Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Nigeria's young democracy, the major debate over the coming presidential election appears to be whether to have a debate at all.

Televised debates have yet to take hold in Nigeria, where political discourse often simply amounts to rowdy rallies and stern-faced posters of politicians plastered to bridge pillars. The last memorable debate that aired across the oil-rich nation involved candidates in an annulled 1993 election widely perceived as the country's most credible poll in its 50 years of independence.

Now, there's an effort to change that as a crucial presidential election looms. A youth-oriented group on Wednesday called for a debate between presidential contenders. A satellite television news channel plans a debate for later this week while others also consider the idea.

"The time for frivolous rhetoric has long passed," said Amara Nwankpa, a 32-year-old activist associated with the youth debate group called What About Us?

"I think it is now time for us to soberly and seriously look at each of the candidates," he said.

Nigerians will vote for a new president April 9 in the middle of three weeks of elections for state and federal positions. The leading candidate is President Goodluck Jonathan, the nominee of the ruling People's Democratic Party. Jonathan's face can be seen on billboards, buses and advertisements everywhere in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, a sign of the ruling party's muscle and money.

But policy often takes a back seat at the rallies Jonathan flies off to across Nigeria's 36 states. The same can be said for candidates of other regional opposition parties challenging Jonathan, as politics comes down to personality and the promise of lucrative government contracts bankrolled by the nation's oil revenues.

While the ruling party candidate, Jonathan still remains something of an enigma to some Nigerians. The marine biologist, who is fond of traditional black caftans and bowler hats, took over the presidency after the May 2010 death of elected leader Umaru Yar'Adua. Jonathan is soft-spoken and an academic, very different from former military ruler and President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose verbal antics still make headlines.

Jonathan's personality and trouble with speechmaking likely makes some in the ruling party hesitant to put him on a stage with other contenders. Vice President Nnamdi Sambo also didn't attend a debate last week hosted by an upstart satellite news channel.

The reluctance to attend debates has drawn criticism and a strong response from presidential spokesman Ima Niboro. Niboro issued a statement promising the ruling party's candidates would attend yet-to-be-announced debates organized by the Broadcasting Organizations of Nigeria.

"It is preposterous to insinuate that the duo are reluctant or afraid of a debate with other presidential candidates as it ought to obvious that they have no reason to be hesitant about debating any of the candidates being presented by other political parties," Niboro wrote.

However, such a presidential debate hasn't happened in Nigeria since 1993. Then, politicians Moshood Abiola and Bashir Tofa debated over who should replace the military government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. The election brought out voters in droves and likely would have secured Abiola's presidency had Babangida not thrown out the results.

The first test of Jonathan's willingness to debate will be Friday as news channel NN24 holds a presidential debate in Abuja. The channel's CEO, Tony Dara, said he's received indications the president will take part in the debate.

The group What About Us? hopes to hold its own debate a week later, moderated by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Adichie and a former contestant on the African version of "Big Brother." However, Jonathan and opposition candidate and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari have yet to say whether they'll attend.

If they don't, organizers say they'll leave empty podiums with the parties' insignias out in prominent view for those watching via television or the Internet.

"It will speak volumes," Nwankpa said.


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