TV or not TV: that is the Nigerian question

With less than a fortnight to go before the presidential election, Nigerian voters continue to be denied the opportunity of assessing the leading candidates in a televised debate.

An invitation to participate in What About Us?, an enterprising and scrupulously democratic format broadcast to young voters on Friday, was rejected by the poll’s front-runner, incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan.

As another West African country, Ivory Coast, slithers towards civil war in the wake of a disputed vote, the international community is anxious to see Nigeria shake off its recent track record of rigged elections.

The continent’s most populated country is just one of the unusually high number of African states scheduled to go to the polls during 2011.

With no established culture of televised electoral debate, Nigeria’s plethora of channels has so far failed to create a neutral format to win the confidence of over-sensitive politicians.

Challengers to the president refuse to participate in a debate scheduled for tomorrow by the state-owned Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria. The president himself declined to join them last week on NN24 TV. Minor candidates are threatening legal action at their exclusion.

The What About Us? program resolved these potential quarrels by asking its young viewers to prepare the ground for the debate. The full array of new social media was deployed to find out which candidates should be invited and what topics should be discussed.

The results of the survey are publicly available. And the eventual “winner” of the debate was chosen not by media pundits but by audience voting.

Organized by a network of non-governmental groups, What About Us? draws strength from the thrust of current global democratic forces. Young educated technology-loving urbanites have called the shots in the unfolding dramas of the Arab world.

70% of Nigeria’s 150 million population is aged under 35. Unemployment within this group is a burning social issue. Familiarity with mobile phones is almost universal, a slumbering giant of potential political activism.

Invitations to participate in Friday’s debate were duly issued to the six presidential candidates chosen by young voters. The event promised glamor and wisdom in the person of world-famous novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as moderator.

The writer has aligned herself with local social movements encouraging Nigerian youth to cast off its traditional apathy and register for the poll. “The intense awakening of young people might yet be the making of a great revolution,” she wrote earlier this month in the Guardian in the UK.

But still the president did not come. Nor did the candidate considered to be his closest rival, Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change.

The debate itself was not without flaws. The studio audience of highly articulate English-speaking young professionals from Abuja may not reflect the priorities of tens of millions of very poor families in rural Nigeria.

There was a long breakdown in transmission by the online channel during which viewers were invited to consult their “blackberries”. Only a few hundred people bothered to vote in the final poll.

The three candidates on the platform interacted with courtesy and good humor but their responses failed to probe the depths of Nigeria’s intractable problems. There were awkward answers to Ms Adichie’s personal question about the country’s longstanding failure to fill ministerial posts with suitably qualified officials.

And an absence of rousing soundbites to inspire a youthful audience amounted to a missed opportunity to enhance the prospects of the participants, Nuhu Ribadu, Dele Momodu and Ibrahim Shekarau.

Nevertheless, Goodluck Jonathan and the ruling People’s Democratic Party may live to regret their no-show policy. Although the president is judged to be the hot favorite for the April 9th election, predictions run the gauntlet of major uncertainties.

In light of the discovery that the 2007 electoral roll contained the unlikely names of Nelson Mandela and Mike Tyson, a Herculean attempt has been made to legitimize the register. No less than $585 million has been invested for the purpose.

The outcome is an increase in the number of registered voters from 35 million to 67 million. No one can be sure how the newcomers will vote; indeed no one knows for sure how people voted in 2007, judging by the scathing reports of international observer missions.

The head of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Professor Attahiru Jega, has been making his presence felt in the cause of a free and fair vote. Perhaps for the first time young voters in Nigeria really can make a difference.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News