Kampala — A cocktail of promises on a better Uganda, clashing views on how to achieve the Ugandan dream and flowery policies coloured with public excitement underpinned Uganda's first ever live presidential debate on Friday night with President Museveni shunning the stage for his opponents.
The debate that kicked off an hour past the scheduled time of 7pm, attracted at least 1,000 invited guests drawn across the country's diverse social and political shades with non-invited guests gate-crashing the Kampala Serena Conference Hall and being led away by security operatives.
Former Principal Judge James Ogoola set the stage for the debate with his trademark poetic choice of words, condensing his feelings on the day in a stimulating verse describing the debate as, "a competition in the market place of ideas" that will feed into a precedent for the country's future political engagements.
BBC Newsday presenter Alan Kasujja and KTN journalist Nancy Kacungira set the ground rules agreed to by the candidates, with a two-minute opening statement, two minutes to respond and 30-second rejoinders. The candidates had a timer to keep them in check.
Prof Venansius Baryamureeba, the first to arrive for the debate, was also the first to take to the high table, followed by Maureen Kyalya, Dr Kizza Besigye, Joseph Mabirizi, Maj Gen Benon Biraaro and Amama Mbabazi who took to the rostrum flashing his Go Forward symbol with his trademark smile before Dr Abed Bwanika followed. The National Anthem was performed by Watoto Children's choir.
The candidates, standing behind a glass platform emblazoned with national colours, were tasked to tell the people of Uganda why they think they are the best suited for the first country's number one job.
Prof Baryamureeba fired first: "I have been in the education sector for a very long time. When you look at the health sector it is ailing. I have been training people through universities and other institutions, they are unemployed, I am a candidate for transition," adding, "I am 47 years old, I stand between those who are zero and 94. I have a very good manifesto and a budget framework."
Female candidate Kyalya said: "I am not going to say I am the best candidate because I believe everyone here is good but I have the best solution for Uganda. I am multi skilled, a lawyer, international social worker, presidential aide and advisers. Uganda has over the last 150 years not sat down to solve our problems. There is more tear gas than there is medicine."
The Forum for Democratic Change flag bearer Kizza Besigye stated calmly in a matter-of-fact tone: "We are having this debate in a very unique context because we are seeking to choose a leader where no leader has entered State House without using the force of guns and that must be frightening for those who have lived here and those we are raising. We are now 54 years without having a president entering State House as a free will of the people. The background of politics, we need a transition liberation agenda and a transformation agenda."
Mr Mabirizi, started by praising the Lord, "I am here to convince the seven to join me."
Maj Gen Benon Biraaro submitted: "I am standing on the Farmers' Party of Uganda. The country is polarised. I am coming with peace, a nation can be born in one day and this is the day. I am coming with a unity government. I see this election transitioning into a unity government phase."
Mbabazi: "Throughout my campaign trail throughout Uganda I have put this question to Uganda, do you want change or do you want more of the same? This is a question for every one of you." He then splashed statistical evidence painting a grim picture of the country's socio-economic challenges.
"It is about a vision, drawing a road map of how the country should reach the desired destination. Leadership at a presidential level is about identifying the problems of the nation and how to solve those problems. I have come with a solution," said Dr Bwanika.
The debate sucked in Mr Museveni who was meeting members of the ruling party's Women's League about 200km away in western Uganda.
Dr Besigye, when asked why he hinges his presidential ambition on Museveni passionately, he argued that the President, in power for 30 years, has hijacked the state and fused himself with the state that any discussion on Uganda cannot be separated from him.
Mr Mbabazi remained tongue tied when asked to explain the contradiction of his promise to improve teachers' pay against his previous threat, while still the government prime minister, to fire all the striking teaching staff who refused to return to classrooms over salary increase.
He insisted he negotiated for teachers' salary enhancement but when he left as prime minister the plan was not honoured.
He also denied intimidating supporters of his opponent Garuga Musinguzi in the hotly contested 2001 Kinkizi West parliamentary election although the High Court ruling in 2001 indicated so.