The first ever Ugandan Presidential Debate was televised whilst we were staying in Kampala. We were joined at the bar by a few locals as the debate went on into the night. There were seven candidates on stage ready to inform the nation on why they were ready to be their new leader. President Musuveni, who has been in power for 30 years, was absent due to the fact he was ‘too busy’. The way the camera slowly zoomed in on his empty podium at the end of the broadcast tells you everything about what the TV station thought of his absence. Unfortunately, the satellite station on which the debate aired is not watched by the majority of people. This means that most of the nation may have missed the fact that Musuveni failed to show up to a debate that was almost entirely centred around his tenure.
Regardless of this, the debate was quite possibly one of the most unintentionally funny things I’ve seen on television. Some of the candidates started strong, but it kept on spiralling out of control and looks of blank despair became more prevalent as the night went on. It felt like the two hosts of the debate knew far more than everyone on stage and would be better suited to running the country themselves.
Maureen Kyalya, a social worker running for presidency, seemed to be the most informed and passionate. She had a lot to say on the issues surrounding women in Uganda, who seem to have far less rights than the men, and she often received plenty of applause. Apart from Maureen a couple of the others did OK, but there were a few that were absolutely dreadful.
One poor man, we missed his name, was doing so badly that whenever the hosts addressed him you could hear ripples of laughter in the crowd in anticipation of what he would say next. Come the end of the debate these ripples were more like loud waves as if the debate was put together using canned laughter. When asked whether he felt Uganda should be making more of international oil trade, he simply replied in a slow deep voice saying just: “We have oil,” followed by a long slow pause as the camera zoomed in on his face. At that moment, just as he finished his sentence, clearly with nothing left to say on the matter, you could see the fear on his face. Hundreds of people in the audience, at home, and in the bar with us, were bursting out with laughter.
One of the candidates is the ex Prime Minister – who works closely with the President – and was a member of the Museveni team, who have been accused in the past of rigging elections. He was asked by another candidate if these elections would also fall foul to rigging. Cue laughter from everyone in the crowd and even most of the people on stage. Laughter, at the lunacy of the question. Of course there would be some foul play. We were gobsmacked.
The whole thing felt amateurish. But it is a step in the right direction. And whilst the absence of the President from the very first ever televised Presidential Debate was most certainly the elephant in the room, at least they took place. Let’s hope the candidates have all got a bit more practice in for next time…