Last week, we were treated to a televised debate among Uganda’s presidential candidates. Although we face an immense task of transforming our country from a poor and backward nation into a rich industrial society, our presidential candidates’ arguments fell far below what is required to achieve this task. For example, all the candidates talked about poor delivery of public goods and services. But they assumed this is due to corruption and the lack of care by those in power. Yet the real challenge of Uganda is that we are a poor country that cannot afford to pay for a large basket of public goods and services to the quality we desire.
The fundamental objective is to sustain a high rate of economic growth over a long period of time. This is critical because it will increase public revenues and thereby the government’s ability to pay for these public goods and services in an effective way. It was therefore intriguing that the “debate” did not have a single candidate mention economic growth.
The most passionate candidate was Dr. Kizza Besigye. Yet he defined his candidature narrowly as being against President Yoweri Museveni. He said if Museveni was not in the race he would not be in it either. He added that he only came to the debate because he had been misled by the organisers to believe Museveni was also going to attend. In personalising his struggle around Museveni, Besigye only demonstrated his lack of a vision of the Uganda he wants.
Only Maj. Gen. (retired) Benon Biraaro articulated a vision arguing his aim is to end poverty. But he was unable to show the core elements of achieving such a goal. Yet even with this limitation, I felt if ideas can become actions, Biraaro can make a transformational president. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi had a very good introduction by stating the tactical challenges government is facing in its efforts to serve its citizens. However, he lacked a broad vision of the country he is seeking to build. If elected, I felt he can only make a transactional president.
The disasters were Kyalya and Mabirizi. Both were totally clueless about the needs of Uganda and the responsibilities of the office they are seeking. If I had been the organisers I would not invite them to the next debate. Barya was the most disappointing of all, perhaps because I expected something substantial from him. Abed Bwanika failed to link his anecdotal stories from his village to the wider challenges facing Uganda. These four came across as being in the presidential race to make a name rather than to offer an alternative governance strategy.
There was very little, if at all, debate among the candidates on their different policy and governance options. Instead, the event turned out into a question and answer session between the moderators and the candidates. I wanted to hear Biraaro challenge Besigye on his policy promises – like how to fund teacher’s salaries, improve agriculture productivity and give laptops to every secondary school student. I waited for Besigye to challenge Mbabazi on the viability of his proposed village banks. And I thought Mbabazi would challenge Biraaro on his management ability given that he knows how he performed when he as Chief of Staff of UPDF and he (Mbabazi) was minister of defence. Instead, all the candidates failed or feared to challenge each other.
Some people have argued that a substantial debate would only have been possible if Museveni had participated. They have said that a good debate would have needed an exchange between the incumbent and his challengers on the different policy and governance strategies. This is nonsense. What if Museveni was not in the race? There is no incumbent in the current race for the White House in America, the country from whom we have copied and pasted this practice. But even among the opposition republicans, their internal debate is vibrant.
This Musevenicentric view has been most articulated by Besigye. He has defined the problem of Uganda as Museveni. Get rid of Museveni, Besigye argues, and the rest would follow. This simplistic approach to political problems appeals to the masses but does not address the core challenges of a country like Uganda. Museveni is not the cause of the problems of Uganda as Besigye seems to believe. A more reasonable argument could be that Museveni has failed to solve the problems of Uganda. All evidence would show that in spite of his one million and one weaknesses, Museveni has made an invaluable contribution to the reconstruction and stabilisation of Uganda. The challenge therefore is how to build on what he has achieved and transcend the limitations of his leadership of the country.
There was little effort to rely on verified facts and figures to argue their case by the different candidates, although I admit Mbabazi did so in his opening remarks. It was obvious that all the candidates were not prepared for a serious and informed discussion. Besigye made wild and ill-informed allegations on the cost of building roads in Uganda on Bujagali dam, the kind that his supporters admire him for. Sadly, Mbabazi who was in government as prime minister and therefore knows (or should have known) the facts made no effort to challenge Besigye.
The debate lacked substance on the core challenges of a poor country – like how to sustain economic growth and how to create jobs for the large mass of young people leaving school. It did not address issues like how to increase export earnings through value addition so that our country can earn more foreign exchange to pay for the construction of dams, railways, roads, power lines and other infrastructure absolutely necessary for growth and transformation. And most critically, there was no discussion of the international economic system and how it limits our government’s independence in decision making thereby stifling growth.
I also wanted to hear from the candidates how to make Ugandans own the commanding heights of the economy which under Museveni has been largely taken over by foreign companies. There was no informed and passionate discussion on how to increase agricultural production and productivity, a sector that employs 70 percent of our people and whose growth has been slow for the last 20 years. The men I listened to on Friday January 15th were sincere, patriotic and passionate. But they were equally far below the calibre needed to address our challenges.