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The second presidential debate

Inside Museveni’s greatest moments and Besigye’s political maturity even at great cost to himself

So finally President Yoweri Museveni defied all predictions and attended the presidential debate. I can say without any fear of contradiction that Museveni did so in defiance of the advice of everyone in NRM and immediate family. It was an entirely personal decision. But it is Kizza Besigye, more than Museveni that made the debate presidential. I will return to explain this later on in the article.

Very few, if any, thought the president would attend. In doing so, Museveni achieved maximum tactical surprise. This disarmed his critics and bewildered his main challengers who had to rethink their strategies.

Contrary to his usual behavior of disrespecting time, Museveni arrived almost an hour earlier than Besigye.

What surprised and defied imagination was Museveni’s conduct during the debate. Never in his 30 years as our president has Museveni attended an event where he was not chief guest or chairman. This time he was one among many equals in a debate where he would be questioned and challenged.

To the surprise of many, he subordinated himself to the rules, at one point even courteously pleading with moderators for more time to expound his argument. If Museveni could claim democratic credentials, this event was it. Where in the world does a dictator accept to debate his opponents and be questioned by journalists imposing rules of conduct on him?

His opening remarks were great and should have set the terms of the entire debate. He called for a discussion of Uganda, not a figment of our imagination (he called it fiction). In spite of 30 years of consistent GDP growth, Uganda is still a very poor country. Her public spending per capita is a miserable $150. How much can you provide in form of public goods and services with that? That should have been the crux of the debate. But Museveni did not follow up with this powerful line of argument.

Yet in spite of Museveni’s unexpected display of humility and powerful arguments, it was Besigye who made this debate really presidential, in fact at great cost to himself. Because if Besigye sought to pull Museveni down from the pedestal of presidential airs to the rank of an ordinary mortal, it was all in his hands to do. Museveni enjoys a myth of invincibility, which Besigye could have sought to unmask with aggressive attacks on the president.

There was a risk to this strategy. Besigye could have come across as disrespectful to a president who had gone out of his way to be civil, courteous and humble. But this cost would not have exceeded the benefits among Besigye’s core supporters. The urban unemployed and underemployed male youths would have relished seeing Museveni torn to shreds with skillful attacks on his person. The president’s rural base, if they were watching, would have realised that he is not the all-powerful chief they always believed.

Museveni has many weak flanks that make him vulnerable to devastating political attacks: the presence of many family members in government, rampant corruption, a large entourage of political appointees, huge expenditure on State House – and all this alongside poor delivery of public goods and services. This is the stuff Besigye has been arguing and they make good campaign fodder.

Although these issues are politically appealing and increase the passions of the masses, I have over the years realised they are hollow as analytical and policy issues. That is the reason I have over the years retreated from them. But politics is not a game of deep analytical insights or statistical aggregations. It is about appealing to the emotions of voters. That Besigye withheld his arsenal surprised me. In focusing on policy, I felt Besigye allowed the debate to be conducted on grounds where he is weak and Museveni strong.

Take the example of Uganda’s invasion of Congo DR where I felt Besigye secured the only but minor point against Museveni. The president argued that he intervened to secure the security interest of Uganda. Besigye accepted this argument but made a procedural objection that Museveni did not follow the constitution i.e. seek approval of parliament. I do not think many Ugandans would lose sleep if a president did the right thing without following procedure.

Yet Besigye had an option. He could have rejected Museveni’s justification and sought to score points (as all politicians do). He could have argued that the sole objective of Museveni sending troops into DRC without parliamentary approval was actually to loot the country for the benefit of himself, his family and cronies. That the $10 billion our country has to pay was all because of the use of the state for private loot. He could then have used the UN Panel of Experts report, which implicated Museveni’s brother, Gen. Salim Saleh, as evidence. Besigye didn’t play this card. I really admired his display of political maturity.

I have focused entirely on Museveni and Besigye because I think this is a contest between the two. In fact the organisers would have served the country better by limiting the debate to the two of them but perhaps add Amama Mbabazi. But by including every candidate, the organisers freed Besigye from having to exchange more with Museveni on policy issues where I felt the FDC leader was poorly informed. But it also freed Museveni from prodding by Besigye had the FDC leader chosen to assault the president where it hurts the most – by focusing on emotive issues of corruption and governmental incompetence in service delivery.

If the organisers had excluded other candidates, we would have missed Benon Biraro’s calm and thoughtful ideas, Abed Bwanika’s articulate promises to do the things Museveni has done or is doing, Vanesius Byaramureba’s more focused contribution, Maureen Kyalya’s backcloth and entertaining irrelevancies and Elton John Mabirizi’s humorous display of utter ignorance.

The sad part of the debate was the sidelining of Uganda’s celebrated journalist, Shaka Ssali, from playing a central role in it. I am told this was at the behest of State House because he is critical of the president. I do not think Shaka Ssali would have used his personal biases on Museveni to rig the debate or humiliate the president. As a professional, I am sure he would have exercised a high degree of impartiality. This being Uganda, I was shocked but not surprised by our inability to appreciate professionalism i.e. that a doctor doesn’t need to love you to treat you with care.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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