Folly of a political talk-show commission
At a time when our nation is in the throes of multiple political, economic and security challenges, when hundreds of poor and hapless Nigerians are dying by instalments on account of the harsh economic realities, should the establishment of a political debates commission be the rational preoccupation of a serious-minded legislature? Should legislators who claim to have the interest of the Nigerian people at heart be proposing legislative bills that seek to multiply government departments that only end up as avenues for corrupt enrichment, bureaucratic waste and political patronage? In these days when talks about cutting the cost of governance have almost become a national anthem and when there are already too many government agencies with conflicting, confusing and overlapping duplication of responsibilities, is it not bad judgement for the Nigerian Senate to be absorbed with thinking about setting up another brand new bureaucratic machinery?
I ask the foregoing questions with a deep sense of outrage. Just a few days ago, I read in some national dailies that the Nigerian Senate has proposed a bill seeking to establish a Nigerian Political Debates Commission, that will be saddled with the responsibility of organising and conducting debates for all candidates cleared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to participate in election into the offices of president, vice president, governor and deputy governor. If I may ask: what then happens to the commission at the end of the election season? We wait for another four years before the commission gets busy again, right? And the staff of the commission, what will they be doing? Taking salaries at the end of every calendar month for a job that they do once in four years?
I believe that the idea of such a commission is not only backward but also laughable. It betrays a seminal lack of clear legislative thinking plus intellectual laziness. One is left to imagine that the 8th Senate has run out of good ideas, and that ‘distinguished’ political opportunists are now looking for every possible means to advance their selfish interests. Many of us know that if any such commission is established, it will only serve to make room for more public funds to be shared by political jobbers, with influential politicians arm-twisting the commission to tacitly endorse their anointed candidates vying for elective positions.
Every good student of politics knows that the health of a democracy depends on two crucial mediating institutions: the media and civil society. The media plays a crucial role in shaping a healthy democracy and that is why it has variously been referred to as ‘the fourth estate,’ the ‘backbone of democracy,’ the ‘watchdog of society’ and the ‘conscience of a nation.’ The role of the media in a democratic society revolves around informing the public and informing democratic choices through the clarification of complex issues, particularly in an age when information is the driving force of economic development, and international events impact on people’s daily lives as never before.
The media provokes public debates leading to greater public participation in important decisions. It uncovers abuses by public office holders and mounts pressure for their rectification. The media mobilises public opinion to crucial issues and allows political pluralism to express itself by advertising different views and ideological approaches to issues. The media also keeps politicians attuned to public opinion while offering politicians a medium to explain policies and decisions to the public and build the necessary consensus.It is also through the media that politicians are reminded about their unfulfilled promises at the time of elections. This reminder compels politicians to abide by their promises in order to remain in power.A democracy without media is like a vehicle without wheels.
During election campaigns, the media’s minimum is to give publicity access to all political parties and candidates, and to set the political agenda without trivialising or sensationalising the issues. Those of us who have access to cable TV have been particularly impressed with the American presidential election political debates anchored by CNN, between the two leading contenders, Mr. Donald Trump (Republican Party) and Mrs. Hillary Clinton (Democratic Party). We have seen how the American media has helped to deepen the content and culture of political discourse on defining issues in the American society. Herein also lies the role of civil society.
In a democracy, civil society groups can help to promote political participation. They do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens, and encouraging them to listen to election campaigns and vote in elections. Civil society also helps to inform the public about important public issues by providing fora for debating and disseminating information about public policy issues. Civil society organisations also help to develop other values of democratic life: tolerance, moderation, compromise, negotiation and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable. Civil society is a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for positive relationship between the democratic state and its citizens.
Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.
The Nigerian Electoral Act 2010, in addition to the powers conferred on INEC by the 1999 Constitution, lists among the functions of INEC the power to conduct voter and civic education and to promote knowledge of sound democratic election processes. Within the framework of election campaigns, INEC has powers to impartially mediate and midwife political debates, through the cooperation of the media and civil society. Careful reading of the Constitution and the Electoral Act should have tempered the thinking of the sponsors of the bill seeking to establish a Nigerian Political Debates Commission in the Senate.
Even the United States of America that we Nigerians love to adulate as the model for our democratic experiment does not have a government-owned political debates commission. The Commission for Presidential Debates (CPD), founded in 1987, is a non-profit, non-partisan organisation, and does not receive funding from the American government or from any political party or candidate for its activities. Yet it is one of the most efficiently run private establishments in the United States. It fulfils its mandate by working with the mainstream American media and civil society groups.
In other words, if those who inhabit the Nigerian Senate are interested in deepening the content of our political conversation during election, they should make laws that strengthen the media and civil society, rather than preoccupy themselves with a frivolous legislative bill. Amidst various spiralling crises facing our nation – a faltering economy biting hard on millions of people, a deadly insurgency still claiming lives, pockets of social restiveness and criminality, a devastating famine in the North East and a tsunami of hopeless unemployed youth – a legislative bill for a political talk-show commission is not just insensitive, it is certainly bad thinking!
Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.