Who was persuaded by presidential debates?

President Museveni attended the second, and last, presidential candidates’ debate held on February 13, 2016 at the Serena conference centre. As expected, his attendance generated plenty of pomp and glamour but, perhaps for some, unexpectedly, Museveni performed well in the debating contest.

It was never a doubt that Museveni would do well in any debate. It is just that his handlers, and maybe himself, have a phobia about competition. So, the president came unwillingly but shine he did!

It is useful to reflect on whether that debate served any function. Did it win any hearts; did any voters change their minds having been won over by a candidate’s presentation? Difficult to judge but it is unlikely that any voter could have been persuaded on the night.

To begin with, despite the organisers and all the participants’ best intentions, it was difficult to actually turn it into a debate. The event had two masters of ceremonies (MCs), three moderators and eight candidates for two hours. No wonder the debate lasted over four hours and this was before Justice James Ogoola’s humorous closing ‘remarks’. How do you conduct a debate under such a structure?

I am not sure if there are any in the live audience or on television that ‘went’ to the debate with an open mind. This was evident straightaway because people at the conference centre clapped and cheered on their candidates even when they had not expressed a strong point.

It is possible that for many, the debate was not about changing minds or recruiting new support but that the audience simply wanted to see their candidate shine or trounce others!

So, we watched the presidential debate and moved on. In less than three days, it was off our tongues completely because the main contenders, Yoweri Museveni and Kizza Besigye (KB), had come to the city. And as usual, when KB comes to the city, tear gas plus several visits to a range of police stations is guaranteed. Of course, this was talk of the town in the last few days to the election.

Indeed, it is absurd for KB to wish or insist on walking through the city centre. However, it seems that he did that in Mbarara and many other towns for an hour or so and there was no chaos.

How is it possible that the city police did not synchronise times and routes with his team days before his arrival? How come the, now-under-fire Electoral Commission (EC) was able to accurately coordinate all candidates’ campaigns successfully for the entire period? Something does not quite add up!

Up to the time of the presidential debate, and immediately after, the campaign was running well and there was great hope. There was goodwill in the country because even after it was discovered that there were 20,000 ghosts on the electoral register, it seemed that many let it go when the EC apologised, claiming they had purged the ghosts off the list.

So, in some ways, the debate firmed up beliefs that all would be fine. Apathy and cynicism levels may have gone down then; and when final election reports are released, it is most likely they will show a significant increase in voting numbers compared to 2011.

Despite the challenges I pointed out about the debate, it showed us what is possible in Ugandan politics. The positive signs were there. Museveni did not walk in as president – and candidate Joseph Mabirizi ensured his entrance would be seen as presidential by coming in last – and he shook hands with all fellow competitors before taking his place. All of them were made to hold hands at the start; Kyalya kicked off with a lullaby, offering Museveni a job post-elections and even Museveni laughed at everything Mabirizi!

This was the only time that we saw a fair and level playing field in the campaign. It did not last. On D-day, February 18, government switched off all the popular social media communication platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook unilaterally and without notice, claiming security threats. Mobile telephone money platforms were also a casualty. What a show of power!

All the niceties of the presidential debate are long gone now. The opposition parties claim that all these actions were taken to thwart their election strategies – they could not communicate cheaply with each other nor send facilitation funds to their agents. I can now safely predict that they will demonstrate and the government will come down hard on them.

As for the individuals that shut down both the communications and mobile money platforms, we can only hope that one day their actions will be questioned. There is no such thing as free data in this country, meaning that many have lost money when forcefully off-air.

Disturbingly and more worrying is that many Ugandans bank monies on their phones. Days before election day, government reassured everyone not to worry about stocking food, cash, etc, and those that listened were stranded because they were unable to get cash off their phones!

osm@kigothinkers.org The author is one of the founding Kigo Thinkers.


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