining that the NEDG was composed of agencies and allies of the ruling PDP led government such as NTA, FRCN and AIT owned by a PDP chieftain – Dr. Raymond Aleogho Dokpesi. It was true that the government agencies were in charge but were there grounds of a leakage of the questions to the Jonathan campaign team? He should have still participated and earned the toga of accountability which the public is still largely skeptical of – He still seems to operate with a military mentality which is calamitous in a democratic environment. If push came to shove he could have avoided questions with taints of bias and shored up his public image which the certificate brouhaha nearly dented.

The second debate was organized by Channels Television in conjunction with Arise TV and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria. What excuse did he now have to boycott this? This was a hugely private sector driven initiative which would have helped him snatch some points from GEJ who also has a history of debate evasion as he smartly avoided one organized by the Nigerian Television Authority in 2011. There was palpable silence from his campaign handlers.

The essence of a debate is for the candidates to sell themselves unabashedly to the public on why they should be trusted with power for the next four years. The populace has the opportunity to thoroughly grill them and know their views on a panoply of issues ranging from the economy, security and the polity in general. Let us be brutally frank. The contest between GEJ and GMB seems to be akin to the six and half a dozen conundrum. How does Buhari intend to tackle the raging insurgency in the North East that has surreptitiously excised the nation’s geographical map? What concrete strategies has he laid out that the nation can hold him accountable to? His job creation promise is vague. What in concrete terms is his strategy of massively ensuring the country is berthed with employment opportunities? The town hall meetings and rallies are insufficient as we have not taken out anything solid from them in terms of an action growth plan. How many interviews has the General agreed to?

GMB’s critics have contended he is intellectually deficient to effectively handle the rigours of political office and manage the complex behemoth called Nigeria. They point out to the fact that he has refused to improve himself educationally since he left office nearly three decades ago. General Yakubu Gowon who left office in similar circumstances went to the University of Warwick where he bagged a doctorate degree in political science in the 1980’s before his attempt to make a comeback for the Presidency in the ill-fated third republic. The General has not published any books or memoirs since leaving office in 1985. Obasanjo wrote a couple of books and other Generals like Alabi Isama and soldiers like Ben Gbulie and so on wrote books. There is an allusion to his sectional side as his interviews are mostly with the British Broadcasting Hausa Service. He is not known to be a high in demand public speaker both at home and abroad. The debates would have served as the golden opportunity to make up for these lapses and obtain a more national appeal in addition to telling the nation in black and white from the horse’s mouth his vision and mission. So sad that he bungled it!

His opponents have always pointed out to his jailing of politicians after the fall of the Second Republic in addition to his gagging of the press with the infamous Decree Four that saw to the jailing of Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor who were then with the Guardian Newspapers and his execution of three young Nigerians with a retroactive decree for hard drug offences. All these cannot happen in this democratic environment however flawed it may still be. The question discerning watchers still ask is ‘Does the General still have contempt for the press no matter how miniscule?’ The debates – facilitated by the press would have been the long awaited opportunity he had been waiting for to become the darling of the press and dispel the age-long notion that the government and the fourth estate of the realm are strange bedfellows.

Over to you voters on St. Valentine’s Day!