by Chinasa Ikelu
Dear Pastor Poju,
I’m a big fan. I think there is a lot to admire about your hard work in recent years especially in building The Platform brand, driving civic conversations and sharing of ideas. When you announced recently that The Platform will be organizing three debates this political season, it sounded like the next logical step for a brand that has thrived on serious ideas and insights over the last 11 years.
So you can imagine my disappointment when we began to hear that you are actually working towards having just the current two biggest parties on the stage for the debates. We shrugged it off because we had not heard you say it publicly, but then you began to lay the groundwork for that announcement when you tweeted on Wednesday that you “believe any political party serious about governing in this democratic system at federal level must be fielding candidates in at least two-thirds of NASS seats. At state level must also [field candidates in] 2/3rds of house of assembly seats. The way we organize shows our seriousness.”
There’s so much wrong with your logic, Pastor Poju. I suspect you did not think it through before tweeting. And there is even much more wrong with your ill-advised attempt to organize a debate that features only the candidates of the PDP and APC.
In 1998, a third party candidate, Jesse Ventura ran for governor in the US state of Minnesota. His party had no elected official anywhere, yet he defeated the candidates of the two major parties in that year’s election. How did it happen? Ventura was included in a series of governorship debates alongside the candidates of the bigger parties. At the time of the first debate, he was not even polling up to 10 percent. Yet, he rode on his fine performances from those debates and his brilliant ideas to win that election. If you were in charge, Pastor Poju, would Ventura have been given that chance?
You are not in a position to judge any party’s seriousness based on the national assembly seats it chooses to field candidates for. You know nothing about their strategy or their resources. You have the opportunity, at least, to hear about their ideas, but not when you conspire to exclude them. Any debate for next year’s elections that excludes nationally known candidates of parties outside the major two is a farce. You have to be careful about setting a terrible democratic precedence.
For a very long time in America, presidential debates were organized by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, a group that was particular about inclusion, hearing diverse views, opening up the space and giving choice to the electorate. The two main parties did not like that, of course. When Independent Candidate John Anderson was included in the debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the president was so outraged that he refused to participate. He believed that if people heard Anderson’s ideas, it may take away from his own base. Not long after that election, the two major parties hijacked the debate process, forming a commission which now organizes the debates. That move was described at the time by legendary American broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, as “an unconscionable fraud.” It is worrying that in Nigeria’s case, it is you, Pastor Poju – the leader of a private organization that supposedly champions free expression – who is hoping to lead this “unconscionable fraud”, not even the political parties. Other organizations that have organized debates in Nigeria over the years – whether owned by government or not – have tried to maintain a level playing field. With all due respect Pastor, your thinking on this matter raises questions about your understanding of what a fair democratic process should look like at best, and it raises questions about your motives and agenda, at worst.
Dear Pastor Poju, beneath your tweet is your unstated belief that no third party candidate can win a presidential election. It is a fallacy, but for the sake of this argument, let us concede it. However, have you thought about the fact that these other candidates could be fertile sources of new policy ideas and programs which Nigerians need to hear, if only to enrich the national conversation and force the major candidates to contend with those ideas? In America, some of the most consequential policies that are now mainstays of the polity were first proposed by third party candidates – ideas like women’s suffrage and direct election of senators. Even in the current Nigerian election season, some of the boldest ideas – from the minimum wage to an equity fund to building pipelines conveying water from Calabar to Lake Chad and piping flared gas to provide as subsidies to companies – have been pushed by third party candidates. This theology which makes all effort only about winning is a problematic one, Pastor Poju. It fails to see the empowerment that a voter gets from being able to symbolically vote for a candidate who represents a value or champions an idea that one fervently believes.
Millions of Nigerians are disillusioned with the political process and are actively considering a vote for a third party candidate. That is enough reason to include them in debates. Shouldn’t Nigerians hear from viable alternatives like Kingsley Moghalu, Obiageli Ezekwesili, Omoyele Sowore, among others, in an election where the major candidates – Atiku Abubakar and Muhammadu Buhari – are so unlikeable? In those two old men, the two main parties have chosen the most disliked major presidential nominees in modern times, and you are attempting to foist on Nigerians the unacceptable impression that there is no alternative. That’s ridiculous!
Pastor Poju, consider the tens of millions of Nigerians who choose not to vote in every election (more than 50 million). You must know that a big reason for the apathy is that voters are not excited about their choices. They would rather sleep in at home than vote for the status quo. Debates stimulate voter interest and could lead to greater participation. Importantly, the option of a third party gives those disaffected in the process a voice and a reason not to completely disconnect from the political process. A good case is the 1992 US presidential debate which drew the largest debate audience in history largely because a third party candidate was included.
The argument you make about seriousness has another major flaw. What you fail to understand is that the PDP and the APC have a head-start over the smaller parties. They have the financial resources – a lot of it stolen from the commonwealth – which gives them an undemocratic advantage. A presidential debate is a leveler. It provides an opportunity for the other candidates to reach millions of Nigerians with their message and stake a claim to legitimacy. You cannot on the one hand argue that the smaller parties do not have a large enough spread and are thus unserious, when you exclude and delegitimize them with your tweets and actions. You are perpetuating a vicious cycle where hardworking third party candidates with odds stacked against them are deemed unimportant because they don’t get enough coverage, and then they do not get enough coverage because they are deemed unimportant. You – and large sections of the media – are perpetuating a socialization effect that this election is a two-horse race, stamping it into the psyche of voters who then run to the two status-quo parties in order not to “waste their votes.” You are trying to use this debate to further subsidize the two biggest parties. Pastor, you all have to end this fraudulent subsidy.
The 2017 French presidential debate had five candidates on stage. Up to 11 candidates were on stage during the Republican primaries debate in 2016. We can have something similar. The presidential candidates can be divided into two or three tiers with 5 – 7 debating on stage per time. You can commission an opinion poll asking Nigerians about which candidates should be on the stage. The 5 – 7 candidates with the highest votes will square off at primetime, then the next set afterwards. It is possible and it has been done in other climes. There is no reason why we should’t. Now, that is how to show that you are serious, Pastor Poju!