Team M7 must admit they feared live debate

There has been plenty of debate on whether the January 15 ‘inaugural’ presidential debate was the first of its kind. Does it matter?

This was the first time that all presidential aspirants agreed and promised to participate in a debate. President Museveni asserted that he would employ his gifted mouth to good use at the debate. The Elders’ Forum and the Inter- Religious Council of Uganda must be commended for organising and promoting the debate.

However, it would have surprised everyone had Museveni attended. Despite promising to attend this one earlier, he has not participated in any previously; so, it was unlikely that he would appear.

Some explanations have been offered: Mwambutsya Ndebesa, speaking on the Capital Gang radio talk show, asserted that Museveni would find it demeaning to debate with ‘unequals’ like the young Maureen Kyalya and Pastor Joseph Mabirizi.

Kyadondo East MP Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda argued in his Observer column that Museveni is arrogant and contemptuous of Ugandans and that is why he skipped the debate. His take is that the president actively stifles all leadership aspirations; so, he would not be interested in debating with wannabe leaders.

Daily Monitor columnist Daniel Kalinaki says that the president wished to avoid public scrutiny on live television and chose to ‘dodge’ the debate to save his reputation.

On the other hand, NRM’s public relations officers and other functionaries have given all sorts of ridiculous excuses for Museveni’s absence. Some have even belittled the elder’s forum and another accused the organisers of being too aggressive in promoting the debate, claiming candidates were forced to attend.

The point is that Museveni was within his rights not to attend the debate.

The purpose of campaigns, including the presidential debate, is to win votes by persuading the electorate. If Team Museveni have assessed the situation and judged that there are no more votes to gain from participating in the debate, then it makes sense to withdraw.

The problem is that we, the electorate, wanted the spectacle of Museveni subjected to questions, including any from crazy-like Kyalya personal attacks or comic ones from Mabirizi. The truth is that the presidential debate had more to gain from Museveni’s attendance than the other way round. He, and perhaps Amama Mbabazi, had more to lose because they have been in government for 30 long years.

I wonder why Team Museveni cannot just say it as it is! Even the president has taken to belittling the debate by referring to it as similar to a high school event. And this has presented the NRM in a bad light.

Presidential debates are now part and parcel of the Western style of democracy that we, too, practice. Consequently, the NRM seems shifty when it claims that rallies in Ishaka and a meeting with the NRM women’s league were more important than participating in a national debate.

Poor UBC TV was also dragged into the seemingly-shabby, partisan business because, unlike all other stations, they screened cartoons instead of the debate. Shame, because UBC is national and has the widest reach!

NRM should take heart! There are others that have faced the same dilemma! British prime minister David Cameron agreed to participate in only one (of three) live TV election debate against his opponents in April 2015.

The under-pressure prime minister, who was embarrassed after it emerged that the most-searched-for Google question on the night was “Where is Cameron?”, unashamedly claimed that he had not been invited.

Well, skipping the UK live TV debate must have worked for Cameron. He trounced the opposition Labour Party in the elections held the following month and even significantly increased his majority, defying polls then, plus all other doomsday predictions.

Now those who have been laughing at candidate Mabirizi should beware of eating their own words in future. Mabirizi seemed clueless most of the time, even confusing cooking oil with the ‘Hoima’ oil that we all incessantly talk about.

If you go back 36 or 37 years ago, there was a young politician who seemed crazy and was accused of stoking war. At every rally, he promised war if votes were stolen!

“There are some people who go calling me a war monger; implying that I am in love with war whether it is there or not. What I have said during my previous rallies was in response to the UPC speeches from other districts in which they talked of a certain party which was going around telling people that whether they voted for that party or not, it would still be in power.” Speech at Nyakaseke pitch, Kabarole district Uganda Times, July 22, 1980. Compiled by Faustin Mugabe, Sunday Monitor June 29, 2014. The author is one of the founding Kigo

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