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Uganda Presidential Debate a Small Victory for Democracy


Presidential candidates take turn answering a series of questions on foreign policy and internal security during the debate in Kampala, Uganda, Feb. 13, 2016.

Presidential candidates take turn answering a series of questions on foreign policy and internal security during the debate in Kampala, Uganda, Feb. 13, 2016.

Ugandans tuned in Saturday as the nation's first-ever presidential debate attended by all candidates - including President Yoweri Museveni - took place in Kampala. Many say it was a small victory for democracy.

In homes and bars across the country, Ugandans were fixated on their screens as the eight political candidates running for president took part in the national debate. Those who could not watch tuned in on their cellphones, cheering and applauding as candidates addressed issues important to them.

At the forefront was President Yoweri Museveni, who is running for his fifth term in office. Speculation over whether President Museveni would attend the debate was rampant throughout the capital, up until the moment he stepped out onto the red carpet at the debate hall.​

President Yoweri Museveni arrives at the debate hall in Kampala, Feb. 16, 2016, greeted by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni arrives at the debate hall in Kampala, Feb. 16, 2016, greeted by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.

Excitement was high as the debate got under way.

Crispy Kaheru, a coordinator for the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy Uganda (CCEDU) attended the debates and said it showed an important shift in how citizens were encouraging political dialogue in Uganda.

“Uganda is one of those countries where the culture of debate is not deeply entrenched. And seeing us making baby steps in that direction is very much encouraging. And beyond a debate of this nature, I think it lays a foundation for dialogue processes to happen post the election, which is important for this country,” said Kaheru.

Presidential aspirant and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi arrives at the debate in Kampala, Feb. 13, 2016, greeted by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.

Presidential aspirant and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi arrives at the debate in Kampala, Feb. 13, 2016, greeted by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.

This was a sentiment shared by many, including Jermaine Eguesa, who said the organization of the event and questions posed gave him a feeling of empowerment.

“I must say it makes sense discussing foreign policy with an incumbent who has been largely in charge for the foreign policy. It made a lot of sense for me....On the overall I think it's a telling statement for people who do not believe Africa can actually practice democracy. I have been to foreign countries I know how some stereotypes are about African politics. But I think it's a telling statement. There were no fist-fights there was no name calling, it was very civil it's been very decent...Everybody has put their best foot forward,” said Eguesa.

In a press conference before the debates in Kampala, Feb. 13, 2016,Uganda's leading opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party assures reporters he can stand strong on foreign policy.

In a press conference before the debates in Kampala, Feb. 13, 2016,Uganda's leading opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party assures reporters he can stand strong on foreign policy.

Supporters of President Museveni, such as Susan Ojyra, said she was glad Museveni could attend the debates this time, and that she preferred his straightforward style to answering questions.

“The other time when he was so busy they started speculating that he was fearing the debate. Why should he fear debate?...we feel honored because we are sure of his answers. According to the last debate actually some candidates were failing to answer straight questions, some were dodging questions,” she said.

Although many citizens have already picked their preferred candidate, some say the debates helped them choose who to vote for. Voting in Uganda is scheduled to take place this Thursday.

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