Museveni, Besigye contest dominates presidential debate
Posted Monday, February 15 2016 at 02:00
Setting the mark. With all the eight candidates turning up. Ugandan politicians embraced ‘presidential debate as the thing’
Uganda’s second round of the presidential debate, held at a glamorous five-star Kampala Serena Hotel Victoria Hall in Kampala last Saturday night confirmed various opinion polls’ projections: this Thursday’s contest is a two-horse race between Mr Yoweri Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye.
Both men have established themselves as political fulcrums, around whom much if not everything revolves and without whom all things on either side fall apart.
Dr Besigye’s withdrawal, for instance, from frontline Opposition headship in 2012 sapped the energy out of his followers while Mr Museveni audaciously declared himself the only Ugandan with a vision, retreating from that pinnacle only last Saturday night by admitting other gifted Ugandans exist and he is no monopolist of knowledge.
The retired colonel, who said during previous campaigns that he knew the President “both inside and out”, having been his personal physician during a five-year guerilla war, has been the de facto leader of Uganda’s Opposition for half of the 30 years Museveni has been in power. That is after working with him from the start.
And Dr Besigye does not believe the ground is levelled now and nor will the vote this week be transparent, highlighting in his closing debate statement that the reasons that led Mr Museveni, himself and others into rebellion, exist today.
One concern has been whether the vote will end in peace or chaos, with People’s Development Party presidential candidate Dr Abed Bwanika warning the Dr Badru Kiggundu-led Electoral Commission that the country’s fate rested on their shoulders.
“There will be peaceful elections in Uganda. No one can disturb our peace. We struggled against so many problems [and] we cannot allow anybody to disrupt [our peace], disturb our people. It’s not acceptable,” Mr Museveni said, speaking after Dr Besigye.
He had come into the debate on his own terms, and critics said by first arm-twisting the organisers feted with pulling off two presidential debates within 30 days, surmounting a jinx since the 1996 presidential elections in a country where each of the previous seven heads of state were forcibly removed.
In the debate hall and online, discussants ticked the debate as a progress in Uganda’s democracy. First, the President overruled his courtiers who asked him not to attend after skipping the inaugural one on January 15, and later deriding the televised discourse as a High School equivalent.
“He said ‘get me my diary’ and wrote ‘I Yoweri Museveni will attend the debate on January 13’,” one handler told this newspaper, saying they were disarmed and remained clueless and cold after they had publicly vaunted that the debate was useless.
Mr Museveni made other demands, among them, that senior Voice of America editor and host of the broadcaster’s flagship Straight Talk Africa talk show host, Dr Shaka Ssali, whom the president considers is sympathetic to Uganda’s Opposition, should not ask him questions.
It played out in public glare, with Dr Ssali, a respected Ugandan journalism export, who has interviewed several presidents, reduced to questioning mainly fringe presidential candidates in what should have been a make-or-break televised debate.
The only time he directly asked Mr Museveni was the to-all-candidates question on their most important and most regrettable decisions in public life, after a tacit one about an individual who treats citizens as “subjects” and says “my oil” - euphemism for Museveni - was lost in uncritical response from Independent candidates Prof Venansius Baryamureeba and Maj Gen Benon Biraaro.
Gen Biraaro, like Dr Bwanika, exuded the same sureness that saw them shine during the inaugural debate.
Yet experience handed Museveni opportunity to dominate on issues such as foreign policy and regional integration - his pet subjects and the themes of Saturday night’s debate - that have given the Ugandan leader the larger-than-life stature beyond the country’s borders.
Whereas the debate explored Uganda’s influential role in regional peace and security as well as regional integration, it did not clarify the most seminal aspect: what is the country’s national and foreign policy, if any, that the candidates were discussing?
Half of the eight presidential candidates are former guerillas, and relatively older, giving the other younger but less-experienced quartet locus standi to lead the generational leadership transition.
That claim removed the central plank of ex-premier Amama Mbabazi’s campaign message that he is the safest and most experienced pair of hands to lead a peaceful change from their generation to the next, even though the incumbent president is, according to their publicly-stated ages, only four years older.