ROBUST ELECTION CAMPAIGNS: Will compulsory debate bill scale through?

Moves to make it mandatory for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC to organise public debates for all candidates to the offices of deputy governor, governor, vice president, president, got a boost as a Bill to such effect scaled second reading in the Senate. According to the Senate, participation in compulsory debate by the candidates would help boost and strengthen the electoral process.

In past elections some presidential and governorship candidates shied away from debates and a host of them got elected without the electorate having clear view of their programmes. The Bill for an Act to amend the Electoral Act, CAP E6, to empower the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to organise mandatory public debates for all candidates to the Office of Deputy Governor, Governor, Vice President, President to help boost and strengthen the electoral process; and to provide for other Matters relating thereto, 2020(SB.176) is sponsored by Senator Abdulfatai Buhari, All Progressives Congress, APC, Oyo North.

After the consideration of the Bill, President of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan referred it to the Senator Kabiru Gaya, APC, Kano South-led committee, and the committee was given four weeks to report back. The bill seeks for an Act to amend the Electoral Act to give legislative backing to INEC to organise and conduct such debates. Why we need debates In his lead debate, Senator Buhari who noted that the Bill was read the first time on the floor of the Red Chamber on Tuesday, November 19, 2019, said “if considered and passed by the Senate, it will strengthen our democracy and bring it in conformity with the practice of other renowned democracies of the world.” He cited example of the United States where it has become customary for the main candidates of the two largest political parties – the Republican and Democrat to engage in debates, noting that the exercise has enabled the electorate not only to know about the personality of the candidates but also about their lifestyle, belief, reaction to national issues and foreign policy. Senator Buhari said: “This Bill, if considered and passed by this Hallowed Chamber, will strengthen our democracy and bring it in conformity with the practice of other renowned democracies of the World. “In the United States for example, it has become customary for the main candidates of the two largest Political Parties; the Republican and Democrat to engage in debates. The first United States Presidential debates held as far back as 1960 (September 26). It was broadcast live on televisions and Radio stations with 66 million viewers out of the population of 179 million. It was between Senator john F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee and Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee. According to him: “An analogous experience of this crucial indispensability of electoral debate is the last presidential debate between Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party and Donald Trump of Republican Party. “The regular debate has enabled the electorate not only to know about the personality of the candidates but also about their lifestyle, belief, reaction to national issues and foreign policy. All this information will inform the electorate on the position to take during election. “In fact, the exposure made possible by mandatory political debate will definitely save the country from electing a tyrant. Agenda setting “This Election Debates Bill, if passed into law shall be used to sample the candidates’ knowledge on a wide range of issues, like a detailed analysis of how they intend to drive the economy, foreign, health and education policies among others. One noteworthy area of potential impact of the debate is their capacity for what political scientists call agenda setting. Research has shown that voters learn from debates, they are more accurately able to describe the platforms of the candidates and this will prompt them to seek out additional information about the candidates. It provides one of the indicators as to how the candidate might respond under pressure as it requires them to be able to think on their feet and be able to respond to unanticipated events. “It also serves as national job interview for the office as it gives them Opportunity to speak on a wide range of issues. This might be likened to the power conferred on the senate of the National Assembly under Section 147(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) to confirm the appointment of Ministers after being nominated by the President, Commander-in-Chief. “This gives the people an opportunity, through their Representatives in the National Assembly especially the Senate, to ask the ministerial nominees’ varieties of questions in order to test their knowledge on a wide range of issues and for Nigerians to have opportunity to assess their to-be-ministers at their screening in the Senate. “Their responses, some of the times, inform the president on their appropriate designation after confirmation. If the Ministers that will work under the President and C-in-C, as well as the State Commissioners, can be adequately assessed by their respective Legislative Assembly before appointment, it is logically imperative for the President and Governors who shoulder more responsibilities to be adequately assessed through a formal National Debate. “Anyone who desires to be Governor or President should be confident enough to lay a detailed analysis of his or her plan before the electorates. This will offer the electorates the avenue to evaluate candidates and they Will vote along ideological lines rather than on ethnic or religious allegiance as it is prevailing in our country today. “The idea of public debates had transcended the developed countries of the world; it is now a common practice here in Africa. Kenya’s political debate for instance is mandatory for all the presidential hopeful unlike the US Presidential debates that is restricted to the two political parties (Democratic Parties and the Republican Party). “Other African countries that have imbibed the culture of elections debates include Ghana, Sierra-Leone among others. If these African countries can successfully organize election debates for political nominees thereby strengthening their democracy, it can only be an oversight on the part of Nigeria who prides itself as the Giant of Africa not to provide an all-inclusive avenue for her electorates to assess their to-be Representatives through informed process. “Unlike in the USA where their Election Debates Commission is set up by Convention, it is generally agreed that Nigeria Democracy is still in its infancy that needs popular support to survive and there is no amount of money spent to strengthen it that can be regarded as a waste. What we have presently as Nigeria Election Debate is an effort in futility as participants find pleasure in boycotting it at will. Nigeria nascent democracy cannot develop by this attitude. “Although, it will require more than on-air spurring to help the country bridge the divide, it Will create a sea change in the way Nigeria View power. It will offer Nigerians a chance to evaluate candidates so they can vote along policy or ideological lines instead of ethnic allegiance and this Will equally lead to the development of strong democratic institutions that would neutralize the patronage system that makes ascending to power so turbulent.” In his contribution, Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe, APC, Kwara Central said: “When aspirants are tested through series of debates, their employers, which is the electorate, would be able to assess their capability for the job they are applying for.” On his part, Also, Senator Olamilekan Adeola, APC, Lagos West said that the bill would give Nigerians a clue about aspirants and their capabilities to govern the country. But in his contribution, Senator Danjuma Goje, APC Gombe Central who noted  that an independent body, not INEC, should be allowed to conduct the debate, said, “if INEC assigns mark and announce winners of the debate, it may affect candidates’ chances during elections.” On his own, Senator Barau Jibrin, APC Kano North said even though debate served as platform to showcase candidates’ capabilities, it should be made optional. In his contribution, Senator Matthew Urhoghide, PDP, Edo South said that it should carry some elements of compulsion. In his remarks, President of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan noted that INEC already has enough responsibilities, and therefore should not be given another one capable of overburdening the commission. Lawan also warned that INEC, being a government agency might face some difficulties in organising political debates, especially from candidates in the opposition parties who may decline participation in such exercise. He said: “Going the way of other countries, independent people and those who desire to be part of organizing the debate, right from now, should remain non-partisan. “If they show any partisanship now and, in the next three years, want to organize debate, it will cause some difficulties in getting people to participate. “Debate is an opportunity for the candidates to present themselves to the people, and for the voters to x-ray the candidates and make good or bad judgement about them.”


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