NEW YORK | KAMPALA – A crowded field of candidates squared off with President Yoweri Museveni at a rare debate this week, just days before national polls slated to take place on February 18.
The debate was held at the glamorous five-star Kampala Serena Hotel Victoria Hall in the capital Kampala. It confirmed various opinion poll projections: that the upcoming contest is a two-horse race between President Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye.
“Both men have established themselves as political fulcrums, around whom much if not everything revolves and without whom all things on either side fall apart,” wrote Tabu Butagira in Uganda’s Daily Monitor.
The President seized the moment to lambast his staff who, he claimed, had dissuaded him from taking part in previous debates. Upon their advice, he said, he skipped the inaugural one on January 15, and later dismissed the televised discourse as “high school”.
Much like the controversy over a moderator in the Republican debate, Mr Museveni demanded that organizers drop senior Voice of America editor and host of the broadcaster’s flagship Straight Talk Africa, Dr. Shaka Ssali, whom the president considers sympathetic to Uganda’s opposition.
Dr. Ssali, a respected Ugandan journalism export, who has interviewed several presidents, was reduced to questioning mainly fringe presidential candidates in what should have been a make-or-break televised debate.
Opinion polls, popular in Uganda as in the U.S., are predicting much stronger-than-expected support for the two leading opposition presidential candidates, Dr Kizza Besigye and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi.
Museveni dominated on issues such as foreign policy and regional integration – his pet subjects and the themes of Saturday night’s debate – that have given the Ugandan leader the larger-than-life stature beyond the country’s borders.
Neither of the two leading candidates offered more robust foreign policy options than what Uganda is doing in Somalia, South Sudan and neighbouring countries to tackle terrorism.
Dr Besigye attacked Museveni on claims of discovering Uganda’s oil and the domestically unapproved deployment of the Ugandan military in DR Congo in 1997, which resulted in a $10 billion reparation fine by the International Court of Justice. On the domestic front, he charged that corruption and an unaccountable government were responsible for most of Uganda’s problems, both at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, as the clock ticks towards the polls, the President’s party has unleashed a citizens’ militia – officially called “crime preventers” – which rights organizations say have carried out attacks against opposition activists.
Authorities have also closed at least 10 radio stations for licensing irregularities. Opponents and critics say the actual reason for the closures is that the stations aired interviews with opposition politicians.
Should he win a fifth term, the 71-year-old Museveni would join a fraternity of long-serving presidents in Africa - Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (26 years), Idriss Deby of Chad (25 years) and King Mswati III of Swaziland (29 years).
Also Paul Biya of Cameroon (32 years), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (35 years), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (36 years) and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (37 years). [International Press Syndicate – 16 February 2016]
Photo: K. Besigye being detained.