Uganda holds first presidential debate, without Museveni

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni speaks at the end of talks between Burundi’s rival political factions in Bujumbura on July 15, 2015 (AFP Photo/Abdulfitah Hashi Nor)

Kampala (AFP) - Uganda held its first ever presidential candidates' debate Friday but veteran leader Yoweri Museveni did not attend.

"Museveni shuns debate," the Daily Monitor newspaper reported, with seven candidates appearing on the stage for the televised discussion.

All seven opposition candidates are vying to end President Museveni's 30-year rule in the February 18 poll turned up.

Eight lecterns and seats, arranged alphabetically, had been laid out for the debate, including one for Museveni which was then pushed to side. Museveni had already said he would only attend if "his schedule permits."

Museveni, in power since 1986, will face his stiffest opposition from Kizza Besigye, a three-time loser for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and ruling party stalwart now running for the new Go-Forward party.

"I am happy to attend the debate but the absence of Mr. Museveni is unfortunate," Besigye said, according to the Daily Monitor.

"My debate and my campaign is not about individuals," Mbabazi said. "His (Museveni's) presence or absence is not relevant." the Monitor reported.

The debate got underway an hour behind schedule, beginning around 1700 GMT.