…As shunning political debate threatens democracy
…Rivers Debate Group presents 2023 governorship debate report
…Why we do not accept funding to organise debates – Bobmanuel
An international development expert connected to the Chatham House in London has raised the alarm that non-adherence to the letters of social contract by Nigerian politicians was promoting ‘japa’ syndrome among the citizens. He also pointed out that those shunning political debates were weakening democracy and destroying the social contract.
Matthew Ayibakuro, a Governance & Development expert, spoke in Port Harcourt at the signing of the debate communique and awards to partners of the Rivers Debate Group for the 2023 governorship debate.
The MacArthur Foundation member said in Port Harcourt, September 29, 2023, that the steady erosion of the ‘Social Contract’ was also the major cause of and fresh coups in some West African countries.
Ayibakuro, a fellow of the Institute of Professional Managers and Administrators, and member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), also deplored the levity with which many Nigerian politicians treat political debates, emphasising that “political debates touch the social contract with Nigerians.”
The resource person, who plays consultancy roles with UNODC, USAID, UNDEF and other development partners, said the ‘Social Contract’ was at the root of modern governments and that it required the masses to surrender their rights to the sovereign who in turn was required to protect the people and to lift them up.
According to him, it was sad that people spill out to celebrate coups now in Africa, an indication that the people were very depressed politically. “Imagine where people celebrate the coming of dictators and autocrats. It shows that the ‘Social Contract’ has failed,” he said.
The expert with academic and policy experience of working on the cross-cutting issues of economic law, democratic governance, and human rights disclosed what the report has just revealed.
He said it showed that less than 20 percent of people of the area of study do not trust the government (executive, legislature, judiciary.) “Only the judiciary recorded 22 percent, while less than 16 percent of those polled agreed that they trusted their legislators. So, trust average is 20 percent.
“It is time to revive debates to boost dialogue and interest. We must start thinking about it because it is the thriving stone for a new Social Contract,” he said.
Ayibakuro currently works as a Governance Adviser with the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office at the British High Commission, Abuja, where he leads the Mission’s work on Legal Reform, Elections and Democracy.
He expressed sadness thus: “It is that the person who won to govern in a focal state did not come to the debate. The debate ought to be a foundation of re-starting the Social Contract. A state is being reformed every four years, thus, refusing to debate is like asking a partner to sign a contract without reading it. We see the failure of the Social Contract in our country every day.”
He expressed bigger concern about what he discovered in Bayelsa State as governorship election runs fast on. “In Bayelsa State where election is about one month away, the governorship candidates look you in the face and say they will not debate.”
He attributed this to trust issue and other factors. “Imagine someone that wants to lead 2.8million people not ready to debate. We think the presidential debates caused it where candidates were refusing to debate in one station or the other. We had to structure it as Town Hall Meeting.”
The expert said those who fail to debate fail to understand that debates help in education of the political process and in mobilisation of the population. “It generates interest and participation which form the hallmark of democracy,” he said.
According to him, democracy is under close debate around the world. “People are re-evaluating the value of democracy. This raises the question of whether or not political debates are helping to give democracy the relevance it craves for.”
He placed the media high in the task of reinventing democracy. “You stand in the gap for the ordinary people. They cannot be where you find yourself, asking questions to those about to become leaders. You are thus setting foundations on how democracy works.
“We in Nigeria are solving problems without debating them, whereas civilised societies prefer to debate a problem before solving it. What you in the media are doing helps to restore the social contract,” he said.
Why we do not accept funding – Ibifiri Bobmanuel of REIF
The President of REIF and Chairman of the organising team of the debate series, Ibifiri Bobmanuel, explained why REIF does not accept funds from outside the REIF and their partners.
“We do not want anybody to influence the debate planning and outcome. We are acutely aware that he who pays the piper will definitely want to dictate the tune. Many political camps usually, wanted to bankroll the exercise at the onset but we resisted. Later, they discovered our resolve and left us alone,” he said.
He further said that political people still do not understand how the group does not accept money from them. “People must know that politicians talk to themselves after all these hard words they throw at each other in the open. They call each other privately and share thoughts. People must not be deceived.”
He said REIF leadership wished to recognise those that had worked since 2015 to create the Rivers Debate series which has won respect in Nigeria with huge commendation from local and foreign partners. There is therefore need to say thank you to those who have continued to make the series a huge success, he stated.
“Every election, the next leaders need to tell the business community what they would do and how they would do it. The ‘how’ is what matters because promises are easily made but implementation is the issue.
“There is need to appreciate the pillars of the debate series, men like the great Odoliyi Lolomari who is now late. He was a special person who was passionate about the Rivers Debate and the need for next leaders to commit to debate and reaching the social contract with the voters.”
He said politicians had sleepless nights because they were not allowed to bankroll the debates. “They now decided to do homework to be able to appear before the Rivers people and debate and answer independent questions.
“The debates give the ordinary people insight into the people aspiring to lead them. It is not our business to tell people who to vote for but we expose the personalities and mindsets of those aspiring to lead them.
“The people we want to honour this night have continued to contribute different values to the series. We know there is need to improve upon the debate platform.”
He singled out BusinessDay, saying the newspaper has always come in to support REIF with business reporting. “They brought that value to bear in the debate serious because REIF is about business and the debate is the quest by the business community to extract position of each governorship candidate.”
He also commended other partners such as the Hotel Presidential, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (Rivers/Bayelsa chapter) as well as SDN for being very supportive.
He revealed the most sensitive aspect of governorship or presidential debates. “The choice of who makes it to the debate podium has always been challenging. Most candidates insist on featuring, and some take it personal. In the 2023 debate, a twist came when a woman came on the scene. We were persuaded to give her a wild care. It turned out to be a good decision, though some contestants chased us about asking to be so considered.”
He said the communique must go to all, especially the one that is governor. “That is the procedure. We realise that the debate series is winning respect even from those who didn’t like it. We have realised that many people conveyed negative messages about the exercise to the powers-that-be.
“We realise that those at the corridors of power fight hard to keep other off. At last, those in power realise the things they were told were not true at all.”
He said the Rivers State Government now commends and appreciates the effort. “It has never been about us (REIF), and it will never be. Many problems in the society were solved because many projects our previous debates listed were executed: The Onne Road rehabilitation in the first year of the previous administration; Industry Road leading to the sea port in Port Harcourt, markets that needed attention, etc. The port is now functioning. It is now clear that the draught to the port in PH is not shallow and needs now dredging with billions of dollars. That was the excuse but it is not anymore. These are the fallouts of the Rivers Debate series.
“We are handing the Report (communique) to the Governor as is the tradition. They can pick one or two things inside for implementation.”