After thirty years in power, Yoweri Museveni finally agreed to debate his rivals on live TV. It was a gamble, but it (probably) paid off.
Even until the final moments it was in doubt. Yoweri Museveni confirmed his attendance just a few hours before. Some worried that Kizza Besigye, campaigning into the late afternoon, would get stuck in traffic. But when Ugandans arrived at TV halls across the country, or huddled round portable radios, they could see and hear it for themselves: for the first time, all the presidential candidates on the same stage for a live debate, just five days before a fiercely-fought election.
Museveni was the key. The 71 year-old president, running for a fifth elected term, had skipped an earlier debate, comparing it to a high-school speaking competition. But with his poll lead narrowing and the opposition drawing huge crowds, he calculated that an appearance this time could work to his advantage. It was a big risk, that probably paid off.
Fact or fiction
After thirty years in power, Museveni has the aura of incumbency: he is the dominant figure not only in Ugandan politics, but also in the fraught diplomacy of the region. He is a leading mediator in Burundi and South Sudan; under his leadership, Ugandan troops have been sent to Somalia, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo; the influential Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, is his military protégé.
There was a sense, then, of an east African patriarch condescending to talk with his grandchildren. That, at least, was the image that Museveni wanted to create. The moderators called his name last, and he made the other candidates wait ten minutes before he appeared on stage, shaking hands with each as though he were greeting well-wishers at a rally. For the rest of the debate he adopted an air of amused inscrutability, motionless in his chair, smiling occasionally at his opponents’ more stumbling responses.
When called upon to speak he was grand, sometimes brutal. ‘I’m here to talk about Uganda, not about fiction,’ he said in his opening remarks, joking that his opponents should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. ‘When I listen to the talk here,’ he added later, ‘it confirms one point: that there’s one person on this platform who can manage Uganda’. There were also flashes of the earthy humour that delights his supporters: anyone who doubted his government’s efforts on electricity, he said, should climb up the power lines and try touching them.
But there was a danger to this approach. For all his aura, the debate showed Museveni as just another candidate, one in a field of eight. It is not unusual to hear public criticism of Museveni, at least in the English-language press; but rarely have Ugandans been able to watch their president sit there, forced to listen, as his opponents accuse him of building a dictatorship. The possibilities were indicated by the very first speaker, Maureen Kyalya Waluube, complaining about the use of tear gas; the cameras cut to Museveni as she spoke. There were questions about the ‘militarization of politics’ and Uganda behaving like ‘an arsonist’ in regional politics.
The confrontation everyone wanted to see, though, was between Museveni and Kizza Besigye, his main rival. Besigye stood out in an open-necked blue shirt (the other men wore suits). It was a neat visual shorthand for his ‘people’s president’ persona, like the images of him pushing his own car out of a ditch on the campaign trail. In his opening remarks Besigye recalled his imprisonment during the ‘bush war’ – when, fighting alongside Museveni, he had been held in the very building where the debate was now taking place – and alluded to the repression he had faced in his more recent campaigns against Museveni.
In the fiercest exchange of the night, Besigye and Museveni clashed over Uganda’s role in the Congo war (a ruling by the International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to pay $10 billion in reparations to the DRC). There was applause from the audience, and cheers in the bar where I was watching, when Besigye accused Museveni of acting unconstitutionally and against the interests of Ugandans. There were more applause and cheers – some from the same people – when Museveni responded strongly: ‘Nobody can play around with the security of Uganda when I am president’.
The two men clashed again over oil – a dispute which took a bizarre turn when Museveni claimed that the discovery was made by his own political party, the NRM. But in the end there were few moments when Museveni went head-to-head with the only man who could unseat him. The format of the debate ran against it, with eight candidates competing for airtime. So too did the foreign policy theme, which made it more difficult to challenge Museveni on his domestic record.
At times Besigye spoke powerfully, pointing out that Uganda has never had a peaceful transfer of power, and attacking the ‘systemic corruption’ of Museveni’s government. Other candidates, like former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, complained of soaring youth unemployment (83%, he claimed). And there was something a little rich about Museveni’s call for patience; after being in power for thirty years, he argued against ‘ready-made’ solutions and said ‘it’s a question of time’.
But none of the candidates landed a decisive blow on the ageing leader. As the debate dragged on past midnight, most people in the bar where I sat began to drift away, or watched the football on the other screen. Known positions were recited – Museveni won particular applause for his attack on the International Criminal Court – but it was not clear whether any minds were changed.
Setting a precedent
Most Ugandans do not have TVs, and the debate was conducted in a language, English, which the older and less-educated struggle to understand. Still, the impact of the debate on Ugandan democracy may be a positive one. Many will have listened on the radio; some stations broadcast translations in local languages. Others will hear second-hand accounts from friends and relatives. The spectacle of an incumbent president debating publicly with his rivals sets an important precedent.
Yet for all the high talk of democracy, what will matter this Thursday is the pragmatic business of getting votes. As Museveni boasted, defending himself against charges of anti-democratic practices: ‘Democracy means they support you. If they don’t support you, you don’t win’.