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Accountability, weak candidates dominate presidential debate

By Ian Katusiime

Two things stood out on the night Uganda held its first presidential debate; one, accountability remains a sticky issue and second; implementation, let alone reform, is still a great challenge as far as delivering public goods and services.

On a night two presidential candidates Maj Gen Benon Biraaro and Dr Abed Bwanika stood out for their innovative ideas, they still fell short of how they would apply them to transform the crippling social service sector and an ailing economy. However they still won plaudits for their clarity of thought, eloquence and understanding of vital issues afflicting the country.

The question of accountability was highlighted in the responses of Amama Mbabazi and Dr Kizza Besigye. Mbabazi, for all the crucial positions he occupied in government was put on the firing line and inadvertently filled in the role of President Museveni who did not turn up for the debate.

The former Prime Minister was quizzed on his position to fire striking teachers over increased pay, illegal detention centres ironically known as safe houses, homosexuality and election rigging. On all issues, Mbabazi was dismal in his response, at times arrogant with a scornful chuckle.

Besigye, on the other hand, when asked about corruption, said that he would press for more accountability and instil a will in his government to fight corruption. Pressing for accountability could mean asking government officials to step down in case of misappropriation or even documenting one’s wealth. The same could have been said of his inability to articulate his economic policies especially on industrialisation prompting a view held by some, that he is weak on policy.

On that front therefore, Besigye failed to account for his own agenda for the country.

Prof. Venansius Baryamureeba, known for his cockiness was a poor showing on the night. The duo of Elton Joseph Mabairizi and Maureen Walube Kyalya were more noted for their incoherence and jaw-dropping revelations.

Umeme strikes

A day when Ugandans eagerly awaited each presidential candidate to make a case for their bid, some of their worst fears were met when there was a blackout immediately after the first round of the debate. Anxiety was palpable as darkness loomed in the areas of Kisaasi, Ntinda, Najjera, Kiwatule, some of the most inhabited areas by Uganda’s growing middle class. Other major towns across Uganda also suffered a blackout causing more anguish.

Many people had been sceptical about Umeme being on its best behaviour on a night when a presidential debate was going to be aired on various television channels. Many social media users speculated about a conspiracy to deny them an opportunity to enjoy the historic occasion.

The situation was compounded when electricity was restored around 11: 45pm, less than 10 minutes after the debate had ended. Frustration and anxiety were palpable as people followed the proceedings on radio. The irony was not lost on anyone.

On a related note, the energy sector where electricity could have been raised as an issue, was not included in the topics presented to the candidates.

Education, health, economy

On the most critical areas, Biraaro and Bwanika outshined the rest with originality of thought, statistics and applicable ideas as opposed to broad-based policy proposals. Bwanika proposed reducing on the amount of time pupils spend at school, so as to allot more time for physical education. Bwanika, who is running for the third time, revealed Uganda’s education system was designed to produce clerks and not critical thinkers. Using an example of an American child who will ask questions as opposed to meek submission of the Ugandan educated child, Bwanika said the education system should be revised to reflect a ‘why’ system to encourage innovation.

Bwanika clearly diagnosed the education curriculum in Uganda which has been lambasted severally although he did not pronounce himself on how exactly he would reform it to produce his ideal pupil.

Baryamureeba, for all his repute as an educationist, did not sound convincing with his plans for education. According to Barya, money given to the sector is the biggest setback-it is insufficient. For all the money that has been poured into education, no significant change has been witnessed. The former Vice Chancellor of Makerere University says 20% of the budget should go to education yet this will most likely perpetuate the mantra of ‘more structures, less services’ as more classroom blocks go up and the rest goes to salaries.

Dr Besigye’s famous visit to Abim Hospital came up to the delight of the audience. When asked by the moderators on how to fix ‘the Abims of this world’, Besigye was generalist. He reverted to his pet subject of accountability. “We must simply get the foundation built on accountability and transparency in government,” he said, adding that the expenditure on health must be increased to 15% of the budget, of which some analysts say increasing the sector allocation does not solve the issue of building a functional healthcare system.

The question of debt management and fixing the economy seemed to be the sternest test on the night. Biraaro, whose party is founded on a farmers’ banner wants to turn districts into Economic Production Zones where they can export directly as opposed to the political units they have been turned into. “Districts are sucking from the central government. Zoning will ensure that each district receives Shs30billion to invest in agriculture.”

Biraaro’s idea is meant to reduce the dependence on Kampala as the main area of economic activity. The former army officer proposed that he would start an agricultural bank to provide cheap loans to farmers.

Bwanika’s proposition on Uganda being a country rich with land, with potential to supply food stuff to countries richer, like United Arab Emirates through trade agreements drew applause. Also noteworthy from the People’s Development Party candidate was his plan to introduce an animal tracking system to curb the problem of cattle rustling. Bwanika, a veterinary doctor, said Uganda needs to invest in genetics research and buy improved breeds to boost animal husbandry for it to do better on the export market.

He also urged Ugandans to invest in fish farming to boost their livelihoods reasoning that it has ready market.

Women, youth

Kyalya, the only female candidate in the race made a strong case as she painted a grim picture of the Ugandan woman- as one overburdened, unappreciated and downcast. Kyalya’s submission on this subject was one of her strongest points during the debate and should be food for thought to the country’s women leaders. For a country with a woman representative in parliament for each district, affirmative action for entry to university and a number of women in top leadership positions, a lot remains to be done. Kyalya cried out “State laws are there to defeat us, defilement laws are weak”.

The feminist movement in Uganda has gone into slumber and only creates a semblance of action usually when there are political points to be scored. Not that the women movement should unilaterally support her but a lot of reflection needs to be done to redefine feminism and what it should advocate for.

More reason to note is that Mbabazi’s uncharitable remarks on a woman who does not have children has gone unchallenged by the aforementioned group.

On women empowerment, Dr Besigye still came up short. The policy of FDC, Besigye says, is to empower women right from the grassroots, through education and economic opportunities. Empowerment of any minority/marginalised group is a given. But the question of how, application proved the most challenging to the candidates. For instance do you ring-fence certain positions in government or certain significant national roles for women, allocating a board seat for women at all major corporate companies? Or better provide more funding to women groups involved in agricultural productivity? Certainly Besigye was not elaborate here.

Biraaro on the spiralling youth employment outlined his grand plan – “LIFT” Uganda (Local Investment for Transformation) – a program well spelt out in his policy. LIFT is a demographic blueprint, replete with statistics documenting number of people below the poverty line- 34% (12million) where 12million are peasants and the remaining 7million as working class. Biraaro says he worked out the comprehensive plan, shared it with universities, foreign governments and was meant to mobilise US$3billion every year and invest in all areas including youth unemployment.

The ultimate plan would be to provide 500,000 jobs a year but Biraaro says Museveni did not get back to him on the issue for three years. Biraaro’s plan seems like a magic bullet to unemployment. It means providing a job for each of the 400,000 graduates that enter the job market and having 100,000 jobs to spare.  But when confronted with reality, what is the viability of this project? Raising $3billion which is an equivalent of Shs10trillion (nearly half of Uganda’s budget for 2015/16 FY) is no easy task. Now factor in the vagaries of the Ugandan socio-economic order to meet the reality of this plan. It sounds utopian probably because it is meant to be. This was a presidential debate and the candidates were being tested on their ability to proffer solutions to the most urgent problems the country is grappling with.

Questions for Electoral Commission

The candidature of Elton Joseph Mabirizi and Maureen Walube Kyalya raises questions over the criteria the body should be using to vet presidential candidates apart from requirements such as citizenship and collecting signatures. Is it time aptitude tests were applied for people gunning for the highest office of a country?

Mabirizi, hardly had an idea about oil economics and his submissions on debt management and unemployment turned the debate into a theatre.

Secondly, should a candidate not have basic knowledge about a country they intend to lead? Can we have a simple “know your country” test? Kyalya’s ignorance about location of the country’s natural resources and not understanding of family relations puts her on the back pedal for someone who claims to be more of a “social worker than a politician.”

Organisation of debate

Being the very first one, the presidential debate could not get away with some glitches. One of the moderators, Alan Kasujja let the attention get to his head. Kasujja asked Besigye about the economic policies of government he disagrees with, and no sooner had he started talking about privatisation, than Kasujja cut him off, castigating him for not talking about the future. Several times, the engagements Kasujja had with Besigye and Mbabazi, got confrontational, attracting heckling from the audience.

Nancy Kacungira, the other moderator was the more level headed one, calm and poised, asking pertinent questions.

Under the rule of law segment, the question of police reforms was conspicuously absent at a time when the police is receiving widespread condemnation for violation of civil rights.

On two occasions, Baryamureeba was skipped by the moderators and he had to bypass the rules to make his comments on the two issues.

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