When the curtains were raised on the evening of January 15, 2016, it was all systems go. The debate was the thing. As I took my seat in the auditorium, I kept wondering whether the incumbent candidate Yoweri Museveni would make that miscalculation and walk into the landmine zone – he never did.
The moderators of the evening, BBC Newsday presenter Alan Kasujja and KTN’s Nancy Kacungira set the ball rolling a couple of minutes to 8pm – on time according to the program on my invitation card contrary to claims that the debate was delayed.
For a second, as the seven candidates took to the podium to stand behind their glass lecterns which were magnificently emblazoned with national colours, I imagined security operatives would raid the conference hall and declare the event an illegal gathering – yes; that is very possible in this part of the world.
A few months ago, seven youths were arrested at a hotel in Centenary Park in Kampala for holding a press conference. They were bundled on a police pickup truck and driven around town at a break-neck speed before being locked up in police cells for days. Seven other youths who attempted to secure them police bond were also arrested for attempting to burn the police station with hot chapatis – although they were ultimately charged with disobeying ‘lawful’ orders to go away from the station. Considering these facts, you can understand my imaginations.
I kept looking out for Museveni’s lectern – just to make sure it was still there and no one had pulled it down. To me, that empty lectern was very symbolic. As later noted by Dr. Kizza Besigye; after 30 years at the helm of affairs, Mr. Yoweri Museveni has hijacked and successfully fused himself with the State. How the nation was going to debate it’s future in his absence and not on his terms was very intriguing.
As the inaugural debate unfolded, it was not long before it was a foray into uncharted territory. On the question of electability, Prof. Venansius Baryamureba struggled to justify how leading Makerere University as a Vice Chancellor was enough experience to be the suitable candidate. Most of his programs sounded elitist and lacked the verbalization expected of a professor – throughout the night, he appeared to struggle to shake off his little altercation with Alan over issues of time.
Nancy pressed the only female candidate – Maureen Kyalya – on her character and dependability. It was not long before she buckled under pressure. “First and foremost, I am not a politician,” she surrendered. Her worst moment was when she heedlessly said ‘those women (women holding high positions in government) are dummies’ while attempting to gun down a moderator’s counter argument that, in fact, the NRM government had promoted gender equity. Although some may argue for the assertion, it was not a strategic response on the night.
That was not all, armed with one silver bullet to fire a question, Kyalya shocked the audience by pocking her fingers in Besigye-Museveni family relations by probing whether they were relatives. For a moment, everything went silent. Besigye’s shock at the question was written all over his face.
Evangelical Pastor Elton Joseph Mabirizi was arguably the highlight of the night. In all the humour which left me in stitches, he portrayed what Museveni’s regime has made Uganda. A big joke that we often, sadly, laugh about. Our education, health, agriculture, infrastructure, and justice systems are in shambles yet we have outstanding laws, policies, and opportunities to turn all this around.
Throughout the debate, the former Premier Amama Mbabazi summoned his self-control, poise, and aplomb to intrepidly tussle against his credibility gap associated with his recent record while in government – on his affirmations, he still subscribes to the NRM Party.
Despite of the major attacks, Mbabazi survived with minor injuries. It could have been worse under the approach adopted by the moderators that allowed little debate to flow.
FDC’s Kizza Besigye had his work cut out explaining why as an advocate against Museveni’s dictatorship and third term politics, he had himself refused to relinquish his party’s presidential candidacy despite of having had a shot at the presidency in the previous three elections. After maneuvering this, he recovered and submitted a strong case on why he should be elected come February 18.
Despite coming through as a people’s favorite alongside Maj. General Benon Biraro, Dr. Abed Bwanika was tasked to explain why he had seemingly turned contesting for the presidency into a career. Alan probed to know why even after failing to garner 50,000 votes in each of the previous three elections, he was still standing behind that lectern as a candidate.
Maj. General Biraro on his part, appeared to generally enjoy his evening even when put under the spotlight. On why people should vote in a General to replace another military general, he appeared to distance himself from the gun and cut a figure of a ‘People’s General’. He rather easily got away with it.
It was a pretty eventful night. But was there a debate?
On the night, there was no debate. What we witnessed however was a country rising above tradition to break with the old. Democracy won. In the absence of President Museveni – and an NRM party representative – the aspiring candidates raised and discussed issues of national importance with civility and decorum. No teargas, police brutality, or other undemocratic acts associated with abuse of power of incumbency.
As a nation, we must guard these debates from being highjacked and turned into another stage-managed campaign trail charade devoid of substantive debates to hoodwink Ugandans and perpetrate electoral fraud.