19th February, 2015
By Oluwagbenga Oyebanji
Political debate is one of the surest ways to strengthen democracy. It affords all candidates a good platform to present their thoughts and ideas through the media to the electorate. The history of debates as an official event started with American democracy. The first political debate in the United States of America was between John F. Kennedy of Democratic party and Richard Nixon of Republican party on 27 September, 1960, The target of political debates is undecided voters, because most of them are young and uninterested in political process. Debates are supposed to have rules, formats and memorandum of understanding among all political parties, while the organisers of the debates must not be partisan.
Debates are purely to strengthen democratic institutions and should be an integral part of our society because they encourage intellectual growth, freedom and human rights.
Politicising political debates is retrogressive. As a nation, we need to align our democratic institutions with debates, we need to put pragmatism ahead of partisanship. Debates had always been the seal of cognitive development. They are the cornerstone of intellectual and technological advancement. In economics we have the keynesians and the monetarists, in physic we have neoclassical physicists and classical physicists, in politics we have progressives and conservatives. Everybody has a right to an idea and sound thought process regardless of his/her beliefs. We should encourage debates because it is the secret of western intellectual cognition, Athenian democracy is incomplete without it, everything about democracy revolves around debates, legislations. The judiciary and executive are dictatorial without debates.
Nigeria Election Debate Group, NEDG, is blindly partisan without true understanding of what debates truly represent. Most debates in America are held in university campuses reason being a democratic culture will be inculcated in the young people. The format of our present debate is highly partisan and unstructured. Learning from the most advanced democracy should be the focus of NEDG. In USA (CPD)commission for presidential debates organises debates based on three criteria: constitutional eligibility, coverage of 270 electoral votes, 15% of representation on five selected nationally covered opinion polls. There must be a memorandum of understanding among all political parties participating, administrative cost, technical areas and sponsorship must be properly discussed. MOU factors in moderation, reception, topics and debate centres. The focus of the debate should be on the youths because of building a sustainable democratic culture. Topics that centre on economy, security, education, technology, research and development, foreign policy, trade, health, social security and infrastructure must be included in the debate blueprint.
The group must be nonpartisan and nonprofit, the debate centres must be open to all campuses for applications. The centre with the best facilities take the slot. All major media houses: print, electronic, bloggers must have representation in the commission for transparency purpose. Sponsorship must strictly be based on corporate social responsibility. The essence of the debate is voter education, youth empowerment and issue-oriented discourse. The NEDG is more of wishy-washy establishment without a detailed blueprint, a research and development department, and a thorough media representation vital to the success of the debate.
The recent accusation and counter accusation by APC and PDP shouldn’t have occurred if the group were properly organised. Election debates are vital to democratic culture. The American version has CPD (Commission for Presidential Debates). It has two founders, a Democrat and Republican. It is also a registered non-profit organisation. Also, the commission has Honorary co-chairmen that comprise past American leaders that are still living. Also, the commission has co-chairman emeritus, and board of directors that has 16 members chosen from all spheres of American society. The uniqueness of Nigeria’s make-up should be factored in. Multi-cultural limitations and understanding is also a strong factor. The sponsorship aspect must be corporate social responsibility-driven and private sector participation shouldn’t muscle the mission of the organisation.
The 2015 general elections are around the corner. With many predictions about electoral violence, the debate would have been a panacea for the country’s electoral violence. The young Nigerians would see the debate and start cultivating democratic culture. One of the greatest causes of electoral violence is intolerance. We need to make debate a doctrine from grassroots because it encourages civility, tolerance and progress. Every side has a point but the side with the better point wins the day. Debate is a process but it’s like a league, it might be your page today and someone else’s page tomorrow. This is the secret of advanced democracy. To nurture our nascent democracy, debate must be part of our political curriculum. Our political equation is incomplete without debate as one of the variables.
21st century democratic flavour will be highly garnished by debate because it will bring engaging political and economic discourse. Nigeria cannot be left behind by other democracies for neglecting the debating culture. America’s presidential debate is stimulating and attracts huge audience of undecided voters and promotes voter education. The last presidential debate attracted 67 million viewers which was the deciding factor in who became the president.
Nigeria’s nascent democracy will grow very fast if we could make presidential debate nonpartisan, nonprofit and strictly patriotic. Nigeria will be great, the future is bright, we must embrace a democratic culture that encourages debate. Debate should be a societal pride, all facets of our existence should promote debate. It is intellectual, engaging and increases cultural tolerance. According to Nelson Mandela the father of Africa’s democracy, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial and uninformed.”
•Oyebanji, a publisher/motivational speaker, wrote from Lagos. Email: [email protected]