Why Museveni shouldn’t go for the presidential debate

As part of the campaign platforms of the 2016 election, religious leaders are said to be organising a public debate by presidential candidates.

Now, this is a straight question: if you were President Museveni’s handler, would you accept that he goes for this public debate? For me, it is a ‘no’.

Given the excitement generated by the prospect of this public debate, one gets the impression that this is the first time such a debate has been planned. Wrong. There have been as many attempts to have a presidential debate as there have been presidential elections since 1996.

But in one way or the other, a presidential debate has not happened. And then we ask: How different is the 2016 election?

In 1996, it almost happened only to be cancelled because the two odds-on candidates Dr Paul Ssemogerere and Yoweri Museveni did not honour the invite: they chickened out less than two hours to the appointed time.

Although some people tried to organise a public debate during the 2001 presidential election, it became apparent that the two main contenders Kizza Besigye and Yoweri Museveni could share one stage least said of debating.

Since 2001, the environment under which Uganda’s elections are held has not been favourable for a public debate for presidential candidates. Needless to say, from 2001 to date, the main presidential contenders are (and have always been) the same: Dr Besigye and Mr Museveni.

These two candidates have made political contests in Uganda a dangerous zero-sum undertaking that can be tagged as: we either win or they lose. Is this the kind of situation where a public debate for contenders can be held? No.

If I were President Museveni’s handler, I would not put him in a situation where he would not exercise ‘some leverage’ unto the proceedings of the debate. I would not put him in a situation where he would not enjoy some kind of deference (from the audience).

Dear reader, just imagine Dr Besigye engaging President Museveni in front of a live audience. Would Besigye’s intention be to make some kind of policy layout or to embarrass President Museveni? How would President Museveni respond to such a scenario without betraying some weaknesses?

As a public debater, Museveni is good on humour and thespian disposition. He is not a wordsmith like Norbert Mao neither is he a committee room ideas-driver like Amama Mbabazi. And of course he is not a rhetorical demagogue like Dr Besigye.

If I were President Museveni’s handler, I would aise him not to fall into Dr Besigye’s trap of public debating. That public debate, given the current Ugandan political context, has no vote value its only value lies in feeding the elitist thirst for inactive entertainment.

In fact it can be compared to the gladiatorial contests of the Roman amphitheatre: just fan for the audience. Public debate is no place for policy pronouncements or some kind of deep reflection of achievements.

It is about the body language, rhetoric oratory and showmanship delivery. That is why Dr Besigye is likely to win that debate hands down because he would concentrate on attacking inadequate policy interventions by President Museveni.

The platform on which Museveni seeks re-election is development and growth achieved so far (steady progress). But there is near unanimity that the cost of this growth and development narrative is not commensurate to the output.

The argument is: given the resource input (the national debt portfolio and general resource envelop), the government could have delivered better results.


By the way, I have a strong premonition that the debate may not happen. And please forgive my pessimism.

Mr Bisiika is the executive

editor of East Africa Flagpost.