Uganda's Presidential Debate Succeeds Minus No-Show Dictator, Gen. Museveni

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[Publisher's Commentary]

Uganda's dictator of 30 years Gen. Yoweri Museveni proved how irrelevant he's become when even after his no-show the East African nation held its first ever Presidential candidates' debate on Friday which was televised by NTV and live-streamed to the world.

Gen. Museveni boycotted the debate, perhaps hoping the organizers, the Inter-religious Council, would cancel it so he'd be able to derail it. It's likely he also wanted to avoid answering questions about his regime's alleged role in the possible murder of an aide to one of the challengers.

Ugandans dealt Gen. Museveni a solid defeat heading into the February 18 presidential vote by holding the debate without him. He's now beginning to learn that not everything revolves around him and that there will continue to be a Uganda without him. (During a debate with a Museveni advisor on VOA's Straight Talk Africa with Shaka Ssali on November 11, I had dared Gen. Museveni to debate his opponents on VOA/NTV and to also allow an independent Electoral Commission).

Seven candidates showed up at Kampala's Serena Hotel for the debate, including front-runners Dr. Kizza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Amama Mbabazi, former prime minister who's campaigning under the Go Forward banner.

One of the most powerful exchanges in the debate may have eluded many viewers beneath the radar. When candidates were given an opportunity to pose questions to other candidates Dr. Besigye asked Mbabazi to speak about the elections that were rigged in the past while he was a government minister. Coyly, Mbabazi claimed he had no first hand knowledge but that he'd heard "rumors" that rigging occurred. He vowed to lend his "experience" to Besigye so the two could prevent any rigging of next month's elections.

The moderators, Nancy Kacungira and Alan Kasujja, did a decent job; however,  at times Kasujja seemed too combative, perhaps trying to emulate some of the moderators viewed on televised debates in the West. That's something to be avoided.

Yet overall the debate was historic. People in the country and the rest of the world got to see for the first time that there are alternatives to Gen. Museveni; level headed Ugandans who don't boast of "massacring" people, who can actually become president of the country.

The debate put to the rest the preposterous claim by Gen. Museveni that he's the "only Ugandan with a vision" and therefore the "only person" who can run the country.

Both Besigye and Mbabazi had their share of tough questions to answer from the moderators and rightly so. Both also repeatedly turned the focus back on the man who was a no-show, Gen. Museveni.

Mbabazi spoke of the country's collapsed healthcare system and how it's become out of reach to people of modest means. He told the story of a Ugandan who couldn't afford a private clinic --many public hospitals have shortages of drugs-- who used a knife to try to help his wife deliver their son at home; both mother and child died.

Mbabazi steered the focus on the regime's brutality by demanding that it produce, dead or alive, one of his top campaign aides, Chris Aine; Aine's sister has said a photograph showing the body of a person who had been brutally beaten and published in a Ugandan tabloid was that of her dead brother.

Mbabazi has previously said Aine was arrested on orders from Gen. Museveni and the country's hated police chief Gen. Kale Kayihura, who has also trained a militia called "Crime Preventers" similar to Rwanda's Intarahamwe which was blamed for massacres in that country's 1994 calamity.

It was no coincidence that on the same day Mbabazi made the demand that Aine be produced during the debate, the U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning violence by the Gen. Kayihura-commanded police and also questioning Aine's disappearance.

On the tough question, Mbabazi was asked how it feels being subjected to persecution by Gen. Museveni's and Gen. Kayihura's security forces as he campaigns around the country for the presidency. After all, he was involved in setting up the police state in the country.

Mbabazi tried to deflect the questions with levity, claiming that he thought the debate was focusing on the "present" not the "past." He was also asked about the notorious "safe houses" used by the regime to torture and even kill political opponents. As recently as two years ago, Mbabazi was prime minister in Museveni's government and in the past he'd been minister in charge of security.

His responses, not surprisingly, were evasive. Voters will determine to what extent they'll decide to punish him for his association with a regime from which he only recently parted company. Mbabazi in his defense was quick to stress that under the regime he wasn't the "president"; that in effect his former boss, Gen. Museveni, wields absolute power.

This is an argument Ugandans generally agree with.

Besigye, who parted company with Gen. Museveni over 20 years ago and denounced him as an autocrat, is a trained medical doctor. He too spoke about the nation's deplorable healthcare delivery system. He said in addition to the need for increased spending, the country had to expand its preventative healthcare system and education; with better nutrition awareness and lifestyle changes, there would be general improvement in people's health which would reduce the demand for hospital visits.

On the tough question, Dr. Besigye was asked by moderator Kasujja whether he himself didn't have a Museveni Complex. Why was he running a fourth time for the presidency? Why did he always have to be the face of FDC? Why wouldn't he give someone else from his party a chance?

Dr. Besigye reminded Kasujja that unlike Gen. Museveni he had actually won his FDC party's nomination in a contest. Museveni had himself declared "sole" candidate of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.  Besigye asked the moderator whether he didn't have a right to change his mind.

The question was posed disingenuously. It was quite fair to ask Besigye whether he was dominating the FDC overbearingly.  It's something else all together to compare that to an autocrat whose dominance over his party and the state and unchecked militarism has claimed the lives of Ugandans, Rwandans, Congolese, Sudanese, Burundians, people in the Central African Republic, and Somalians.

Besigye rebutted a question about whether his earlier threat not to participate in the debate if Gen. Museveni wasn't showing up meant that he might be selfish by personalizing the contest between him and Museveni.  Dr. Besigye said it was critical for Museveni to have been there because Museveni, in Uganda, was in essence the state. He compared him to Mobutu who exercised absolute power in what was then Zaire.

The other six candidates offered varying contributions with Abed Bwanika of the People's Development Party standing apart.

Bwanika had several innovative ideas on the economy and job creation, including boosting employment through more commercial fishing in Lake Victoria. He also attacked wasteful spending on government patronage positions. When he and the candidate for the Farmer's Party tried to introduce the LGBT issue into the debate the moderators didn't press the issue and judging by the audience's response there was little appetite for it.

Moderator Kasujja's question to Bwanika -- why are you still running for the presidency? -- was unfair. Even in the United States, candidates who never win the nomination, let alone the presidency, add tremendous value to the campaign. Here in the U.S. for example, former Senator John Edwards, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party's nomination a few times forced other candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to talk about the issue of poverty in the United States during the 2008 contest.

The only female candidate Faith Maureen Kyalya Walube, a former aide to Gen. Museveni, made several points about the need to revamp the country's education system and curriculum, how to focus on guiding students into fields where they showed natural talent, teaching indigenous languages in addition to English, and empowering women in the country.

Candidate Joseph Mwabiriza, who says he represents the youth -- Uganda has over 80% youth unemployment -- was the most ill-at-ease and seemed extremely nervous. The audience didn't make it any easier with clearly audible chuckling from the foreground.

Professor Venansius Baryamureeba, a former Vice Chancellor at Makerere university, sounded like a man who is well-grounded on the nation's schooling and employment needs. He might make an excellent minister of education and innovation. He's someone who knows the importance of matching any education and skills-training with productive employment.

A retired general,  Benon Biraaro, the candidate for the Farmer's Party was short-changed, in terms of the skeptical tone of the questions posed to him by the moderators. This indicates that many people underestimate the importance of farming in powering development. It is success in agricultural production --the ability to feed a nation and export surplus-- that propelled industrial growth in emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil.

Dr. Besigye in his closing remarks claimed in a few weeks Ugandans will be walking "with a swagger" -- a reference to his anticipated victory in the polls February 18.

A second debate, focusing on foreign policy, is planned for February 10, a week before the elections.

Now that he's been able to study his opponents' presentations by watching the debate perhaps Gen. Museveni will come out of hiding and show up.

The moderators must make it a point to ask all the candidates to talk about what personal strengths they believe make them most suitable for the presidency; and what weaknesses they must work on.

The debate brought election coverage in Uganda into the 21st Century.


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