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The next presidential debate

Public reaction shows why Museveni should not dodge again

The debate is the thing. And President Yoweri Museveni missed it the last time – on Jan. 15. Another one is slated for Feb.10. Should he miss it again? The president and his advisors appear to say he should `dodge’ again. However, reactions to the last debate held at the Serena International Conference Centre in Kampala show what he stands to lose – not least the three hours of free airtime offered to all the seven presidential candidates that debated.

From the lofty opening speech and poem of the leader of the organising Elders Forum, Justice James Ogoola, to the humorous performance of former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and the comical Elton Joseph Mabirizi, the debate has been positively received – except by the Museveni camp.

Speaking to journalists two days after the debate at his country home in Rwakitura, Kiruhura district, Museveni said debating should be left to high school children. “This system of going into competitions for speaking is for high school,” he said. He also criticised it as a foreign idea, imported by the organisers without a clear purpose.

“The concept of presidential debate was not clear to me,” he said, “they (organisers) saw it in America, (but) it was not clear to me.”Additionally he said, he was busy and could not put aside his campaigns to participate in the debate.Museveni’s calculation is possibly that the debate was held at the Serena, one of Uganda’s top hotels – and out of bounds for 99.9% of the population. In attendance were Uganda’s political, social, and A-class, an elite club that is less the 0.1% of the population. Even those who watched it on television constitute only 11% of the population. The only concession the debate organisers made to the man and woman on the street was to air the debate live on radio which is listened to by about 74% of the population.

As the debate raged, Museveni was away in his country-home in Rwakitura, meeting with his party Women’s League leaders after a frenzied day in which he had held four rallies. In all, he had spoken for over six hours – a tough day’s work. But he was satisfied. The crowds that turned out were huge, excited, and colourful in their subflower yellow T-shirt, visors, and scarfs. As they waved Museveni’s yellow paper campaign posters that looked like a swarm of flying insects above their black heads, Museveni was convinced to trust in the crowds.

But there could be a will-o’-wisp in the numbers game. The three rallies he held possibly had 100,000 people each, which is just 8% of the 4 million he would have addressed if he had attended the televised debate.

According figures from Museveni’s ministry of Finance, up to 37% of Ugandans are now in the middle class or TV owning class. That is about 11 million people. Add to that the crowds that throng bibanda – the video hall that televise most important events for a small fee. Even if one used the conservative estimation from the National Planning Authority that puts the elite population at about 4 million or about 10% of the productive population, the numbers are worth Museveni’s attention. In a recent poll done by the respected polling firm Research World International, Museveni’s main challenger – Kizza Besigye- is ahead of him in this segment of voters.

Fear of debate

But Museveni is not the first powerful politician to fear debate.

According to the late Prof. Ali Mazrui, in his book; “Political values and the educated class in Africa”, the fear of debate could have led Kenya’s first president, Jommo Kenyatta, to avoid joining the country’s first parliament. On page 75, Mazrui writes: “In the words of his biographer, Murray-Brown, `Kenyatta was never at ease in English debating circles and he would have been at a disadvantage among the hostile settlers in that chamber’”.

Unlike Kenyatta, Museveni is quite comfortable in English. But while comparing Kenyatta’s weakness to the debating prowess of Uganda’s first Prime Minister, Milton Obote, Mazrui makes an important distinction that President Museveni and his advisors should consider.

Mazrui writes on the same page 75: “Milton Obote of Uganda was a more accomplished debater than Jommo Kenyatta of Kenya, and yet Kenyatta was at the same time a greater orator at open rallies than Obote would ever be”.

The presidential debate showed exactly this point; that a speaker could be a great debater but not an orator and vice versa. There is no doubt that Museveni is a great orator, but how is he as a debater? That is a question many voters want to see and many are disappointed that Museveni keeps dodging.

According to a Reuters report after the debate, some voters said Museveni, who seldom submits to interviews, is “a coward”.

“Museveni could not withstand taking tough questions,” said Nassimbwa Hamidah, a Besigye supporter, according to the Reuters report.

With Museveni absent, his former ally turned foe, Amama Mbabazi, bore the barrage of questions demanding accountability for the commissions and omissions of the ruling party over the 30 years it has been in power.

“Can you comment on the so-called safe houses in which Ugandans were tortured while you were prime minister and minister of Defense?” asked moderator Allan Kasujja on loan from the BBC as his co-moderator, Nancy Kacingira, fought back a quizzical smile and Mbabazi attempted to parry the onslaught with characteristic deadpan humour.“You have been in government with Museveni for 30 years and now want to be the president, what will be different?” asked Kacungira, also from the BBC.

“The difference will be that I will be the president,” Mbabazi quibbled, and the crowd of invited dignitaries roared.

In the end, although Mbabazi appeared stirred but not staggered, he had the worst night of the debate partly because of the high expectation of him. When he was at one point heckled, he once again sought recourse in dumb humour.

“I was expecting a point of order,” he quipped.“This is not parliament,” Kasujja barked at him and Mbabazi’s wry smirk dried on his lips.

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