Kampala — Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe must quit the presidency if he loses to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the run-off election, President Yoweri Museveni said yesterday.
"If he loses elections he must go. How can you stay without winning elections? It's impossible," Mr Museveni told the BBC's Network Africa programme, arguing that it is important for Mr Mugabe to have "the permission of the population" if he's to stay at the helm.
Asked if the conditions in Zimbabwe are conducive for a free and fair election, Mr Museveni said: "Not at all."
It was the first time that Mr Museveni has spoken out in terms not exactly sympathetic to the Zimbabwean leader, who has ruled the southern African nation since independence in 1980. Both presidents are former Marxists, and it is said that Mr Museveni has a lot of admiration for Mr Mugabe.
Mr Museveni, who came to power in 1986 after an armed struggle, has sometimes been compared to Mr Mugabe, who is accused of using his security agencies to cling to power. Both men, lauded for their early efforts to uplift their countries, are increasingly criticised for their reluctance to leave power.
And both tend to find scapegoats, especially colonialism, to explain their internal problems.
Mr Museveni's remark that Mr Mugabe should quit if he loses the popular vote is clearly at odds with what he has said or done to stay in power.
In 2006, as FDC leader Kizza Besigye energised the electorate to present himself as a formidable challenger, Mr Museveni reportedly said "revolutionaries do not leave like chicken thieves."
The remark was understood to mean that he would not leave power in the event that he lost the popular vote. Mr Museveni's public comments since then suggest that he will seek re-election when his current term expires in 2011.
In the BBC interview, he was measured in his criticism of the Zimbabwean leader, insisting that Mr Mugabe should not just give up power because he has held it for long. "As long as the people are elected, I don't really think the issue of who leads is crucial," Mr Museveni said.
He also refused to blame the economic crisis entirely on Mr Mugabe, saying there are "many players" responsible for the country's economic crisis. "It's not just Mugabe; it is Mugabe plus [some other players]," Mr Museveni told interviewer Kirsty Wark.
Mr Museveni, who was in London to attend a Commonwealth meeting, also speculated on why Mr Mugabe may have moved to implement his controversial land reform policy that alienated many white landowners and put him on a collision course with the West.
Zimbabweans vote in a run-off election that could end Mr Mugabe's rule or bring Mr Tsvangirai to power.
But human rights groups now say that there is no chance that the elections will be free and fair.
The US-based Human Rights Watch said in a new report that there isn't any chance of a free and fair presidential election in Zimbabwe.