Kampala-Uganda’s inaugural presidential debate on Friday night, which incumbent President and ruling party candidate Yoweri Museveni skipped, was a historical feat that articulated issues as much as it served both surprises and comedy.
Where Independent candidate Joseph Mabirizi struggled for ideas and words, pausing oddly or repeating moderators’ questions as if unsure how to proceed, his joint campaign partner and only woman in the race, Ms Maureen Kyalya, roiled with off-topic responses.
People’s Development Party’s Abed Bwanika and Maj Gen Benon Biraaro, which an opinion poll commissioned by this newspaper showed were fringe candidates, stunned with well-articulated blueprints that galvanised the largely urbane and elite audience to applaud. They trended in post-debate social media comments as the debate’s hashtag, “Ugdebate16”, did globally.
“Dr Abed Bwanika actually won the first ever presidential debate in Uganda,” Mr Fadhil Lemeriga, a campaign agent for former prime minister and Independent candidate Amama Mbabazi, posted on facebook, shortly after the debate.
And Jonathan Maserejje, whose affiliation we could not ascertain, tweeted: “The winner of the 1st #UGDebate16 is Biraaro. He was eloquent and clearly answered questions at hand limited political posturing.”
Dr Bwanika shines
Dr Bwanika is a third-time presidential contender, and he recovered from a lack-lustre two-minute opening statement to confidently explain how millions could, with local cage and feed manufacture, make money by farming fish on Lake Victoria.
He offered not to jail the corrupt, a deviation from all other candidates, proposing instead sell off their property and invest the proceeds for public works and ban them from government jobs.
Forum for Democratic Change presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, a fourth-time presidential challenger, seemed on familiar territory but his usual sharpest barbs, which excite supporters, were blunted by the absence of Mr Museveni, whom, he said, as a “servant” of Ugandans, had the most responsibility to attend the debate and account.
With Mr Museveni out of the picture, Dr Besigye found himself having to justify why he keeps flip-flopping on key issues or hanging onto leadership, which moderator Alan Kasujja said cast him as a Museveni equivalent in the Opposition.
The main Opposition leader, who fell out with the incumbent in 1999, turned back on his word not to run for president without electoral reforms, and appeared for the Friday night debate after saying he wouldn’t without President present in person.
That notwithstanding, Dr Besigye said the foundation of Uganda’s state architecture needs to be overhauled because cosmetic changes would be inconsequential due to inherent lapse.
Such is Uganda’s politics of hypocrisy that it is bad and reflective of an untrustworthy leader only if an opponent changes position.
Former Makerere University vice chancellor, Prof Venansius Baryamureeba, had his best shots in submissions on education and role of Information, Communication and Technology in job creation and development.
The candidates were all scanty on specifics of how they would effect their proposed changes, and Kasujja’s sometimes abrasive questioning rather than interrogate, instead disrupted submissions, attracting heckling from some members of the audience.
His co-moderator, Nancy Kacungira stayed collected, but both dropped the ball at critical moments, for instance, by moving to another question without letting Mr Mbabazi answer if he had, while in government, seen the under-wraps oil Production Sharing Agreements that Uganda signed with foreign oil firms.
Again, they did not press the ex-premier to answer a question on whether he supported gays as asked by Independent candidate Mabirizi.
“Which gays?” said Mr Mbabazi, before attacking an unmarried woman with no kids whom he did not name, but that social media users suggested was Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, of smearing his name in the countryside as a homosexual.
Citing his wife, children and 11 “beautiful grandchildren” to show he is straight, Mr Mbabazi then dared Oyam County South MP Betty Amongi to try him out to prove whether or not he is gay as she reportedly alleged.
It was a low moment for the former prime minister, attracting uncharitable comments online. “The response about Amongi and the unnamed woman with no kids was rather cheap from a man of @AmamaMbabazi’s sophistication,” tweeted journalist Joshua Mmali, adding: “You want to be president? Don’t dodge a question by saying unpleasant things about women to show stance on LGBT issue. #UGDebate16.”
Mbabazi’s manifesto promises to protect the rights of minorities. But homosexuality is a locally polarising issue and politically self-destruct button to press: majority Ugandans are against it but the country’s attempt to legislate tough anti-gay penalties attracted harsh backlash from sections of the international community.
With donor representatives metres away in front of him, Mr Mbabazi could not say he does not support homosexuals, but said he would alienate Ugandan voters he is courting.
By choosing to play safe, Mr Mbabazi may have avoided a direct damage but pleased no body.
Silence has characteristically been a powerful weapon of Mr Mbabazi, who chooses to speak when and as he wants.
In trying to evade rather than answer some direct questions, such as the one Dr Besigye posed on past election rigging, the three-hour televised debate exposed him as a politician economical with the truth.
The chief organiser, Elders’ Forum chairman and former Principal Judge James Ogoola, had said the inaugural debate aimed to move away from the campaign hoopla so that candidates would be interrogated to clarify on their manifestos and visions for the country.
It focused on domestic issues: rule of law, social services and governance.
“In the end, #ugdebate16 was for once an election event in which no one was arrested, beaten, or jailed,” tweeted journalist and commentator Charles Onyango Obbo, in reference to incidents of violations in this and past campaigns.
To Gen Biraaro, who, like colleagues Dr Bwanika, Mr Mabirizi and Ms Kyalya, who rarely enjoy prime time in television broadcasts, Friday night’s debate was the only and truly “levelled ground” in the entire campaign distorted by financial disparities and uneven political power.
A second round of the debate, to focus on mostly foreign policy, is scheduled for February 10, a week to voting day.
On Friday night, the glass lecterns were arranged and the candidates stood on the rostrum in the alphabetical order of their names, under glitzy lights, but Ms Kyalya routinely and against agreed house rules slumped on the seat behind whenever she answered questions directed to her.
In the not-so-startling absence of Museveni, who was meeting NRM Women’s League members at his Rwakitura country home, some 250km away from Kampala, his former premier and presidential contender Amama Mbabazi was pushed to the defensive.
State House said Museveni was notified late, and they realised “majority of our voters may not be able to watch the debate.”
Mr Mbabazi, who is five years younger than Museveni, according to their publicly stated ages, served since 1986 in key Cabinet and security positions, the last being as prime minister, before his 2014 sacking, following polarising intra-party power wrangle.
He said while in-charge of the Security docket, he knew nothing about safe houses - euphemism for Uganda’s secret state-run torture chambers.
Whereas the president’s absence enabled journalists to roam uninhibited, including to the candidates’ make-up backrooms, it provided for the first time a televised discussion about Uganda’s future without Museveni.