Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger on Sunday faced accusations of arrogance, disrespect and elitism, after they failed to turn up for a debate between election hopefuls.

Buhari, of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), and Atiku Abubakar, from the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), were supposed to have been among five candidates at the set-piece discussion late Saturday.

But Buhari stayed away, citing his “busy and hectic official and campaign schedules” and because he had already taken part in a live, televised question-and-answer session.

Abubakar returned from the United States and headed to the venue in Abuja but “at the last second he decided not to appear”, debate moderator Mark Eddo announced.

Abubakar, referred to across Nigeria as “Atiku”, later blamed Buhari, saying the president’s absence was “a slight on all of us and our democracy”.

“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,” he added.

Nigeria goes to the polls to elect a new president on February 16 in what is expected to be a close race between the two main parties.

The PDP was in power for 16 years from 1999, when democracy was restored after decades of military rule. Buhari’s victory in 2015 was the first for an opposition candidate.

Utter disgust

The other three candidates at the debate all said Buhari and Abubakar’s absence was not surprising and both were from the old ruling class.

Retired army general Buhari, 76, headed a miliary government in the 1980s, while Abubakar, a wealthy businessman four years his junior, was vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007.

Obasanjo issued an open letter on Sunday accusing Buhari of recruiting agents to falsify the election results, and cast doubts on the national electoral commission (INEC).

“Personally, I have serious doubts about the integrity, impartiality and competence of the INEC to organise elections that are fair, open and credible,” said the ex-president who supported Buhari in 2015 but this time is backing his rival Abubakar.

Nigeria’s presidency responded later Sunday in a statement calling Obasanjo’s  comments “bizarre and scandalous.”

“The elections starting in February will be free and fair as promised the nation and the international community by President Buhari,” it added.

Buhari, Abubakar and Obasanjo are among a number of ageing politicians to have dominated Nigeria for decades in a country where around 60 percent of the population of more than 180 million is aged under 30.

Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister, of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, said: “I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that there is a political class that simply needs to fade away from our country.

“The idea that the will of people will be subject to the whims and caprices of our politicians should be a total anomaly,” added the ex-World Bank vice-president.

Fela Oludatore, an entrepreneur and motivational speaker, of the Alliance for New Nigeria, accused Buhari and Abubakar of acting like “rulers (who) don’t explain to their subjects what they’re going to do”.

Kingsley Moghalu, of the Young Progressives Party, who was a former deputy governor of Nigeria’s central bank, branded both arrogant and ignorant.

“They’re not here so they can’t answer the questions… They belong to the old school… with a sense of entitlement but not a record of performance,” he added.

Many ordinary Nigerians accused the APC and PDP candidates of disrespect. One said he felt “utter disgust” and the only appropriate response for voters was at the ballot box.

Another told the Premium Times website a two-hour live debate “requires intellectual stamina and quite frankly, I know both cannot cope so I was not surprised”.