There was an empty podium next to his rivals, ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, former anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu and Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau, at the event, broadcast live on Nigerian news channel NN24 and the Internet.
"Why don't Ribadu, Shekarau and Buhari agree under one party and kick this PDP (ruling party) out of power," said one posting on a Facebook page dedicated to following the NN24 debate.
"GEJ (Jonathan) should have at least sent a Senior Special Assistant on Debates and Challenging Interviews," said one commentator on Twitter, mocking the ruling party's reputation for setting up committees without solving problems.
The presidency said NN24's request was one of several from media organisations seeking to organise a televised debate and had been received while he was busy on the campaign trail.
"The request came late, it was one of ten. He's going to participate in a debate on the 29th...It's unfair to the president to suggest he's avoiding a debate," said Ken Saro-Wiwa, his special assistant on international affairs.
The presidential vote is due to be held on April 9, with parliamentary elections a week earlier and state governorship elections a week later.
Jonathan announced his intention to run in the elections on social networking site Facebook in September, stealing the thunder from Buhari, who was holding a campaign launch in the capital Abuja at the time.
Jonathan's aides spun the strategy as a sign he was a "breath of fresh air" in touch with Nigerian youth. Political commentators acknowledged the stark contrast with the traditional pomp of Buhari's launch was a publicity coup.
But his campaign has since lost momentum, with the turnout at some of his rallies in recent weeks less than overwhelming.
A pre-recorded television interview with local music star D'banj, broadcast on Thursday evening, was pilloried by some as a patronising attempt to engage with the youth.
"Jonathan and the PDP may be misjudging the youth who are determined to put an end to the era of mediocrity and criminal showmanship that has dragged their nation backward for decades," said one comment doing the rounds on Blackberry messenger.
Opposition Eyes Run-Off
The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) candidate has won every election since the end of military rule 12 years ago and Jonathan remains the front runner, but opposition parties are hoping they may be able to force a run-off.
Jonathan must win at least a quarter of the vote in two thirds of the 36 states to secure victory in the first round.
Buhari has strong grass roots support in parts of the north, while Ribadu's Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) is dominant in the southwest, and while they have no formal alliance they are hoping to prevent Jonathan clinching a first-round win.
Diplomats were in the front row at the debate and members of the audience were asked to submit questions in advance.
Buhari was grilled on his reputation as an authoritarian during military rule, Ribadu on why he was standing for a party whose members include people he has accused of graft, and Shekarau on the Hisbah Islamic squad he set up in Kano to enforce sharia law even on a Christian minority.
The opposition has called for the order of the parliamentary and state governorship votes to be amended, saying the timetable favoured the ruling party because if Jonathan won the presidential race then voters would be more inclined to vote PDP at state level a week later.
The electoral commission ruled out the suggestion on Friday, saying it was too late for such a change.
"It is like a moving train, it cannot suddenly be brought to a stop because you see something by the rail," electoral commission spokesman Kayode Idowu said.
opts for march 29th
President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who was conspicuously absent from the president debate organized t by NN24, has said he will make himself available for next rounds of debate, scheduled for March 29.
A press statement issued by Ima Niboro, Special Adviser to the President on Media & Publicity, said, “President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has accepted an invitation to participate in presidential debate being organized by the Broadcasting Organizations’ of Nigeria (BON) in collaboration with the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria”.
“The debate is scheduled for Tuesday, March 29 and will be broadcast live on the network service of the African Independent Television, AIT, Channels TV, Silverbird TV, Nigerian Television, Authority, Radio Nigeria and other public and private broadcasting stations in the country”.
“President Jonathan looks forward to seizing the opportunity of the debate to further present his case for the renewal of his mandate to Nigerian voters”.
In related development, Mr. Ide Eguabor, director of media and publicity, of Jonathan/Sambo campaign organization adduced reason why President Jonathan was unable to make to the NN24 presidential debate.
In his words:
“The Jonathan/Sambo Campaign Organisation has watched with utter consternation, efforts by some individuals and groups to feed the Nigerian public with inaccurate and distorted information to suit their selfish ends.
“A presidential debate to be organised by the management of NN24, a subscriber to Multichoice’s DSTV cable, is deliberately being heated up by those who now see what the president will do or will not do as an opportunity for political capital.
“The truth of the matter is that several applications from various groups, including that of NN24, have reached the Jonathan/Sambo Campaign Organisation seeking to organise the presidential debate, preparatory to the April general elections.
“The campaign organization sent its officials to sit as observers at some of the meetings called to deliberate on modalities. However, after a thorough examination of the reports of its observers to these meetings, a collective decision was taken to retain the body that had organized presidential debates since 1999 and has performed creditably well and so, saw no need to discard the platform and template for another.
“The fact is that, the Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG), organisers of the presidential debate series, is an amalgamation of the Nigeria’s mass media, print and electronic, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON), the Nigeria Bar Association, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), market women and other civil society groups.
“The Jonathan/Sambo Campaign Organisation does not believe that this relevant and credible body, made up of Nigerians and who will moderate a presidential debate watched by Nigerians on all television and radio stations nationwide should be jettisoned for any other on the eve of crucial national elections.
“Furthermore, President Goodluck Jonathan who has a carefully drawn out schedule leading up to the elections will not be able to cancel any of his appointments now to attend to a debate that is only the result of a fresh application.
“Having only just concluded his tour of the 36 states of Nigeria, President Jonathan has a hectic schedule ahead before the grand finale of the state campaigns at Abuja on March 26, 2011.
“The Jonathan/Sambo Campaign Organisation regrets that President Goodluck Jonathan will unavoidably be unable to attend the debate organised by NN24.
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