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.
At the debate, Mbabazi was perhaps more forthright even though he struggled to find the right words to say that his worst decision was not to tackle what he and Besigye indirectly called Museveni’s dictatorship.
Neither of the candidates offered more robust foreign policy options than what Uganda is currently doing by deploying, say, in Somalia, South Sudan and neighbouring countries to tackle terrorism and evolving security and diplomatic millstones.
There was agreement on Uganda having to pull out of the Rome Statute, establishing the International criminal Court, by flag bearers who commented on it.
Whereas Museveni griped about limited time, Dr Bwanika, Ms Kyalya and Mr Mbabazi said they had been side-parked in the conversations.
Dr Besigye cut a meek figure at the start, realising late in the game that the night belonged to those on full-throttle like Dr Bwanika, Ms Maureen Kyalya and a comical and idea-deprived Joseph Mabirizi, who missed the first segment of the debate but managed to deploy some accidental verbal explosives, particularly on Museveni’s lane.
For instance, Mabirizi inadvertently chided Museveni as president for always arriving late, and taking him on again on the issue of Uganda scuttling the political federation of East Africa by being the only country in the region without presidential term limits.
In moments when Besigye pulled off the gloves, taking Museveni on claims of discovering Uganda’s oil and domestically unapproved deployment of the UPDF in DR Congo in 1997, which resulted in $10b (Shs34.5 trillion) reparation fine by the Internal Court of Justice, the moderators interjected to restrain the cross-fire.
Former prime minister Mr Mbabazi gave the incumbent a lease of life by saying the penalty was not because UPDF was on DRC territory illegally, but the plunder.
At ICJ, the Ugandan defence team that Mr Mbabazi led when he was the Attorney General argued the loot was by and benefitted individual military officers, not the Ugandan state.
Because the UPDF officers were on official assignment, the judges determined that Uganda was culpable, giving rise to the judgment due for review in April, this year.
Where Gen Biraaro was prayerful and forthright in what good he can do as a leader to capture voters’ mind, both Besigye and Dr Bwanika used narratives of emotional personal experiences to weave into their hearts.
The former spoke about his torture and death of inmates at a dungeon of the debating hall, specifying the incarceration was on the side Museveni used to access the rostrum, and the latter said he and one armed man stopped a young girl from being gang-raped in the southwestern Kabale town.
Low on depth
Ms Kyalya, the only woman in the race, frothed with compassion but lacked depth and correct bearing to questions at hand.
Dr Besigye’s lethal arsenal was on the domestic front, when he raised issue such as how corruption, bad and an unaccountable government were responsible for most of Uganda’s problems, both at home and abroad.
Mr Museveni fought out of the corner, at one point charging that he “rejected” outright the Opposition leader’s “lies”.
In the end, the debate in which Museveni literally set the rules, even when keeping time and ceding ground when heckled by sections of the audience, reflected the distinction in Uganda body politic about reality and what the President called ‘fiction”, referring to other candidates’ viewpoints.
He left the debate politically unscathed, having been less challenged by both moderators and co-competitors. It was his continued revision of the debate notes, even after it got underway, that showed he considered it serious and had prepared for it to the hilt.
With wide-ranging issues tackled, Ugandans can be happy not that the debate will influence the outcome of the election, but that their political rivals known for belligerence can converge in a charged period to shake hand and articulate viewpoints without the menace of teargasing or bullets.
Like the chief convener and former Principal Judge James Ogoola said, the presidential “debate is the thing”.
Setting the stage
With all the eight presidential candidates turning up for the debate, it was a glorious mark of history that could be hard to be rewritten. Ugandans can only hope for better in the next election year. The stage was set and it will be a point of discussion to the days leading to and after the elections.