By Shunning Debate Was Uganda's Gen. Museveni Hiding Father Time?

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The "no show" leader -- Gen. Museveni wants to prove he still has juice

The much anticipated Ugandan presidential debate, organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda and the Elders Forum was attended by seven presidential candidates including Amama Mbabazi, Kizza Besigye, Benon Biraaro, Abed Bwanika, Joseph Mabirizi, Maureen Kyalya and Venansius Baryamureeba; about 1,000 invited guests; and probably millions who watched on TV, mobile phones or heard it on radio outside the venue.

Held on January 15 at the Serena Conference Center, Kampala, it was Uganda's first ever televised presidential debate.

This was in keeping with the trends of political debates that started in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and appear to have been embraced as a modern part of the democratic process.

In Africa, televised presidential debates have been held in many countries including Nigeria (2011), Ghana, Sierra Leone and Egypt (2012), Kenya (2013) and Malawi (2014).

Unfortunately, in spite of his initial agreement to attend, President Yoweri Museveni was a no show. He had previously also refused to participate in a presidential debate. His explanation is that the invitation came too late after he had already planned his presidential campaign schedule.

Instead, he was reported to have been holding a meeting with the women league of his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) some 155 miles away in Western Uganda.

While some people may accept the official explanation given by the State House for President Museveni’s absence at the presidential debate, it is most likely that the real reasons lie elsewhere. Before examining some of them, it important to briefly review what a televised presidential debate is expected to achieve.

In participatory democracy, television has become a useful platform for citizens to participate in the electoral process by not having to be physically present with all the candidates at the same time. As it is said, a picture is worth a thousand words; a televised debate allows the audience to see and hear the candidates, and compare them in real time. How they react to tough questions combined with their body language; people use these subtle -- or significant -- differences in how candidates react to make their own evaluations.

They will see whether the candidates are cool, patient, polite, empathetic, knowledgeable, dismissive, honest, or intelligent in front of the audience. Whether the debate changes voters’ minds or not, it offers a unique opportunity for voters to evaluate the candidates. It is also an occasion for the candidates to sell their candidacy side by side.

If a presidential debate is good for both voters and candidates, why did President Museveni not show up? The official reason given is not at all convincing because if he really wanted to participate, he could have adjusted his campaign schedule just like the other candidates did.

Some people also explained that the president considers a TV debate being of a limited value because only a small number of people have access to the program. However, such an argument is invalid because it ignores the multiplier effect in that the invited guests and those who have access to TV can inform others about what happens at the debate. This is especially important since many of them are important people in their communities; in any case, the candidates were also heard on radio.

Even casual observers know that President Museveni does not like to play on a level ground. For almost 30 years, he has been dictating what he does. In his campaign rallies, he is the sole focus.

Rarely does anyone from the crowd ask questions. It is always a one-way communication from him to the crowd. However, in a debate, it is different. He has to share the stage with his competitors; but more important, he does not control the proceeding the way he controls his campaign rallies.

The playing field is leveled. Such an environment is not only strange to him but also puts him in a most vulnerable and uncomfortable position.

The president has a reputation of being arrogant, patronizing and dismissive of his opponents. He suffers from the illusion that he is the only one in the country with a vision. He often refers to some of his opponents in a patronizing manner as “my young brother” or he dismisses them as not being serious.

While it is easy to say all kinds of negative things about his opponents at a rally and get away with it, in a debate it is different. He has to face not only the moderators, his competitors, the audience in the room but also those watching from afar.

What if he made gaffes that his opponents would pounce on? What if he appeared not to good debater? What if he were to be asked to account for all the problems of corruption, police brutality, unequal development and service delivery during his 30 years regime?

What if he were to suffer from a senior moment where he he could not remember basic information? Indeed no one really knows his state of health since transparency is not one of his assets.

What if the audience liked his opponents’ ideas better? What if the audience booed him during the debate? Obviously, he must have considered the possibilities of such things happening during the debate and that they would damage the image he has built over the years that nobody else in the country is better than him to be president.

President Museveni has been accused of being too old to run for another term. Consequently, he has become obsessed with the idea that he is still young even though it is a biological fact that everybody gets old.

To convince people of his youthfulness, he jumps, tries to juggle soccer ball, jogs 20 meters at meetings, and fires guns at a military shooting range. Unfortunately, such acts do not hide the fact that age has caught up with him and in fact suggests that he's desperate to counter father time.

These theatrics can't hide the fact that he's been caught napping at meetings which is a natural body function experienced by old person. He is also often seen addressing rallies while sitting down.

Furthermore, the way his skin looks does not convey youthfulness. Would the 71-year-old president have the physical and mental stamina to stand up at the lectern for three and a half hours without betraying his age and thus confirming the charge that he is too old to run for another term?

Taking into account all these considerations, it is not surprising that to avoid the possibility of damaging his aura of intellectual superiority and political invincibility which he has cultivated over the years, President Museveni had no choice but to hide from Ugandans at the moment of truth -- the country's first live televised presidential debate.


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