President Muhammadu Buhari said yesterday that his “busy and hectic official” engagements were responsible for his inability to show up at the presidential debate in Abuja.
Buhari, in a statement by the spokesman for his campaign organisation, Mr. Festus Keyamo (SAN), said he had taken full advantage of several other opportunities to ” interact with the Nigerian people directly by different organisations.”
The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who was also invited to the debate pulled out at the last minute, leaving only Kingsley Moghalu of Young Progressive Party, YPP, Oby Ezekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN and, Fela Durotoye, Alliance for New Nigeria.
Atiku cited the president’s absence for his own decision to back out.
Keyamo, in the statement said: “Firstly, out of several opportunities afforded our candidate to interact with the Nigerian people directly by different organisations, our presidential candidate has taken full advantage of another town-hall meeting organised by another group which held on Wednesday, January 16, 2019. He was also joined at that town-hall meeting by our Vice-Presidential candidate who is also the Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN. Nigerians from all walks of life who were physically present and through on-line platforms asked uncensored questions which were adequately answered. It was also transmitted live by various broadcast networks in Nigeria.
“In addition, the busy and hectic official and campaign schedules of Mr. President clashed with this programme. Today, Mr. President commissioned the Baro Inland Water Port in Niger State and campaigned in Niger and Plateau States where his time was over-stretched by the tumultuous and mammoth crowds in both States, (as seen by Nigerians on live television) and only returned to Abuja late this evening.
“Whilst we thank the organisers for the invitation, we want to assure Nigerians that we shall continue to hold these debate groups and Nigerians in high esteem which our candidate has demonstrated during past election debates when he honoured similar invitations. Nigerians will also recall that a few weeks ago, our Vice-Presidential candidate, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, also attended the debate organized by the same organisations.
“Lastly, we note the statement of the candidate of the PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who actually came for the event and left the venue when he did not see Mr. President, who is our candidate. According to him, he would not want to “attack” Mr. President in his absence.
“It should now be obvious to Nigerians that for Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and the PDP, this election is all about attacking the person and programmes of Mr. President and not about proffering their own solutions to the problems they created during their sixteen years of misrule, maladministration and looting of the nation’s resources. When they cannot see President Buhari to attack, the content of their campaign becomes hollow, empty and “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Now that Atiku Abubakar had a unique opportunity to explain to Nigerians his own vision and mission without a President Buhari in the picture, he ran away. Afterall, he has his own eight years of crass and grand corruption as Vice President to defend before the Nigerian people.
“On February 16, 2019 we urge Nigerians to demonstrate to Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and the PDP, through their votes, how empty indeed their campaign has always been and to vote massively for President Muhammadu Buhari and Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN who have started the rebuilding process of our great nation.”
Atiku, on his part, said: “We came here for a presidential debate, not a candidacy debate, and I, Atiku Abubakar cannot challenge or question an administration where the man at the helm of the affairs of the nation is not present to defend himself or his policies.
“After all, you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence. I do not believe in attacking a man who is NOT here to defend himself.
“As a leader and former vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, let me first apologise to all Nigerians, my fellow candidates and the moderator for the APC presidential candidate’s absence in this debate. His non-appearance is a slight on ALL of us and our democracy.
“Secondly, with all due respect to my fellow candidates, Fela Durotoye, Oby Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu and to the moderator, Mark Sugar and with apologies to all Nigerians here and at home expecting an interesting debate, I regret that I will not be able to go on with this debate due to President Buhari’s absence.
“I however challenge President Buhari to choose a date and time for a debate where he will be present and I will be there, hopefully with the other candidates as well.”
Speaking with newsmen outside the venue of the debate, Atiku said, “I am walking out because I expected to come and defend with Mr. President.
“The President has been in office for the past three and half years. He is not here to defend that record. So who am I going to debate with. If he is on his way, when he comes, I will come back.
“In any case, I will have an opportunity to address Nigerians because there are other interviews in the plan. I came back from the US to participate in this debate but the President is not here”.
The Senate President and Director-General of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation, Dr Bukola Saraki, who accompanied Atiku to the venue of the debate also said:
“We have always made it clear to the organizers that our candidate is ready to debate with the President. When we were told in Washington DC that the debate will take place, we thought the President will be here. Our candidate is ready to debate with the President anytime he is ready”
During the debate, Dr. Ezekwesili said she was not surprised that Buhari and Atiku were not present.
She said: “I think it is time for us to acknowledge that there is a political class that needs to give way from our politics. If the two dominant parties care about the people, they would have come to give their ideas on how they will fix Nigeria.
“We showed up for this debate not because we are new entrants into politics but because we believe that it is time for a new kind of governance.”
Durotoye said: “this has been consistent for over the last 20 years. We have had 20 years of rulership and rulers do not explain to their subjects what it is that they are going to do.
“It is time to be free, we have had 58 years of independence but not 58 years of freedom and it is time to be free from this bad coin that has two sides that were supposed to be represented here.”
Moghalu said: “There are two reasons why they are not here.One is that they believe that the people of Nigeria have no choice; that you will always come back to them. They believe that you cannot move away from them that they have boxed you. We have been in bondage for far too long and it is time to send them a message.
“The second reason why they are not here is because they cannot stand here to answer questions. They belong to the old class of recycled politicians who want to come to power with a sense entitlement but not a record of performance. They want to come to power with a sense of money and power but not a record of service to Nigerians.”