Will the January 15 Uganda presidential debate take place? On current form, it looks like if it does, the front-runners – President Yoweri Museveni and FDC’s Kizza Besigye - won’t be there.
This after Museveni’s campaign team seemed to indicate that their man was unlikely to attend, and asked if they could send a representative. Now Besigye too has said if Museveni doesn’t surface, he too won’t turn up.
Whatever happens, at least Museveni has been consistent. There was an outfit composed of a cross-section of public-spirited intellectuals and citizens some years back, called the Uganda Think Tank Foundation (I know, today the name is high schoolish, but it was impressive those days), which was perhaps the most serious attempt of the Museveni years to create the proverbial “marketplace of ideas”.
It was well funded by donors, and respected. It tried for a debate in 1996 between Museveni and Paul Ssemwogerere, if my memory serves me well. Ssemwogerere even turned up. As everyone sat waiting on debate night, it emerged that Museveni was somewhere upcountry hobnobbing with peasants for their votes. The debate flopped.
I don’t believe it’s true, as some allege, that Museveni “fears” debate, although probably because he speaks more slowly, he might not put in as many words as Besigye or Amama Mbabazi. However, Museveni has a certain earthiness, and a folksy edge that could be very deadly.
The reason he doesn’t show up, is that for Museveni only two things can happen in a debate – he can maintain his standing, or lose. He cannot win over new converts.
However, beyond these very personal considerations, there are bigger factors about why a presidential debate would or wouldn’t happen in Uganda.
On February 27, 2013, this column entitled “Why Kenya has presidential debates, but in Uganda Museveni won’t show”, examined some of them.
The point was made that the Kenya debate was not about the debate, but a wider democratisation process that has been happening in the country since 2003 and had been dramatically accelerated in 2008 when the December 2007 polls ended in dispute and the worst post-election violence the country had seen since independence in 1964 followed.
That experience frightened Kenya into adopting one of the most liberal constitutions on the continent. It decided that the way to avoid future wars over power was to disperse power to 47 new counties, and guarantee them a share of the national cake (budget). They took away from the president the absolute power to appoint and fire at whim judges, the police chief, and others. There are few jobs, except in his office, that a prospective Kenyan president can promise you and you are 100 per cent sure you will get it when he reaches State House.
Like Uganda, they provided in the new constitution that a president must get at least 50 per cent of the vote to be elected, but in addition must garner 25 per cent of the vote in 24 counties.
In Uganda, though, our political class reached the very opposite conclusion to Kenya’s. It decided that the problem was not that the centre had too much power, but that it was weak and therefore not mighty enough to control power. So from Obote to Museveni, we did things like give the army more power, and brought it to Parliament. Then we concentrated even more power in the hands of the president.
The result is that an incumbent like Museveni has so many advantages, he does not need to debate. If he attended a debate, he would mostly gift his opponents. So, objectively, a Ugandan president in the present political system wins by not debating.
In Kenya, it is the opposite. First, to ensure that a candidate can get that magical 25 percent in 24 counties.
Then Kenyan elections play blocks where a candidate can be totally locked out of a region, so you need a lot more media visibility (especially TV) to improve the chances of getting that 25 per cent.
Thus the candidates who really need the debate are the incumbents and front-runners, because it improves their chances of moving beyond the 20 counties where they are sure of getting 25 per cent, to 24 more, ensuring victory. The weak candidates don’t get much from the debates, the opposite of Uganda.
But also because as Kenyan president, to get your budget, or to be able to get your appointments – in the Judiciary, police, diplomacy, intelligence services, and the army - through Parliament and Senate, you need to have a voting edge, every single seat you get in these chambers matters. Even if your TV appearance will get you one vote, it is worth it.
Presidential debates are a product of democratic make-ups of nations. They don’t make sense in places where there are democratic deficits.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3