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On the FDC presidential debate

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why our frustration should’nt lead us to behave like a drowning man who clings onto a crocodile

And so it was that on the night of August 30, NTV treated us to a debate between Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) contenders for party presidential flag bearer, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu and Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye. The fact that there is contestation for the leadership of FDC is a breath of fresh air compared to the NRM’s sole candidature syndrome.

I wonder why NRM does not concoct some semblance of competition within the party just to pretend to be democratic.

By allowing internal contestations, FDC (perhaps because it is not in power) exhibits a more democratic character. In spite of its poor preparation, the debate itself was symbolically important to our illusions of progress towards democratic politics. Even though my preferred candidate is Muntu (because of his values), I think the best choice for the opposition is Besigye (because of his electability). Besigye made this point. For all his noble qualities, Muntu fails to generate the enthusiasm among opposition supporters that Besigye does.

The choice facing FDC is therefore stark: should Besigye keep his word and not run for the presidency and the campaign loses momentum? Or should he breach his promise but bring enthusiasm back to the opposition campaign. From a purely idealistic view, Besigye should not run and should instead campaign for Muntu. But for real politic, FDC needs Besigye. Here I disagree with Muntu when he said that the votes Besigye got were anti-President Yoweri Museveni votes and will automatically go to any opposition candidate.


Without Besigye in the race, there is likely to be little enthusiasm among opposition supporters. Consequently, voter turnout will nose-dive and give Museveni an advantage. However, Besigye is as much a liability as an asset to the FDC. For instance, although he is able to rally the base, he does not grow his appeal. The salvation for the opposition, therefore, is to have both Besigye and former premier Amama Mbabazi in the race. This is because Mbabazi can eat into Museveni’s vote and appeal to many independents uncomfortable with Besigye.

Now back to the debate: it was frustrating but illuminating. Frustrating because neither candidate made any serious case on why he is the best candidate to lead the party in next year’s presidential election. It was illuminating because Besigye and Muntu’s failure to articulate an alternative vision to Museveni underlines a major weakness in our electoral politics. Pointing out the failures of the incumbent is important but not enough to justify one’s candidature. I left the debate knowing what Muntu and Besigye are against, but I could not explain what they stand for.

Besigye rumbled on about defeating a dictatorship, complained about “the mass poverty Ugandans have been reduced to” and the problem on joblessness. We can criticise Museveni for one million weaknesses but one cannot say that poverty has increased during his presidency. All studies and anecdotal evidence would show that overall poverty has consistently declined and the quality of life improved. It is true Uganda has a serious employment problem, especially among the youths. But Besigye made no effort to explain how he would create jobs.

Besigye also claimed that Uganda’s roads are in shambles. Yet since 2008, the tarmac road network of Uganda has increased from when only 800km were in good condition to 4,100km today. Currently there are 1,900km of tarmac under construction and another 1,000km to commence this financial year. Indeed the budget for roads now tops all others at Shs3.3 trillion (18.2% of the budget). Therefore, the tarmac road network of Uganda is projected to reach 5,500km by end of next year when some of the on-going projects are complete – giving Uganda 50% of Kenya’s tarmac roads yet it has a quarter of that nation’s budget. Contrary to the corruption doomsayers, the cost of constructing a kilometre of road in Uganda has reduced from US$1.5 million to US$ 800,000 in seven years.

Besigye also said he needs to trim government, a very ideological platitude he seems to have picked from his UK Conservative Party funders. What is the size of Uganda’s public sector? It is 320,000. What is the necessary level of government employees per 100 citizens? The Sub Sahara Africa average is 1.9 public sector employees per 100 citizens; Latin America is 3.5, Middle East and North Africa is 4.0 and Asia Pacific is 2.4. Uganda is 1.09. What is the reasonable ratio of wages to GDP? It should not exceed 7%. Ghana’s today is 11.3%, Kenya 12.2% and Uganda is 3.86%. What is the reasonable ratio of total government wages to revenue? It should not exceed 30%. Uganda’s is 25.4%. In Ghana it is 41.2%, Kenya is 55% and Ivory Coast is 45.5%. I can go on with indicators that Uganda has a leaner state. So why does Besigye want to trim it?

Muntu, the noblest person I know in Uganda, made no policy recommendation. The entire basis of his candidature seemed what Museveni has failed to do, not what Muntu can do. I understand there are a lot of frustrations with Museveni’s administration and I share many of them. I also understand that those frustrated with the failures of the Museveni administration are looking for an alternative to him. But the fatal error is to embrace everyone who shouts wolf at the Museveni scare crow; for then we act like a drowning man clinging on to a crocodile. And from what I saw in their debate, both Besigye and Muntu clearly held onto a crocodile in 1981 when they joined Museveni in the bush to fight the government of Milton Obote.

Besigye and Muntu, however well-intentioned they may be, are politicians contesting for power. Power has its own dynamics and it will corrupt them as it has corrupted Museveni. The real change for Uganda will not come from worshiping them as saviours but in taking them to task to explain what they plan to do. They cannot merely promise jobs. They need to give concrete and well informed proposals on how to achieve their promises. The men I listened to on Sunday night had little clue of what government is already doing on which they are supposed to build – its budget, its plans etc. They were involved in guesswork. That cannot be a basis for good leadership.

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