“Epp” is a slang word used by Nigerian youth meaning “help.” In other words, the title asks: “who have debates helped?”

Since their popularization in the United States in 1960, televised political debates between candidates for office have become an integral part of campaigns in the buildup to elections. They are often targeted at people regarded as “floating” or “undecided” voters. In Nigeria, the practice began during the 1993 presidential elections when televised debates were organized between Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC), as well as their running mates—Babagana Kingibe and Sylvester Ugoh, respectively. Following in this tradition, televised debates between candidates at the presidential and gubernatorial levels have been held since the return of democracy in 1999, including during the 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019 elections.

Curiously, the winners of presidential elections in Nigeria since 1999 have always been candidates who refused to participate in these official political debates. In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) refused to debate Olu Falae of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), his primary opponent. Obasanjo won the election. In 2003, Obasanjo won again after refusing to participate in the presidential debate against Muhammadu Buhari, his main challenger. In 2007, PDP’s Umaru Yar’Adua declined to debate Buhari and won almost seventy percent of the vote. Even though all of the major presidential candidates in the 2011 election turned up for the presidential debate (Buhari of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Ibrahim Shekarau of All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), and Nuhu Ribadu of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN)), Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP won despite staying away.

The emerging trend suggests that incumbent presidents or hugely popular presidential candidates stay away from televised debates.

In the 2015 election, Buhari, now running on the All Progressives Congress (APC) ticket, declined to participate and went on to win—even though he had always participated in debates in prior presidential election years. For the 2019 edition of the debate, both President Buhari and his challenger Abubakar Atiku of PDP, the presidential candidates of Nigeria’s two main political parties, failed to participate. Although Abubakar Atiku turned up for the debate, he refused to mount the podium due to Buhari’s absence. Instead, Buhari and Atiku participated in separate episodes of a televised and live-streamed political “town hall” series called The Conversation, which only featured them and their vice-presidential running mates. The candidates were interviewed in front of an audience largely made up their supporters. However, candidates of other political parties participated in the debates, but many think their participation will not translate into any significant political dividend at the polls.

It is obvious that politics continues to be largely personality-driven and influenced by identity considerations, such as ethnicity, party loyalty, regional affinity, and the religious leanings of candidates.

The emerging trend suggests that incumbent presidents or hugely popular presidential candidates stay away from televised debates. In explaining this development, a number of factors come into play. It is possible that those who think public debates could expose their communication deficiencies and make them vulnerable to ridicule by political commentators may refuse to participate. This was the case when US President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate his opponent Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 because oratory was never his strength. Moreover, in 1968, Richard Nixon failed to participate in that year’s presidential debate with Senator George McGovern because he was the most favored candidate according to the opinion polls. He felt the debate could only harm his chances. A more plausible explanation in the case of Nigeria is that voting preferences are more heavily dictated by sentiments of ethnicity, party loyalty, and regional and religious identity. As a result, whatever the candidates have to say may not matter. In essence, electoral outcomes are rarely determined by a candidate’s oratorical prowess or the strength of their ideas. A majority of voters outside Nigeria’s major cities may not even have access to the televised debates. At any rate, it is doubtful whether “floating” or “undecided” voters actually exist in Nigeria. The influence of certain politicians known as political “godfathers” along with other factors tend to sway voter behavior. Whether a politician debates or not appears to have no effect on electoral outcomes.

Thus, the refusal of the two leading candidates to participate in the 2019 presidential debates raises questions about the impact of political debates on electoral outcomes in Nigeria. This has wider implications for the impact of ideas and the content of political manifestos on the electorate. It is obvious that politics continues to be largely personality-driven and influenced by identity considerations, such as ethnicity, party loyalty, regional affinity, and the religious leanings of candidates. Political pundits are placing their bets that one of the two “non-debating” candidates—Buhari or Atiku—will emerge as the winner of Nigeria’s 2019 presidential elections. Given all this, it may not be too cynical to join Nigerian youths in posing the question: “who debates epp?” (whom have debates helped?).

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