Seventy is a crowd. All the same the press must not miss out those who stand out. I don’t know how John Momoh and his presidential debate team intend to handle 140 debates assuming that all of them are willing to participate. But a presidential debate is a commendable platform to separate the wheat from the chaff. It will be a pity therefore if any candidate, for whatever reason, elects to recuse himself or send a proxy, as if somebody else can take analgesic on his behalf for his waist pain.
Funke Egbemode, the energetic woman – veteran editor and publisher – who leads her colleagues in the media as president Nigerian Guild of Editors is, by the constitution of the Guild and popular acclaim, a president with capital P. Her colleagues freely doff their hats for Her Excellency Madam President.
At the 14th all Nigeria Editors’ Conference in Asaba held from October 10 to October 14, this year, even Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the country’s eloquent and cerebral vice-president, who made history as the first VP to grace the convention, joined the grove by publicly, even if humorously, addressing President Egbemode, her Excellency.
And, truth be told, she merits the adulation by her comportment, professionalism and leadership qualities. But this piece is not about the qualities that make her stand tall and stout among men and women of the pen fraternity. It has do with the manner her welcome address which contains an allegory of the imposition of the wrong king in a fictional community against the wishes of the gods resonates with the country’s current efforts at electing its leaders next year and what role the media should play to ensure a free, fair and credible election – violence and rancour free.
In the aforementioned fictional village, the gods, on the demise of the king, had pronounced a man of wisdom but of modest means as the new king. But the king makers, always greedy for money, ignored the wishes of the people as endorsed by the gods and picked a man with deep pocket who turned around to covet even his subjects wives starting with that of the town crier who mobilised people to his coronation. Their peaceful world, as they knew it, caved in.
“A wrong choice next year” warns our dear President of the Guild, “will leave us with consequences that will last us years.” So many other concerned citizens and civil society groups including traditional rulers across the country have voiced the need for a peaceful and fair and free election.
Only last week did Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar and the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, obviously not for the first time, come out again forcefully to demand that President Muhammadu Buhari administration owe Nigerians the duty to ensure that the next year’s election are not only free and fair, but must be devoid of violence. And they promised to hold the president accountable for this. The burden on the president is not merely because he is a candidate and has partisan interest in the election but because he is the president of the country and by implication all the politicians and their various parties are his to take care of as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The security of the county lies on his shoulders and he alone has the custody of the apparatus for peace and war. But the instruments of violence which ought to be the exclusive preserve of the government are now unfortunately being shared with all agents of assorted criminal activities. But by his utterances, the president has never given the impression that he has given up. And he cannot give up.
But what do the men and women of the media do to ensure that the choice we make next year does not translate into a kiss of death? In consonance with the role assigned to the media by the constitution, the media has an impactful assignment. Section 22 of the constitution makes it mandatory for the media to feel free at all times to “uphold the fundamental objectives (of the constitution) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
Chapter two of the constitution which is the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, though not justiciable, clearly states that “it shall be the duty and responsibility of all arms of government and of all authorities and persons exercising legislative, executive and judicial powers to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of this chapter.” Translation: Security and welfare of the people are the primary responsibility of government. Not only that, it prescribes for the full, unhindered and effective participation of the people in the running of government through their elective representatives. If government is faithful to the axiom that sovereignty belongs to the people, it must do nothing to abridge their fundamental human rights which include their freedom to make a free choice at election.
Holding the government accountable presupposes that the press is free and credible as an institution to play this all-important role. Media reports must be accurate and responsible to command the respect of the public. It is largely through the media – mainstream and social media – that the electorate will learn in details the programmes and policies of the various parties and the promises they make to the people.
Faithful to the social media, Atiku Abubakar, the new Waziri of Adamawa who is the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, chose that platform to make the public presentation of his Make Nigeria to Work Again Programme. Even though the hall was packed full with party faithful and the army of Buhari partisans, APC candidate, President Buhari would have been uncomfortable if the media was not at hand to give maximum publicity to his Next Level programme when he made a public presentation.
The media must be faithful to the people by interrogating the programme of the various parties. Whatever they have promised, may look good on paper but the people deserve to know how they intend to implement them. It will be a disservice to the voters for the press to gloss over some fundamental issues of politics. Not to critically analyse the issues being thrown up by the candidates is to give them a chance to deceive the people with fake promises that are good at enticing the voters but woeful at implementation.
Agenda setting is one critical contribution the media can make to the success of the campaign and the conduct of election. How does each party stand on the economy? Atiku, for instance, favours privatisation and effective participation of the private sector.
President Buhari, on the other hand, appears more cautious in the management of the economy with strong emphasis on fighting corruption. Believing that a corruption free country is the panacea for economic development, Buhari is prepared even in election time to throw into jail anybody who is caught fiddling with public money. He certainly will have a busy time asking for votes across the country and at the same playing the Sherrif, looking for thieves to catch.
The press must help him by asking critical questions. Some of the candidates of his party are enmeshed in allegations of fraudulent practices – some allegedly caught on video taking bribe in hard currency, others with million dollar contracts that they have failed to execute. What will he do with such people? Rule of law and immunity?
The press cannot afford to ignore numerous other candidates who want to occupy the Villa and are full of ideas. But it is not deliberate if some of them get passed by. Seventy presidential candidates is not like an eleven-man Super Eagles or Super Falcon squad with each player easily lending himself or herself to critical analysis – how they make deft moves or are slow footed when it matters most.