OrderPaperToday– Contenders for offices of the president, vice president, state governors and their deputies in Nigeria may soon have to participate in public debates if a bill seeking to empower the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct public debates is passed into law.

The bill which was sponsored by Senator Abdulfatai Buhari (APC, Oyo), seeks to amend the Electoral Act to empower the commission to perform this function. It was read for the first time on Tuesday, 19th November 2019.

Leading debate on the principles of the bill, Buhari said, “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 its 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, C-in-C, as well as the state commissioners, can be adequately assessed by their respective legislative assemblies before appointment, it is logically imperative for the president and governors who shoulder more responsibilities to be adequately assessed through a formal national debate,” the lawmaker stated.

He added that it will strengthen the country’s democracy and bring it in conformity with the practice of other renowned democracies of the world, while noting that “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 television 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.

“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.”

According to him, the exposure made possible by mandatory political debates will definitely save the country from electing a tyrant and anyone who desires to be governor or president should be confident enough to lay a detailed analysis of his or her plan before the electorate.

Endorsing the bill, Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe (APC, Kwara) said it will “result to better performance for elected candidates.”

He explained further, “The electorate are employers, should be able to test the candidates through a series of debates to cover key areas of the economy so that the candidate will be able to present their views.”

Senator Barau Jibrin (APC, Kano), on the other hand, said it should not be made compulsory for candidates.

“Where I think we should look into is, do we make it mandatory or it should be optional? Sometimes, people run to court. Maybe somebody could not attend the debate maybe because of sickness. I believe it should not be mandatory, but optional.”

On his part, Senator Danjuma Goje (APC, Gombe) noted that such a responsibility should not be within the jurisdiction of INEC.

“Most times, candidates are assessed and awarded marks during these debates. So if INEC is doing that, that means the election has already been determined”, he said.

In his submission, the Senate president, Ahmad Lawan, supported the position expressed by Sen. Goje, saying the duty should be left with an independent body and not INEC.

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