The blame game is on between the giant bulls. But who's copying the other, writes Michael Mubangizi in today's Observer
The two leading candidates in the race for State House are fighting over campaign promises. Coalition candidate Kizza Besigye has promised to provide free lunch for primary school children, and cut taxes, but the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, has now made it a point to caution that Besigye’s promises are unrealistic.
Museveni told his supporters at Namayingo Primary School in Bukooli South last week that Besigye was duping people into believing that he could develop their communities and deliver services at the same time.
Citing Besigye’s other promises - to raise salaries of public servants, tarmac all roads and overhaul the health sector, while reducing taxes, Museveni told his audience that this was unachievable at once.
“That is not how to manage government. Where will he get all the money to do those things at a go? We have planned and we have been achieving them one at a time,” the President said.
But Besigye argues that the problem is not money; rather, how the little available is utilised. However, of all the promises, free lunch to primary school children appears to have ruffled NRM the most. This is because the promise, while ambitious, is very tempting to the millions of parents whose children currently stay at school on empty stomachs.
The NRM’s argument is that the government is paying the fees and, therefore, the parents should shoulder the lesser burden of feeding.
But Besigye’s promise has sent the party into a rethink of their position. Even as Museveni continues to tell his supporters that Besigye can’t pull it off, it was recently revealed that the ministry of Education and Sports has prepared a cabinet memo proposing different ways through which lunch can be provided.
In case government fails to meet the cost of feeding the children, the ministry is proposing that classes end at 1:50pm so that children can have lunch at home. Another option is for parents to pack lunch for their children, which has worked for some but not for others.
During a campaign in Namutumba recently, President Museveni put his position into perspective: “We have offered to teach your children free of charge up to advanced level starting next year, however many they will be. It will not be fair for anyone to say we feed their children. There are roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, water and other sorts of social services to provide. That is where this money will go, not feeding school children.”
Whereas the President sounds persuasive, it is debatable whether his supporters - the peasants who are used to free things - will buy into his argument and dismiss Besigye’s free lunch.
With the elections around the corner, and the opposition digging in, it remains to be seen how long President Museveni can maintain his principled position.
In the past, Museveni has reacted to some of the opposition’s populist promises by delivering on them. In 2001, Besigye promised to abolish graduated tax. Museveni reacted by doing exactly that.
Besigye also promised to double the number of government sponsored students at public universities from the then 2,000, but Museveni got it done. Besigye promised to restore the Kasese cultural institution, Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu, and got rewarded with a victory over Museveni in the 2006 elections.
The NRM, which had initially opposed the restoration, was forced to change its mind after the voters’ statement, and now the Rwenzururu Kingdom is back to life.
The Ntungamo-Rukungiri road was nicknamed ‘Besigye road’ because he promised to tarmac it during the 2001 election campaigns, forcing the government to take it up.
The free lunch proposal strikes a chord with Museveni’s core supporters - the peasants and rural poor - who are the major beneficiaries of the UPE programme. Unlike federalism, whose support hardly goes beyond one region, free lunch for school children would be popular across the country.
Political watchers say that with the ministry of Education and Sports fronting proposals, the government might soon announce a u-turn on the issue, thus pulling a rag from under Besigye’s feet.
Dr. Frederick Mutebi Golooba of Makerere University agrees that Besigye’s promise of free lunch is popular.
He says the President might end up offering free meals too.
“If the parents continue to support Besigye and the President realises that it is likely to win him support, I will be surprised if he doesn’t change his position,” Golooba told The Observer by telephone.
However, Fagil Mandy, an education consultant and former commissioner in the ministry of Education, doesn’t agree. He says there are other more pressing issues that have to be addressed in the education sector, other than offering free meals.
Mandy cites the strengthening of school management committees, district educational institutions, retraining of teachers and stemming teacher absenteeism. He adds that even before UPE (when the quality of education was said to be good), schools weren’t providing lunch.
According to Mandy, there are other reasons to blame for the high school dropout rates other than lack of meals for learners.
Besigye’s other promise is reducing taxes, which has prompted some to ask from where he will get the money to implement his generous proposals. He has, however, been talking of fighting corruption and reducing on the cost of public administration.
Yet free lunch is not the only bone of contention between these two. They have accused each other of manifesto copying.
President Museveni’s younger brother, Gen Salim Saleh, recently accused Besigye of riding on the NRM promise of restoring cooperatives which he says government has already restored.
Besigye’s promise of doubling primary school teachers’ salaries to Shs 400,000 was also not well received by NRM. Earlier on, Trade and Tourism minister, Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire, had described the promise as unrealistic.