Political debates in Nigeria are hardly an excellent reading of prevailing political dynamics let alone the realities on the ground – this is after all, the country whose current President famously refused to participate in three debates – but the 2017 Anambra governorship debate organised on 12 November by civil society groups, Enough is Enough Nigeria and the National Democratic Institute, moderated by Channels Television’s Seun Okinbaloye and pitting five jousting, mostly well informed candidates engaging in a civil discussion of the relevant issues of the state may be a refreshing indicator of an emerging trend.
The contestants in what is shaping up to be the most closely followed state vote before the high election season of 2018-2019 featured the incumbent governor and candidate for the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Willie Obiano, businessman and self styled industrialist Godwin Ezeemo of the Peoples Progressive Alliance, former aviation minister Osita Chidoka of the United Peoples Party, federal lawmaker and All Progressives Congress candidate Tony Nwoye and technocrat and Peoples Democratic Party candidate, Oseloka Obaze. They were grilled by the veteran Okinbaloye on a limited range of issues varying from governance, security and social development to the economy.
In the opening segment, the candidates spoke about the distinctive elements of their platforms. Obaze, in between proving his local bona fide by handily pointing out that he had “lived in Anambra for years,” declared that his administration will end multiple taxation, make education 26 percent of the state’s annual budget and champion human development anchored on education, welfare, social security, protecting life and property and guaranteeing the freedom of movement; Nwoye promised to block leakages in government spending while frittering away a healthy chunk of his allotted 120 seconds blasting the incumbent of appointing over 700 advisers; Ezeemo unveiled his intentions to ensure full employment in an environment where “70 percent of our graduates are unemployable” and drive growth in agribusiness while ensuring environmental sustainability; Obiano said he would use a renewed mandate to make his state a first choice business environment and drive social mobility after touting his credentials on improving security, employee welfare and his ‘181 projects in 181 communities’ mantra; and Chidoka outlined his four steps to mapping out a shared vision of public service and sustainability which would be attained by “applying knowledge, hard work and morality.” It was a lively opening to what would be an engaging discourse.
The moderator took particular interest in dwelling on the underlying politics fuelling the election. Thus, Nwoye had to answer questions about a very public and ugly spat between his political godfather Andy Uba and current Labour Minister and one-time governor, Chris Ngige. He decried the entire situation as“a propaganda of the APGA administration of Chris Ngige” although he admitted that he left the PDP “because of a lack of inclusivity and governance.” Chidoka strongly countered the idea that he salivated for the Governor’s Lodge at Awka when tackled on his political party shopping tendencies, saying that “the issue is not what platform on which I am running. The issue is what I have to offer.” He eventually declared that the UPP “approximates [his] thoughts on politics at the moment.” I fundamentally believe in the renegotiation of the Nigerian state.” Obiano, in repsonse to questions about his relationship with his immediate predecessor, Peter Obi, appealed tot he moderator to allow him focus on his election programme for the state. Further pressed on the matter, he simply said “I am not against Peter Obi. He is not a candidate in this election.” Obaze leveraged on his work experience as an international civil servant, as well as positions in the last Anambra administrations, but explained his deep dive into the world of politics as a call to arms “because the government and the process has been hijacked.” Ezeemo could only volunteer his political goals in general terms, saying that “Anambra is in trouble, we are not in trouble. I am here to serve the black man.”
The economy was also front and centre during the vote, with facts, figures and a healthy helping on innuendo thrown around. Obiano gleefully (and rightfully) informed the country that his state bucked a national recession by being one of the few geographic growth spots and triumphantly declaring that “if Anambra was a country, we would be the 27th largest economy in Africa,” a fact which the debate fact checkers pointed out afterwards was understating the point. In 2014, the year the governor cited when citing the numbers, Anambra actually ranked 24th – a revelation Obiano would be more than happy to accept. Chidoka’s repsonse to this was to criticise the governor for touting Gross Domestic Product figures and growth rates. To him, it was simply “the effect of Western consultants,” adding that “the problem with Anambra is that we rank bottom in terms of corruption and bottom in terms of competitiveness.” The point, while welcomed by certain segments of the audience present in the auditorium was untrue. Lagos props up the rest of the country in clean governance rankings, while a litany of northern states do far worse than Anambra in creating a business friendly environment. Chidoka accused Obiano of not levering on the state’s human resource potential by erroneously saying that Anambra had the highest number of students nationally who met the credible West African Examinations Council examinations standards of credits in English and Mathematics (that honour belongs to Abia). Nwoye said his administration will make Anambra an industrial hub but gave few details. Obaze and Chidoka tackled Obiano on budgetary transparency but the govenror’s retort was to cleverly remind them that as one of the country’s prime destinations for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), his administration had a massive incentive to keep its books in order in a bid to please sceptical foreign investors, which it does.
It was not a totally civil affair as shots were fired. Governor Obiano opened proceedings by accusing his debate partners of having no governing experience. The retorts were almost immediate. Chidoka rather tastelessly, calling out the governor for pointificating about executive experience when he only rose to executive management in a mid-tier bank at 60 while he was a chief executive at 35, in effect making the governor’s point even more trite. Security also made an appearance at the debate with Nwoye correctly stating that economic problems and unemployment was the leading cause of the renewed separatist agitation currently roiling the state and much of Nigeria’s southeast and Obiano pointing out that it was a call for national dialogue and he would be at the forefront of leading the cause for more equity within the Nigerian state.
On the whole, it was an engaging, informative debate, surely a foreign experience for the many Nigerians who tuned in and actually saw their politicians talk about policy with a decent form of sophistication and nuance. Some of the contestants looked better than others. Ezeemo, for instance, appeared filled with nostalgia for his life in the United Kingdom, “a place filled with milk and honey” as he puts it, “to live in a village and assist the people is because of my selflessness.” It helps no candidate to come across looking like he is doing potential electors a favour by seeking the exercise of their franchise, a clear contrast to his assertion that “government is not a one man show”. When asked how he would resolve his Trump-style conflict of interests as a sitting governor of a state where he had substantial economic interests, all he could say was “I have a competent, solid team of managers to run my businesses.” Nwoye seemed only to understand the sound bite theory of political organising. Such tropes as “we will address power. Power! Power! Power!” belong less in a debate room where one is required to explain his manifesto and more in a campaign rally in a secondary school field anywhere in rural Anambra. Obaze and Chidoka, armed with facts and long on rhyming themes and cleverly constructed sentences did not offer much in way of a convincing alternative program of governance other than bashing the person who occupies the seat. That is a recipe for being an effective opposition, not a credible, governing brand.
Obiano, in clear contrast to all the others, has the record of getting things done and it is unclear that the electorate have an appetite for changing a clearly humming, functioning engine of growth and good governance, a week to the ballot box. All the other jousters went to significant pains tonight to tarnish his governing record, with limited success. That the focus was less on their plans and more on Obiano’s star was the unspoken but loudly salient theme of arguably the most politically illuminating night in Nigeria’s democratic history, at least from an intellectual standpoint. For coming out relatively unspoiled, dignified and armed with a message to the state that his good work can only be sustained by him, Obiano is the winner of debate night.