By Umar Sa’ad Hassan —
I refuse to buy any of the excuses being peddled by General Muhammadu Buhari and the APC as justification for his refusal to participate in the presidential debate. For a candidate who is campaigning on his integrity card, it is preposterous to suggest bias in the composition of a debate panel or the partisan nature of its organizers as grounds for backing out. For a man who has successfully built arguably the best “Mr Capable” reputation in this nation’s political realm, it is unacceptable. What questions is he scared of?
Political debate should be a welcome forum for any candidate and not something to run away from. They offer not only a great opportunity to win new converts to your cause but also to reassure existing ones they have made the right choice. Candidates use it to further elucidate on their plans for the people and clear the air on controversial issues.
If anyone should be running away from a debate, it should be President Jonathan. He would have a tough time justifying the colossal sum spent on the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency, cogent reasons why his government couldn’t prevent any of the numerous strikes, why power is still unstable and his seeming high tolerance for corruption. The heat would most definitely be on Jonathan. A dismissal outing would hurt his chances more than it would those of other candidates.
On the other hand, GMB has little or nothing to lose. As a friend put it, a lot of people out there wouldn’t ordinarily vote for Buhari but he happens to be the best option available to a “fed-up” populace who yearn for change because they deserve better than what is on ground at the moment.
I have taken time out to study the reasons adduced by GMB’s team for his refusal and, honestly, they don’t make sense to me. The panelists and organizers who were labelled “pro-PDP” would not be handing any prizes at the end of the exercise. Even if Jonathan is only asked questions about his clothes and hats, it shouldn’t bother Gen Buhari. The tougher the questions for GMB, the more golden the opportunity to endear himself to the electorate. A well-meaning and capable candidate prepared to serve the people shouldn’t shy away from any debate except of course there are skeletons in his closet.
I don’t want to believe neither GMB nor any of the eggheads around him has given this due thought. There couldn’t be a better opportunity or medium to clarify certain issues which, aside age, seem to be the only chinks in his armour. Issues like his perception by some as a bigot: one who has been alleged to publicly affirm his support for the total implementation of the Islamic Sharia law in all parts of the country, allegations of PTF projects favouring the north more during his reign and also his imprisonment of Alex Ekwueme, Jim Nwobodo, Bisi Akande, the late Bola Ige, Sam Mbakwe and even the highly revered Chief Obafemi Awolowo while Shehu Shagari, a fellow northerner whom his coup ousted, was placed under house arrest. I would have loved to hear him answer questions about his alleged intolerance for free press during his time as head of state.
His promise to abolish the office of first lady doesn’t sit too well with many. Technically, there would still be an operative first lady, since his wife has said she would be doing charity and receiving guests, which I think is the main essence of the office. No doubt, she would also have to attend any first ladies summit; so what is the point of scrapping the office? Either way, we have a first lady whose activities will be funded by taxpayers. Perhaps, he would have told us.
As expected, the PDP has seized the opportunity to score a point by saying the president is willing to debate anywhere and at any given time [though Jonathan had chickened out four years ago!). With little or no effort, GMB has been portrayed as being scared. In the coming days, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone remind us of his refusal to appear before the Oputa panel and perhaps carve out a “worrisome” pattern.
The general’s refusal to participate can be likened to a student who refused to take his exams simply because he heard the teachers were going to make it difficult. A bias or tainted panel, in my humble opinion, can never form a concrete basis for backing out of a debate. A man aspiring to govern arguably the most critical people ever known to mankind should be able to confidently answer any question thrown at him, favourable or not. Truth be told, apart from differences in the time allotted to candidates to answer questions, there is hardly any other thing worth complaining about and, in this regard, I don’t see how anyone can afford to allot more time to a particular candidate in a telecast beamed live to every home in this country.
Buhari and his handlers might not trust the PDP — a lot of people actually don’t — but one can’t help but wonder: Was this a good move?
Hassan is a lawyer based in Kano.