Why Kenya has presidential debates, but in Uganda Museveni won’t show

Wednesday February 27 2013

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On Monday, the second presidential debate ahead of the March 4 Kenya election took place. The following day three newspapers had the same debate; Fireworks at Debate.

On the social media sites Twitter and Facebook, Ugandans said such a debate would never take place in the Pearl of Africa. Previous attempts to hold the debates flopped, in part because President Museveni in particular, has been very scornful of them.

Yet to ask whether a Kenyan-style debate can take place in Uganda is to miss the point. The Kenya debate was not about the debate, but a wider democratisation process that has been happening in the country since 2003 and was 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. Nearly 1,400 people were killed and 650,000 displaced.

The difference is what Kenyans did with the shock of 2008, and what Uganda did with the 1979 war, the 1985 coup against the Milton Obote regime, and the 1982-86 war that brought Museveni and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) to power.

The 1,400 dead people and 650,000 displaced frightened Kenya into adopting the most liberal constitution 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 power to appoint and fire at whim judges, the police chief, and ministers. There is not a single job, except in his office, that a future 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.


First, though, it’s important to examine how historical shocks have played out in Uganda. Since the Idi Amin regime and the many wars (including in the north in recent years) that have followed, possibly up to 2.5 million Ugandans have died. That is 1,785 times more deaths than in Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. And just in Luweero during the Obote II regime and in the north during the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), up to 2 million Ugandans were IDPs – 4 times the number in Kenya.

In Uganda, though, our political class reached the very opposite conclusion than 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 II to Museveni, we gave the army more power, and brought it to Parliament. Then concentrated even more power in the hands of the president, and indeed between 1986 and 2005, imposed a quasi-one-party state.

Why two neighbouring countries with many cultural similarities can respond so differently to near-similar political crises is one that will make a good meal for future historians.

Anyhow, the result is that an incumbent like Museveni has so many advantages, he does not need to debate. If he attended a debate, he wouldn’t win any points – he would only 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, even if you are Prime Minister Raila Odinga, or Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta or Musalia Mudavadi, you need an election coalition. Secondly, Kenyan elections take 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, except some introduction to the voters for the next election five years away. Again, the opposite of Uganda.

But also because as Kenyan president, to get a single penny, 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 now worth it.

Presidential debates are a product of democratic make-ups of nations. They don’t happen in places where there are democratic deficits or reversals.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com & twitter@cobbo3