Uganda's president absent at first presidential debate

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni did not attend first presidential debate held in Kampala before presidential election

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The first presidential debate in Uganda's capital Kampala January 15, 2016

As Uganda held its first-ever presidential debate on Friday, the most barbed comments were directed at an empty lectern on the far right side of the stage.

The lectern was labelled with the name Yoweri Museveni, who has governed Uganda for three decades and is heavily favoured to win another five-year term at the polls next month. But the president was a no-show at the U.S.-style televised event.

"I came here expecting that indeed Museveni would be here. Unlike me, Museveni is our servant," said Kizza Besigye, a longtime opposition figure who is challenging Museveni for the fourth time with Uganda's biggest opposition party.

Museveni aides have been quoted in local media in recent days saying that Museveni would not be able to participate due to other campaign commitments.

But others have said that Museveni, who seldom submits to interviews, had little to gain from the event. He has turned down debate invitations in the past.

"He is a coward. Museveni could not withstand taking tough questions," Nassimbwa Hamidah, a Besigye supporter from Uganda's central region, said during a break.

This is expected to be one of the toughest elections yet for Museveni, 71, a key western ally who came to power after waging a 5-year guerrilla war.

Both of the president's two major challengers have long histories with him: Besigye was once Museveni's personal physician, but the two fell out in the late 1990s.

The other major challenger, Amama Mbabazi, has long been Museveni's right-hand man, serving most recently as prime minister before being sacked in a power struggle last year.

"The situation in Uganda is so bad that clearly we have to make a choice: do you want change or do you want more of the same?" said Mbabazi, who is running as an independent.

Museveni has been credited with returning economic stability to Uganda - a prospective crude oil producer and Africa's largest coffee exporter - after years of turmoil.

But his critics point to high unemployment, crumbling health centres and underperforming schools, and say he has failed to address rampant corruption.

The session in the capital Kampala included a total of seven candidates, though most of the participants were barely known and inexperienced debaters.

Maureen Kyalya, a former presidential advisor, repeatedly attacked Museveni for what she called failed policies, including a widely-mocked plan to give away 18 million hoes to farmers this election season.

Besigye and Mbabazi have both accused Museveni's government of using Uganda's security agencies to intimidate supporters, including arrests and beatings, and interference with campaign events.

On social media, there were reports that neighbourhoods in Kampala and elsewhere in the country were experiencing power outages, leading some users to speculate the black-outs were orchestrated by the government to limit debate viewership.