6 things we learned from Uganda’s presidential debate

Lesson 3: Underestimate the underdogs at your peril


On the night of 15 January, Uganda held its first ever televised presidential debate. The incumbent Yoweri Museveni skipped the momentous occasion, arguing that the “majority of our voters may not be able to watch the debate”, but his seven challengers for office took bravely to the stage.

Former prime minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi and leading opposition figure Dr Kizza Besigye − seen as the two main rivals to Museveni in the upcoming 18 February poll − were joined by the five lesser known contenders in the race, namely: independent Maureen Kyalya, the only woman in the contest; veterinary doctor Abed Bwanika; Major General Benon Biraaro; evangelical pastor Joseph Mabirizi; and Professor Venansius Baryamureeba.

Moderated by journalists Nancy Kacungira and Alan Kasujja, the debate was full of surprises, humour and awkward moments that shed a light on the candidates’ personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

Here are six of the things we learned from the eventful evening:

1. A poem can be about anything, even a TV debate, and still kill it!

The eloquent, gentle-spirited chair of the Uganda Judicial Service Commission, Justice James Ogoola, never misses a chance to showcase his poetical prowess. He has previously coined new terms to describe the ugly violence Uganda has experienced, and as lead organiser of the debate, he demonstrated his way with words once again as he began proceedings.

His poem ‘The Debate is the Thing’ set the tempo for the evening, and with it Ogoola left the audience enchanted. He declared that this was the time for Ugandans to “choose the adept from the inept” and that the debate would be “no cheap drama of the political rally, no idle talk, no mundane politics, empty pledge or hollow promises”.

2. A killer line goes a long way

The debate began with the candidates making two-minute opening remarks about why they should be president. The only female contender, Kyalya, struggled to introduce herself at first, but after a false start, the lawyer and former presidential aide bounced back to deliver a punch line that earned her immediate applause as she observed: “there is more teargas in police stations than there is medicine in hospitals”.

General Biraaro, who like Kyalya needed to explain to the audience who he was exactly, drew similar noises of approval when he asserted in his opening gambit that “the debate is [the] only level ground in this election”. In one succinct phrase, he summed up the difficulties facing opposition candidates, including physical violence and intimidation, as they try to campaign in the face of Museveni’s disproportionate access to the state machinery and resources.

Amama Mbabazi also started off well by taking the attention away from the other candidates and to the electorate as he asked: “do you want change or do you want more of the same? “ With this short critical question, Mbabazi helped set the framing for the whole debate.

3. Underestimate the underdogs at your peril

Five of the candidates would have been little-known to most viewers and the televised debate offered them the biggest platform they’re likely to get in their campaigns. Some took the opportunity better than others.

Kyalya, for instance, scored some points on education and brought her social worker’s passion to bear by focusing on women’s rights, but consistently veered off topic. Meanwhile, Baryamureeba was not particularly convincing on policy issues, was incoherent at times and didn’t ask particularly exciting questions.

By contrast, Mabirizi was the life and soul, though often for the wrong reasons. The youngest candidate in the race routinely provided answers that sent the room into roars of laughter to the point that some in the audience started to burst out laughing even before Mabirizi had started answering. From oil to female representation to debt, Mabirizi provided comic relief in a tense evening.

At the other end of the scale, Biraaro and Bwanika were both eloquent and composed on debt, the economy and unemployment. Their assured performances will no doubt have surprised many and given some of the electorate food for thought.

When it came to the two frontrunners, Besigye and Mbabazi both had high and low points.

Besigye was best when focusing on governance, accountability and healthcare. He faced some sticky questions about his flip-flops on key pronouncements, including a promise not to run again for president without electoral reform, but overall seemed comfortable.

Mbabazi was strong on maternal health, humanising and reiterating the urgent need to tackle Uganda’s high maternal death rate, but it was far from plain sailing all the way for the former PM.

4. You can’t have your cake and eat it

With President Museveni’s seat left empty at the debate, the burden of answering for the government deeds and misdeeds rested on Mbabazi, who worked closely with Museveni for several years and was prime minister from May 2011 to September 2014. Running as an independent but still not denouncing his party membership, Mbabazi put himself in the awkward position of having to both attack and defend the government. He understandably received some of the most difficult questions of the night and gave some of the least satisfactory answers.

When asked about allegedly calling for striking teachers to be fired when he was in government, for example, Mbabazi wobbled and meandered. This unconvincing response fed into existing doubts about whether the former PM can be relatable among low-income earners, a group to whom he twice referred to during the debate as “those peasants”.

When asked about state repression meanwhile, Mbabazi failed to distance himself from the ruling NRM’s alleged history of election theft, political persecution, stifling of the media, arbitrary killings, and corruption, most of which thrived when he was a central figure in government. Mbabazi wanted to concentrate on the disappearance of his top aide Christopher Aine and other recent violations against opposition politicians, but he couldn’t shake the perception that he was on the receiving end of a machinery he himself had helped build.

5. The gutter is not an attractive platform from which to run

Gay rights were expected to make it to the debate and on this issue Mbabazi seemed surprisingly ill-prepared. When asked a question about this controversial topic, he immediately took it personally and as an opportunity to attack female politicians he claims have been spreading rumours about his sexuality. Mbabazi challenged these MPs to “try him out” to see if he is gay, but didn’t even stop there. He continued by saying that a certain female politician − whom everyone knew to be Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga − has no basis to call him gay because he is married with children while she is unmarried and childless.

6. Absence doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder

President Museveni’s refusal to stand on the same stage as his opponents says a lot about how superior he feels and some say it shows his paranoia when it comes to anything over which he does not have control. With two tough moderators marshaling the debate, Museveni would certainly not have had an easy ride, but he may nevertheless come to regret his decision when he sees how certain candidates − particular the fringe ones − seized the chance to change voters’ perceptions and present an alternative vision.

Whether this debate will change how people actually vote next month remains to be seen of course, but one thing is for sure. This was a great occasion, even without the incumbent, and while discussions over which candidate performed best will continue for some time, one big winner was Ugandan democracy itself.

Rosebell Kagumire is a media and communication specialist, digital strategist, public speaker and award-winning blogger. Follow her on twitter at @RosebellK.

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13 thoughts on “6 things we learned from Uganda’s presidential debate

  1. Good morning.

    The Debate was marvelous thaugh next time moderators should consider allocating enough time to Candidates as very crucial..

    The 2 Minutes including moderators pitching in wasn’t favourable at all and never allowed any candidate satisfactorily wind up their explanations.

    Atleast 4 or atmost 5 Minutes each wd work much better..

    Also, Most Key Questions should be uniform to evenly assess comparisons amongst them, the way it was done in UK and in Kenya and elswhere.

    Otherwise, Thanks to them and moderators ,being the very first of that nature they deserve an applause and we expect a much Hotter and Decisive Debate come 10th Feb.
    Hopefully ,President Museveni will be more Partriotic , do a self check on peoples expectations; be more Accountable and come- 30 years given to him by people deserve a more reasonable attention for a more a better

    Mark Wycliffe

  2. I don’t think that Museveni’s both the physical and intellectual fitness would withstand him. No no, He has gone numb of his intellectual needs to an extent of promising sanitary pads. This debate was not about vulgarly like leopard anus but issues that bring a hopeless voter to life. Museveni’s politics well fits the scientific theory of a deciduous tree, it shades off in Autumn and comes back to life in winter. But my big concern is he is not even coming back to political life, he is dying. Well he was with the voters whom he says have TVs hhhmmmm!!! for30 years, isn’t that ridiculous? What mixes poo in pee, he delivers state of the nation address on TV, His nomination was live on TV, when he launches a water tap down in Mukono, it is on TV, what a cock-doodle-do!!!

  3. Dr. KB represented my interests especially on the economy policy and governance.
    Am for federal and a mixed economy where the private sector is mainly national not foreigners

  4. One would wonder why M7 says the majority would not watch the debate yet he delivers the state of the nation address on Tv and radio-both of which the debate used.
    He must have feared embarrassment over his failures and overstay in power.

  5. In my opinion, M7’s boycotting of the event was the smartest decision of his career. It would have been a firing squad for him 3:-)

  6. I am impressed by Rosebell Kagumire’s quite objective summary of the debate. I concur with her on many points. However save for Benon Biraro and Abdel Bwanika the other candidates seemed either ignorant or uninterested in the specifics of their electoral programmes. Kizza Besigye was as usual interested in bashing his nemesis President Museveni. Actually Besigye exposed himself as a man only interested in ousting Museveni and everything else was secondary. He never made any pretensions as to what kind of policies he would pursue that would be different from the current regime. All he would repeat over and over was that the current regime is out of power everything would automatically be rectified

  7. Continuation of my comment. This appears like an obsession with an individual called Yoweri Museveni and betrays the true intentions of Besigye’s continued desire to stand as presidential candidate for four consecutive times now. Is it the desire to serve the country or the nagging urge to settle an old score?
    As for Amama Mbabazi he seemed to be unprepared for the kind of questions he got and could not adequately respond. He was particularly confused in some instances whether to defend his record in Government or to act as an opposition leader and bash the Government. Such was his dilemma that in some instances he practised selective memory and selective hearing to evade some questions!
    The debate was very entertaining but just like the USA where the idea was born it is doubtful whether it will have any bearing on the elections. My considered view is that it may not especially when the popular candidates had very dismal performances. Besides how many of our people watched those debates and how many could fully follow the debates? Hence the major purpose of the debates might just be a public relations one to bring all the major candidates together in one hall and also to expose some who were bragging about their debating skills which in some instances were found badly wanting.

  8. Mr. Mbabazi proved to us that one person he wants to bring down is Honorable Rebecca Kadaga! For years he has fought the speaker of Parliament as one person who is standing in his way for the presidency. Since he is bent in destroying Kadaga, we will work very hard to ask the electorate to deny him votes especially in the Busoga Region.

  9. The reason they debated is to tell the people what they will do for them and ask all Ugandans to vote for them. Uganda is not a white country. Uganda is a country of Ugandan Africans who speak different languages but Luganda is the language of the majority and commonly spoken in Uganda. English is the second language. This debate was not heard all over Uganda because 50% of Ugandans cannot speak fluent English. 20% can try but don’t have TV. 40% are the rich who only watched this debate on their TVs. I noticed many candidates were not comfortable speaking in English. I am really disappointed that Uganda is ruled by people who cannot communicate with the majority and it is the reason Mr. Kaguta has remained a president for over 30 years because people don’t understand Politician’s. African politicians are not there for progress. They are there to enrich themselves and to push more people in poverty. Secondly I didn’t see any reason why the lady candidate had to wear a traditional dress. If all men were wearing in their traditional attires, I would think it was necessary for her to match her wardrobe with their wardrobe. Uganda candidates still luck a sense of vision. There millions of Ugandans living in Kampala slums than anywhere else. None of the candidates mentioned how they will pull out these people out of poverty. They talk about creating jobs, but none of them can create any jobs for anybody because they don’t understand how jobs can be created. You can see none of them supported women issues. Controlling the population in order to create jobs is number one priority in Uganda. Uganda cannot support its population because there more houses built than business. No one spoke about improving sports. They spoke about schools like there many jobs out there when the students graduate. It is all a dream of leaders who think they can fix Uganda problems. I don’t call myself the problem solver but I truly believe that Ugandans are the only one who can fix their own problems with a right leader to guide them. I support a TOFFALI LIKE MR. MAYIGA. This debate has opened our eyes to understand that all these politicians are not we are looking for. In my opinion, none of them is fit to be the next President of Uganda. They are all dreamers.

  10. Well,Rosebell’s summary is succint and needless to mention,detailed.Back to the debate,Museveni’s absenteeism did not only proove that Uganda can do without him,but also his immense paranoia over issues he has no control over.Besigye definately just wants M7 out.Amama was burdened with a bash and defend task which was impossible to accomplish.Kyalya took advantage of the occasion to stress woman emancipation.Then Prof.Baryamureeba’s skimpy and sketchy manifesto that moved no one.Dr. Abed and Biraaro expounded vastly on their manifestos and finally,Mabirizi’s unpreparedness was a source of comic relief to the tense evening!M7 should have some partriotism to face a debate!WE HOPE TO SEE HIM, COME 10TH FEBRUARY.FOR GOD AND MY COUNTRY…

  11. Observation and Question to the Ugandan Presidential Candidates:

    Thanks to the presidential candidates for your ideas on fixing the Ugandan economy. I have accessed the Uganda’s first ever presidential televised discourse that took place on 8th January, 2016 at Kampala Serena Conference Center. You have very good strategies for debt management. Mr. Bwanika talks of debt ceiling, reducing public expenditure, empowering farmers to be productive, and prioritizing agro-industries; Mr. Biraaro emphasizes investing 3 trillion in agriculture and improving exports by farmers as well as boosting tourism to tap huge amounts of foreign exchange; Prof. Baryamureeba advocates for supporting higher education students with study loans which they could pay back when they start working; Col. Bisigye talks of putting money where our people are, for example increasing production and reducing consumption; while Eng. Mabirizi thinks investing in oil other than agriculture is senseless.

    To me all the candidate seem to be only strategic just because they are power hungry which may also be reasonable based on the fact that most people of Uganda need change. Yes, agriculture is the back bone of Uganda’s economy practiced by all the potential voters that may be ready for the 18th February 2016 presidential elections. What they have not prioritized in investing in agriculture is the tragedy of climate change that is associated with the discovery and exploration of oil and other land-based natural resources that are highly and badly needed by the West as well as other controversial neoliberal proponents such as United States of America. Yet, agriculture growth largely depends on the environment. From the look of things where huge proposals for industrializing Uganda are a government priority combined with privatization policies largely influenced by the west and America, I do not imagine a future without extreme climate change that will come with high cost and devastating effects on livelihood patterns and human life itself. On this background therefore, I would like to challenge all our presidential candidates that any political discourse that does not focus on the question of climate change especially in this era of massive technological advancement, massive discoveries and explorations as well as high demand for land-based natural resources (in a resource-rich poor country whose people depend entirely on agriculture) by the West, Americans as well as other olygopolists in the global economy would be deemed unconstructive and could place Uganda’s future at a very protracted vulnerability.

    With the conditionalities associated with the neoliberal foreign policy in the African economy, the latter which also largely influences African economies talks the language of deregulation of the environment leaving agriculture at a very devastating risk in terms of output, human life, etc. It would really be a disappointment to Uganda’s future economic development if any of the presidential candidates walks out of the debate on foreign policy without discussing the endemic of climate change and how they would like to tackle it. Can each of the presidential candidates convince Ugandans how he/she intends to register immense success in agricultural transformation and then later boosting Uganda’s economy amidst deregulation of the environment on which agriculture and human lives depend especially at this point in time when the structural arrangements and operations regarding natural resources control and management in Uganda are polarized? Could you please answer this question in the next debate on 10th February if that is okay with you?

    Thank you very much.

    Gerald Ainebyona
    Lecturer, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding
    Gollis University-Hargeisa

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