Muntu and Besigye: Photo montage courtesy of The East African
In case you missed it, The NTV sponsored FDC Presidential Primary debate last night was such an en eye opening event for watchers of Ugandan politics including yours truly. From 10:00pm to 12:30am, Retired Gen. Mugisha Muntu, incumbent FDC president faced off with Rtd. Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye Kifefe. It was two and a half hours of political theatre and lessons for both analysts of Ugandan politics and supporters of both men. Congratulations are in order for NTV and the debate moderator Charles Mwanguhya who in my view did a commendable job.
Below are my takeaways from the debate that shows the vast differences between the two men on the stage last night. The takeaways have to do with, one, how the candidates handled themselves on live TV, and secondly, and most importantly, how they answered the questions.
MY OVERALL TAKEAWAY: Kizza Besigye is a master politician and outperformed Muntu last night. I will support my assertion by looking at how the two answered some of the questions posed by the very able and knowledgeable moderator, Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi:
QUESTION: What could you say are the reasons the FDC has failed to even field candidates in many areas across the country, and the fact that you do not even have a presence in several rural areas?
This was an interesting question and the way the two men answered it showed the master and the amateur:
MUGISHA MUNTU: Yes it is true we still have some challenges but during my tenure as president, and secretary for mobilization before that, we tried to build party structures and to field candidates in elections. I would say we are now at about 70% capacity and we are on course to building an overwhelming force to remove Museveni from power come next year
KIZZA BESIGYE: You are asking a wrong question, wrong in a sense that you are totally ignoring the context in which we as an opposition party operate, and the grim realities we have to face to challenge the regime. In an ideal situation where we have a democracy, where the ground is leveled, I would answer your question. But it is unfair to ask me to explain our performance on those parameters while ignoring the odds my party has been facing to even “exist”. Do you know that just being merely a candidate for the FDC is a dangerous undertaking in some parts of the country? That we actually do not run against a political party, but the entire state and its organs, with all their advantages? So, the context we operate in is not normal at all.
What Kizza Besigye is saying here is that he absolutely makes no apologies for FDC’s failure to have party structures everywhere and to field candidates in some elections. And he is, at least, partially, correct if we are to be fair and indeed look at the political context in which the opposition operates in this country. In many rural areas, I do not think there is any LC1, 2 or even 3 that has ever had someone openly contest on an FDC ticket, later alone win a seat. The reach of Mr. Museveni’s patronage and clientelism is so deep that such a person would, I am afraid be in trouble. In Many villages, the NRM LC1 chairman sometimes leads village official proceedings as if he was the non-partisan LC1 official, and sometimes even has more political and social clout than a supposedly non-partisan village chairman. This however doesn’t mean that the FDC shouldn’t do better with their outreach. They clearly have some organizational weaknesses which they need to work on. But to judge their failure to be present at all administrative levels across the country by only looking at their political weaknesses and ignoring the harsh political context they operate in is, as Besigye said, unfair indeed. But I wouldn’t blame the moderator for asking the question. It is the job of the debaters to sort themselves.
KB – 70%
Muntu – 30%
QUESTION: Can each of you tell us 2 of the biggest mistakes you have made in your political career?
MUGISHA MUNTU: When I was still army commander, there were about 7 rebellions in different regions of the country and I must admit that we failed to solve all of them. That was a failure on my part. Secondly, during my tenure as the head of the FDC, we embarked on mass mobilization and did all we could but didn’t do enough in terms of establishing party structures across the country.
KIZZA BESIGYE: My biggest weakness is trusting people too much. I have regretted some decisions I have made on choosing the people I have relied on, some of whom have betrayed me. But I seek comfort in the fact that in the broken society we live in, of poverty, and need, it is easy for the powers that be to use any one.
This is a question anyone who has ever sat for a job interview has been asked. What are your weaknesses? Experts will tell you that this question is a trap and can seriously harm your prospects of being hired if you do not prepare well for it. The answers given by the two men shows you why their intellect and comprehension of phenomena is different. Mr. Besigye, the smarter guy, in effect, ducked the question and gave a non answer. He says his weakness is “trusting people a lot”. Meaning? It is really not my problem if I appoint people, say, to my election taskforce who end up being bribed by the regime. In other words, it is those people, and the evil regime that bribes them, that are in fault. Excellent! Mr. Muntu on the other hand admits to serious mistakes which indeed are the same ones his opponents accuse him of. Failure to build party structures, even in the course of the debate last night, was one of the failures of the party the moderator cited in one his questions, as mentioned above. The FDC indeed failed to field candidates in many elections and by-elections, during his tenure, and the FDC has no presence in much of rural Uganda. That was a stunning admission of failure. Career experts always tell job seekers never to explicitly admit real personal and professional flaws but to turn the question on its head and talk about your strengths instead. So, Col. Besigye floored Muntu on this one.
QUESTION: I want the two of you to give me a yes or no answer question on this one, period. Will you be on the ballot in 2016, in the absence of the electoral reforms? Yes or No? In other words, will you participate in the 2016 presidential election in 2016 if the government does not institute electoral reforms?
KIZZA BESIGYE: What do you mean? That’s a wrong question and I am not going to answer a wrong question: The reforms (inaudible) will have to be there…
MUGISHA MUNTU: If I am the FDC flag bearer and through the Democratic Alliance (TDA), yes, I will participate in the elections.
Now, in case you haven’t been following, the “Electoral Reforms” have been the redline the opposition has drawn to their participation in the 2016 race. They say there is no point in taking part in a fraudulent election again, and, while not explicitly stating it, their argument is that participating in a process similar to 2001, 2006, and 2011, with the same structures which they believe rig the system for the ruling party, would be pointless hence implying they would sit it out. Obviously this is a hardline position which, it appears Muntu disagrees with and seems intent on running even if the reforms are not in place. As you know, Parliament rejected those reforms a few weeks a go. Besigye’s calculation is that even if the reforms were tossed out by parliament, the public needs to see a resolute opposition in order to stay galvanized. His non-answer therefore was, strategically, very smart. Muntu’s straight answer on the other hand, while being honest, was not wise. He seems to be saying that the reforms are not important and taking such a soft approach to the issue, which really is the opposition’s life and death issue; the difference between an opposition win and a loss, is a no political astuteness.
Kizza Besigye 65%
QUESTION: What is the one thing Mr. Museveni has done right for which you have to give him credit?
KIZZA BESIGYE: Which one? Unless you consider suppressing the rights of others as a good thing…(applause)
MUNTU: Well, if he had not removed term limits from the constitution and instead retired then, maybe I would give him credit. But that action undermined his legacy.
Again, Mr. Nice Guy, Muntu, gives an honest but politically lousy answer. Kizza Besigye, the master strategist knows one of the key tenets of debate psychology; which is that there is no need at all of heaping praise on your arch rival even if there are reasons to do so. This is a contest where you need to cast yourself in as good light as possible and hope the other party is cast in as bad light as possible. You do not want to do their job for them
QUESTION: What is your position on the Homosexuality debate in Uganda?
KIZZA BESIGYE: I am a Christian and I am certainly guided by my Christian beliefs on the matter. The FDC party however, needs to take a party position on the matter and to my knowledge; the party has not done so.
MUNTU: I am a Christian also and I am totally against it. The bible however says that Love your neighbor as you love yourself, so I believe homosexuals should not be persecuted. However, this issue of them going around the country trying to convert others into the practice is not acceptable at all. They should stop that and the law should ensure that does not happen.
As everyone knows by now, this is a very explosive issue and a political landmine domestically as well as abroad. Kizza Besigye in essence, ducked the question, and instead laid a trap for his opponent which Muntu easily walked into. Kizza Besigey said his “Christian beliefs guides his position on the matter”, but didn’t state his actual position on whether he is pro or anti homosexuality. By saying the FDC Party (whose current serving president, coincidently was standing across from him on the podium) must take a position, he was in effect saying the Muntu states his thoughts instead. To my total consternation, Muntu indeed stated his personal beliefs, which, unsurprisingly got a loud applause from a homophobic audience (which represented a homophobic country), but which is toxic for a man that wants to be president of the country, and therefore leader of ALL citizens including gay Ugandans. The foreign powers, our liberal EU and American donors, who have a lot of influence here, (and who bankroll most political parties’ work by the way) will not be pleased by that. Kizza Besigye therefore wins this round as well, by giving a Mbabazisque (remember Amama Mbabazi’s position on the matter?) answer to a very uncomfortable question. Kind of “I will tell you when I will tell you..” strategy. He succeeded in appearing to be against it to the local population that is virulently anti-gay, while also appearing to say it’s up to his party, for the Europeans, who surely up to now do not know what he thinks. Muntu’s further explanation on the recruitment of children into the practice, which many Gay supporters vehemently dispute as being unscientific (they say no one can be ‘recruited’ into homosexuality; that homosexuals are born homosexuals, that’s it), will not endear him to that constituency. As you might know, President Museveni himself has no appetite currently for that debate. Muntu therefore might have pleased the local audience with his answer, including the Inter-Religious council of Uganda that organized the debate, but his answer showed he either lacks the appreciation of the political toxicity of the matter, or simply had not prepared for the question.
As some of you might know, I have in the past had uninformed views on the matter, and have written about them. As I grew older however, I started questioning my stance on the issue. Should people be persecuted, simply for BEING? Does it matter whether my bible says it’s wrong? I do not believe the state should dictate how people should live their personal lives, especially on a deeply personal issue such as sexuality. I oppose government’s intrusion on people’s civil liberties, and therefore, my christian beliefs aside, I have to be concerned when the state starts going into people’s bedrooms to dictate how, and with whom they should have sexual relations (by the way, how ridiculous does that very notion sound??). I therefore oppose state-sanctioned witch-hunt against homosexuals or any other minorities for that mater. My support for their right is hunched on a ‘live and let live’ principle and the right of everyone for self determination, freedom of association and freedom of choice. My lesson was learnt the hard way: During my radio days when I hosted a weekly show on youth sexuality and reproductive health, at first I let my christian views determine what I said on air, especially on abstinence or using condoms. I realized that abstinence-only messages were ignoring the reality everyone knew: That kids were having sex regardless. Should I rather give them a realistic message (have protected sex), save their lives, and then let them sort out their morality/spiritual issues with their God (or church leaders)? I asked myself. I chose this option. I realised then why the workplace should be a secular place and why government and religion should not mix as that can be a dangerous combination. Rationality rather than religiosity should carry the day when you are acting in a public sphere. That doesn’t mean that I support gay marriage. I do not. But that is immaterial when it comes to treating people equally. As Evely B. Hall said,”I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s about the right of people to be whatever they wish to be, as long as they are not hurting anyone. I believe Besigye, while he was cowardly and didn’t explicitly say it as I have said it, still wins this round due to the pragmatism in his answer.
Besigye – 70%
OVERALL SCORE: Besigye 75%, Muntu, 25%
The history of televised debates is not kind to inarticulate participants, or those that dither in their presentations, and those who forget they are on television. In some democracies, presidential debates have doomed candidates’ chances even when they appeared to be headed to victory before the debates. A case in point is the 1960 US presidential election between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. Kennedy, a younger, handsomer candidate had told his handlers to put make-up on him, during the first ever TV debate in US History, and he knew clearly he wasn’t just debating his opponent in that little room but speaking to millions of viewers as well. His answers to questions, crisp, punchy and to the point as well as his youthful, smiling and happy look, paled in comparison to a grumpy looking, angry and tired Nixon. Many historians credit his debate performance to his eventual win of the White House. Since then, televised debates are a big deal in US election culture. Candidates do debate preps sometimes with replicas of the real stage weeks before the real thing, complete with mock opponents and anticipated questions. The good thing for Muntu, it looks very few people watched last night’s debate (when I reached the office this morning, I asked colleagues how many had watched and not may had)
It looks like Besigye had prepared for the debate last night a little better than Muntu. But the reason could also be that KB is more of a natural when it comes to this business than Muntu. You could tell from the passion of the two men when emphasizing issues. KB’s passion comes across naturally. His anger (which he denied last evening when asked why he is always angry) is clearly natural and he is an articulate speaker. Muntu’s passion looks a little overdone and not that fire-in-the-belly thing that’s comes naturally. His is a gentle, ‘headmaster’ like kind of manner.
SOME MISTAKES MADE BY BOTH
- Muntu kept forgetting to turn the mic back on when his turn to speak came. While this might look harmless, it doesn’t make for great visuals on television. It shows a nervous, fidgeting politician. That this never happened to KB through the event is not a coincidence. Muntu also kept searching for words and had more of “dead air”, lulls in between his remarks. Kizza Besigye’s lulls were only when looking for a right word to describe a grave issue that he was at loss for words.
- There was one area though, where Muntu floored Besigye, and that was on the question on Foreign Policy. The question was what each of the two men would do on the issues of Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, and these other regional crises surrounding us and in which one or the other way Uganda is somewhat involved. Besigye went for generalities and vague answers. He talked of the need to empower citizens in those countries and to call for respect of citizens views. Gen. Muntu, was very specific and called on IGAD and the East African Community to do more to ensure member states and regional leaders have keen interest in these crises and to appreciate that the region is better off when everyone if better off. He said it’s unfair for Uganda to share the heaviest burden on contributing troops, say to Somalia and said there should be a UPDF draw-down so that other countries can also contribute troops. His experience as a legislator in the East African Community Legislative Assembly was clearly at play here.
- In the beginning, KB was hostile to the moderator, I don’t know why. Mr Mwanguhya was very prepared and asked very informed questions. But that also is a technique during debates. If you are a watcher of US politics, you will remember that in 2012, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican Primary by railing against CNN’s John King, the moderator, who was asking harsh questions during the debate on the eve of the primary. The voters agreed that King was unfair to Gingrich and that carried Newt over the top. But for Mwanguhya’s case, he was clearly doing his job by asking tough questions. Later KB though desisted from that and focused on answering the questions.
- Kizza Besigye also made a not so good closing statement. Asked on whether he would concede in case he lost, to support the party’s nominee, he said; “One area I am familiar with is losing…” The audience erupted in laughter. For a man who has always insisted that he has never lost his previous contests against Museveni and had only been robbed, I thought this was a very poor attempt at humour and under-cut his all along held case that he is always rigged. Imagine Arsene Wenger Being the one that said “I am a specialist in failure” (Sorry if you are not a premier league fan). So even when true, you don’t say that you always loose.
In conclusion however, If I were an FDC member and was voting on Wednesday, I would be more comfortable casting my lot with Kizza Besigye as he not only looked presidential but also expressed the knowledge of the context of what he would be running against, than Mugisha Muntu
Besigye’s “diehardness” therefore looks set to triumph over Muntu’s “gentleness” come Wednesday, if last night’s debate is anything to go by.
What this debate also showed us is the opportunity Ugandans are denied every time the ruling party refuses to participate in this kind of political dialogue in the general election. Imagine if Museveni was to face off with Besigye live! These kinds of events would help voters to see candidates explain their positions in a non-controlled environment and their true intentions can in some way be clearly figured out. How absurd that the ruling party would never present its flag bearer into such a setting. The country would benefit from such kind of political maturity which would also be a positive for the political discourse in this country. But it’s not about to happen and that’s tragic to say the least.
Bernard Sabiti, a researcher and political analyst blogs on UgandanEnglish.wordpress.com