For many Lagosians, last week’s governorship debate hosted on Channels TV would not have gone unnoticed. For those of us who are Lagosians in spirit, we had to wait till the videos had been uploaded unto the World Wide Web before we could dissect and discuss the performance of the five candidates.
There is little precedent for open forum debates for aspirants to high political office in Nigeria, so the organizers of the event must take credit. They established a reasonable format, chose a good venue and got the participation of the main contenders in the race. That said, they may have let themselves down with the choice or the size of the audience that was allowed into the Muson Centre. The audience was often disruptive and distracting and at one point the frustration in the very capable host’s eyes was obvious.
Right from the get-go, in their opening statements, the candidates occupied the archetypal roles of Nigerian Politics. There was the proverbial ‘old man’, JK Randle of the SDMP, who set out his stall as a man of great experience and of great political heritage. There was the self-professed 'revolutionary', Yomi Tokoyan of the ANPP, his opening statement was steeped in political theory and jargon and throughout the debate he continually made reference to political theory and the concept of revolution. There was also the ‘everyman candidate’, Dr. Adedbola Dominic of APGA, who (with no offence intended) looked and sounded more like the average Lagosian than his counter-parts, he attempted to move away from the abstract and talk about the problems of Lagos in real terms. There was of course ‘the incumbent’,Governor Babatunde Fashola of the ACN and ‘the challenger’ from the PDP, Ade Dosunmu.
There has been much written about it in the last few days and so there is no need for your humble writer to dissect the entire debate, the general consensus is that Fashola kicked ass and one can be fairly certain that this will be confirmed by the poll currently being run on CP-Africa.com. However, there are some things that caught my eye that most people have failed to acknowledge. Firstly, APGA’s flag has a cock (a chicken) on it and ANPP’s flag has something looks a lot like a cock on it (NOT a chicken).Secondly the host of the debate looks a lot like star of ‘The Wire’- Idris Elba. Lastly and slightly more importantly the debate was skewed in favour of Mr Fashola.
I can hear the glasses crashing as they slip from your grip and I understand I must move forward with caution and so first let me make it clear that I am neither alleging nor do I believe that either His Excellency or the good people of Channels Television were engaged in any sort of scheme or plot to affect the outcome of the debates. However, the way the debate was structured, the way it was carried out and crucially the conduct of the other candidates on stage turned the whole event into the Babatunde Fashola show.
Anybody who watched the event would have realised that there was a huge time pressure, which was to be expected as it was a live television event and the aforementioned audience was doing their best to make a nuisance of themselves. Despite this the Governor was always allowed to over run a little bit, he was always given the ‘discretionary’ right of rebuttal and somewhat oddly he was the only one given a chance to reply to a question on women’s inclusion put forward by Mrs Ransom-Kuti of the SDMP. Although I haven’t measured it, I can say with some confidence that he was on the screen more than any other person. I reiterate, I don’t think that this was done intentionally or maliciously. It was more akin to how a referee might give a soft penalty to a Manchester United player who goes down in the box at Old Trafford, there is no suggestion that the ref is cheating but he is perhaps intimidated not to give it in front of the roaring crowd at the theatre of dreams. After all Mr. Fashola is the first citizen of Lagos State and Chamberlain Usoh (the host who looks like Idris Elba) is just another Lagosian, who on the whole did very well on the night. The one-sidedness of the debate was not purely due to the organizers though.
Normally being the incumbent in a political debate is a mixed blessing. On the one hand you have a bag of achievements and a wealth of information that you can draw on to back you up at any time. Conversely, you are responsible for every continuing problem, every missed target, every broken promise, every complaint made in or against the state – there should be an endless stream of missiles to launch at the candidate. However, it seems like the opposition candidates made no real attempt to go for the jugular, they failed to clearly identify any failings of the ACN government that Mr. Fashola could not brush aside with ease. When they were helped out by a question that directly asked about the governor reneging on a campaign promise from 2007 again the opposition candidates failed to take the bait.
When given the chance to question anybody on the stage they all chose to question the Governor, which all things considered was a poor choice. Tactically speaking, it is going to be harder than drawing milk from a bull to steal any votes away from the ACN in Lagos; the other candidates would have been better off trying to discredit the ‘weaker’ parties and their candidates. That said Fashola in his responses showed the guile of a court room veteran and the mercilessness of a battle rap MC. Most cutting of all was the put down of JK Randle in response to the latter’s question, which left the SDMP man so hurt that he refused to shake His Excellency’s hand at the end of the debate.
There is one thing that ought to be addressed, perhaps it was simply the YouTube link that I saw (although it was posted by the channels tv user) and it was not the same for people watching live in Lagos, but every time the debate went on an ad break the first advert that was shown was a political campaign advert for ACN and the incumbent governor. The point of the debate is to help undecided (and some fickle) voters decide based who they would vote for based on the issues put before the candidates, this as an exercise is rendered fruitless if one candidate is given the opportunity to showcase his achievements with visual aids and a catchy song and no one is given a right of rebuttal. I assume that the people in the Fashola camp thought it would be the most beneficial time to air an advert as they are guaranteed to hit their target audience. While perhaps the other parties were simply slacking by not buying the ad space, for the sake of fairness the Good people should not have run that advert during the debate – they certainly should not have run it more than once.
All said and done, one gets the feeling that Governor Fashola was always likely to win in a debate against his opponents. He won and he won pretty. He expertly dealt with the questions and his opponents and at the same time did a good job of painting the PDP as the enemy of Lagos and the enemy of Nigeria. Not only has he put himself and his party in good stead for these gubernatorial elections, but he has also bolstered the stock of the ACN nationally. I think the time has probably come for people to stop seeing him as Tinubu’s apprentice and come 2015 I will be surprised if his name is not in the mix for the Presidency. He appears to be a new type of politician- well educated, well spoken, well presented and not old – and it appears that this is what Lagosians want.
On another note the popularity of these debates has overwhelmed this writer and I’m sure it has overwhelmed the candidates themselves. It is practices like this that will not only ensure the competency of our leaders but will create a real democracy - not just a country that celebrates ‘democracy day’ every four years. The Nigerian public is clamouring for real accountability at every stage of the democratic process and it is with that in mind that I urge people to get involved with the ‘What About Us?’ Youth presidential debates scheduled for the 25th of March. So please ‘donate’ your status/profile picture on any social network and/or messenger that you use to the ‘What about us?’ logo and let’s try and change Nigeria. Watch this space.
Enyinnaya Emmanuel Chukwueke