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Do election debates really matter?

Do election debates really matter?
December 20
09:06 2018

Since the Vice Presidential debate on December 14 2018 between the candidates of selected five political parties, there have been continuous spin not only on who won the debate but also on whether Buhari would show up for the presidential debate slated for January 19 2019.

The debate, which was organized by the Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG) and the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), featured the following Vice Presidential candidates: Abdulganiyu Galadima (Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN); Khadijah Abdullahi-Iya  (Alliance for New Nigeria, ANN); Yemi Osinbajo (All Progressives Congress (APC); Peter Obi (Peoples Democratic Party, PDP),  and Umma Getso (Young Progressives Party, YPP).

The spin has mostly been on who won the debate between PDP’s Peter Obi and APC’s Yemi Osinbajo. While the answer to this depends essentially on the respondent’s leanings in the political divide, my personal assessment is that while Osinbajo lived up to expectations, Peter Obi performed well above expectation.

A broader question, following the debates, is whether such debates matter. Put differently do debates, even by the presidential candidates, influence the outcome of elections in countries like the USA where such debates have become part of the democratic process?


Let me preface the answer by mentioning that in the USA (from where we borrowed much of our brand of presidential system), election debates can be traced to as far back as 1857 when Abraham Lincoln debated with Stephen Douglas on “the virtue of the republic and the evil of slavery”.

It was an un-moderated debate for a senatorial seat in the State of Illinois – an election that Abraham Lincoln, who was later to become President of the country, lost.  With the advent of radio and later television, broadcasting election debates became an important element of political competition. Thus in 1940 Republican nominee Wendell Willkie challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a series of radio debates, which Roosevelt, conscious of Willkie’s skills for public speaking, declined. Though the League of Women Voters organised debates between presidential candidates in 1952, the culture of televised debate became formalized in the USA with the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

Some believe J.F. Kennedy’s performance in the debate contributed to his slim victory over Nixon during the election.  In the USA, the first ever Vice Presidential debate in the country was on October 15, 1976, between Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale. Election debates began in the United Kingdom only in 2010.


In Nigeria Bashorun MKO Abiola, then presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) debated Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention in the run up to the 1993 presidential election – won by Abiola but annulled subsequently. In the election that ushered the current civilian rule in 1999, General Olusegun Obasanjo, candidate of the PDP, refused to debate with Chief Olu Falae, candidate of the now defunct Alliance for Democracy and the All Peoples Party.

In 2003 when Buhari emerged on the scene, there was no debate. In 2011, Jonathan who became president after the death of Umaru Yaradua, pulled out of a televised debate hosted by the Lagos-based NN24 cable television after initially consenting to take part in it, preferring instead to participate in the NEDG-BON organized debate. The three main opposition candidates at the time – Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change, Malam Nuhu Ribadu of the Action Congress of Nigeria and Alhaji Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigeria Peoples Party participated in the NN24 debate on March 18 2011 but refused to be part of the BON-organized debate on March 30, 2011 in retaliation for Jonathan’s absence from the NN24 debate.

In the run-up to the 2015 elections, Buhari refused to take part in the presidential debate even when Goodluck Jonathan, then the President, participated in it. In essence election debates are yet to be properly institutionalized as part of our democratic culture

Do the debates really influence election outcomes?


It is not unusual for candidates who feel they are leading in the polls or are in a vantage position to win the election to dodge debates because of a belief that debate formats generally favour the challenger or the weaker candidates.  For instance, in the USA, President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate with Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 because he was leading in the polls and public speaking was not his forté.  Similarly in 1968 Richard Nixon who again contested the presidency with Senator George McGovern, refused to debate because he was the front-runner in the opinion polls. His non-participation might also have been informed by his experience with John Kennedy in 1960.

In Nigeria, candidates of fringe political parties tend to be most enthusiastic about election debates.  For most, it is their ‘Alleluiah moment’ – the opportunity to mount the podium with their better known and better-prepared opponents and call them ‘my fellow candidate.’

Supporters of election debate believe that even if they do not influence electoral outcomes, they are important sources of voter education and mobilization. They also argue that such debates could be useful in agenda setting (right wing and Green parties are known for such in the West).

Critics have however countered that though the election debates themselves may last for just 90 minutes or so, the spin war in the media over who won could last for weeks or months such that the answer to who won a debate may often need to be reformulated to who won the spin war?


Critics equally argue that during debates voters are merely offered competing messages and assertions of fact, which may even complicate, rather than simplify the choices for them. They also argue that election debates are only one communication data point in a campaign that usually involves a cacophony of conversations and political marketing – meaning that it is difficult to disaggregate its impact from the impact of other dynamics that drive the elections.

Critics equally contend that in countries like ours where the size of ‘floating voters’ may be insignificant, and the electoral process is driven by identity politics and other dynamics, election debates will have no impact on electoral outcome. For instance, Obasanjo (1999), Jonathan (2011) and Buhari (2015) won elections despite declining to debate their main challengers.


Do the above mean that Buhari should decline to take part in the proposed presidential debate in January 2019?

It will, in my opinion, be very unwise for him to do so for several reasons:


One,  critics often accuse Buhari of not being in control of his government – an accusation that seems to have gained more traction after his wife, Aisha, alleged that two people have hijacked and run the Buhari government. Taking part in the debate will therefore be an opportunity for Buhari to disprove that allegation by demonstrating conversance with the workings of the government – as Osinbajo did during the Vice Presidential debate. Dodging the debate will only reinforce that allegation.

Two, Buhari has a good opportunity of doing very well in the debate precisely because the bar of public expectations of him during the debate is exceedingly low, making it easier for him to perform above expectation by putting up a minimal effort. In essence, even if he loses by wide margin during the debate – he will only have performed to expectation. Few – even among his ardent supporters- really expect him to win the debate as public communication is believed not to be his forté.


Three, a debate does not end with the 90 minutes or so of exchanges among the candidates on the podium. It continues for weeks and months when the spin doctors take over. Surely, there must be a few lines Buhari’s debate coaches can teach him to deliver during the debate which the spin doctors can run away with.

Four, Buhari is routinely accused of looking down on Nigerian media – he has done only one media chat in three and half years but grants interviews whenever he is out of the country. To duck the debate will reinforce the image of someone generally contemptuous of being interviewed by Nigerian journalists – or even addressing Nigerians.

Five,  Buhari should also realize that his insularity has hurt his government exceedingly. Take for instance the trending story of the man in Aso Rock being ‘Jubrin from Sudan’. Certainly, his insularity and ‘scarcity’ (he rarely visits other parts of the country not even in their moments of anguish and calamities)  creates room for all sorts of conspiracy theories about him. Will the ‘Jubrin from Sudan’ story ever stick on Osinbajo who is virtually everywhere? Certainly, Buhari has more to gain from taking part in the debate than from dodging it.

Jideofor Adibe is on Twitter: @JideoforAdibe

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