Meeting The Hoi Polloi – Between Town-hall Meetings And a Presidential Debate By Johannes Tobi Wojuola
It is very rare to see a grown man cry, and when it happens one need not be told that there is a big problem. On the 18th of March, I watched in sobriety as a retired Colonel in the Nigerian army shed tears while lamenting the non-payment of pension of military officers for 54 months – that is approximately 4 years and three months. The occasion was a Town-hall meeting organised by the All Progressives Congress (APC) on Security – Securing Nigeria The Imperative of Exemplary Leadership. Rtd. Colonel Zubeiru was making his contributions to the meeting and also asking what the General would do for his likes – retired officers – when he burst into tears.
Early in the month of January, 2015, when it became clear that the two major contenders for the Presidency were General Muhammadu Buhari and the incumbent, Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, there came a clamour for a debate between the two major contenders. The debates were intended to be hosted on National Television and Radio Stations and to be organised by the Nigeria Election Debate Group (NEDG). The APC said it will not participate in the debate alleging that it was fraught with errors and prejudice. Citing also that the organisers of the debate had ‘the toga of government control’. The statement went further to state that the debate ‘brings into focus the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), National Television Authority (NTA), Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) and the Africa Independent Television (AIT) – owned by a PDP Chieftain. And going by the avalanche of inflammatory statements, misinformation and blatant lies being propagated by some of these media against our party and candidates … and the failure of these aggressors to desist and apologise, have left the APC Campaign with no option than to steer clear of any premeditated smear campaign that could be inimical to our prospective success.’
I buy into this argument put forward by the APC, and if you do not see and agree with the points being made there, it may be hard for you to afford any banal reality at all. A neutral observer of the political advert contents of State owned and State sponsored Television and Radio stations would not need to be explained to as to the one-sided nature of the derogatory denigrations they put out in the name of documentaries. Without apologies, I say this. It is one thing for a falsehood to be concocted, it is however another for it to be displayed on one’s platform – a deemed neutral one. It is further a damnation on one’s neutrality when one’s platform refuses to sieve out what political adverts go in and those that stay out. It goes further to assert – and sadly – that he who pays the piper dictates the tune of the piper. And for the piper – being a media outfit – to begin to allow its flute to be the messenger of the carrier of lies, falsehood and prevaricated tunes, brings to question the knowledge of journalistic ethics by these houses.
In the U.S., it is customary for the main candidates to engage in public debates. These debates choose the most popular themes of that time. From the late 19th century these debates have most times swayed the voters in favour of the winner of the debates. It is not constitutional, but more or less conventional. Debates were adopted in Nigeria, with the first televised debate – of a presidential election – holding in 1993 between the late MKO Abiola and Alhaji Bashir Tofa. Ever since, debates have become recurrent in almost every Presidential election held. In 2011, April 9th to be precise, General Buhari participated in a National Debate organised by NN24, alongside Nuhu Ribadu and Mal. Ibrahim Shekarau. Mr. Goodluck Jonathan did not attend. Today however, the APC having given genuine reasons as to why it will not participate in the prejudice fostered debate of the NEDG, are still being lambasted by some Nigerians who believe that the APC is scared of subjecting their product to scrutiny. But I disagree with these Nigerians, especially on that biased note. Why? The APC engendered a superior means of reaching out to Nigerians; answering more questions, engaging more personally and providing unlimited access to these engagements through its TOWN-HALL meetings.
On the other hand, it seemed the PDP adopted its irregular ‘make-me-shine-questions’ media chat and entertainment parties they call interactive sessions.
Town-hall meetings were borrowed from the traditional town meeting style of government used in New England, where citizens gathered to decide on issues important to the community, like budgeting, purchasing of equipment, e.t.c.. Need I mention that we had similitudes of these in our pre-colonial traditional political institutions.
This system of public meet-to-talk gives the members of a community an opportunity to get together to discuss emerging issues and to voice concerns and preferences for their community.
Typically, in a townhall meeting, officials sit in the front, facing the audience, with the audience seated in rows. When the meeting is opened, people in the audience can ask questions or bring issues up, with the officials or principal responding to questions asked.
Almost, if not everyone, is given a chance to talk personally and ask questions. Thus, becoming an actual conversation between the principal and the hoi polloi – of people of all ages and backgrounds.
The beauty and extraordinarily profound nature of town-hall meetings – especially that adopted by the APC – is such that it gives the ordinary – not privileged – citizens the opportunity to ask genuine, and not doctored debate questions to leaders. They are ambushed and compelled to answer honestly the most unexpected questions.
It shows how much a politician is willing to listen to the peculiar issues bothering the constituents of a locality. And it assists the politician in getting a consensus on what people are thinking and feeling. Moreso, the questions fielded in townhall meetings are relative, pervasive and more scrutinous.
I would agree that debates on the other hand provide a window for the electorate to access the comportment, mindset, intellect and grasp of pertinent issues by a candidate – but the town-hall meeting does likewise. And you will agree with me that in debates, the better speaker wins, but not always the best worker.
With a limited reach and mostly scripted performance, most debates fail to convey the sentiments of the people to the candidate and even vice versa. The tears of rtd. Col. Zubeiru spoke a message that no perfectly coined journalistic catchesim would ever present.
I am lucky to have attended two of the six already held town-hall meetings of the APC. And in the both I attended, I could share the same feelings and convictions with the question posers. The intimacy of each session was genuine and revealing.
The APC may want to count itself lucky not to have participated in the debate in my humble view. Today, they can focus on issues that matter, on matters that must be dealt with, and the manner that these dealings may be done. Being a clearer mirror of what I would call the people’s party, the town-hall approach presents the perfect outing for the All Progressives Congress in their electoral pursuit; and I dare believe that the tears shed by rtd. Col. Zubeiru would not go un-noticed by the General and his team.
Johannes Tobi Wojuola
Opinion expressed on this page is solely that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Abusidiqu.com and/or its associates.