KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda's long-time president declared Saturday he would deal firmly with any security threats during and after next week's presidential election, brushing aside fears of violence during a televised debate with seven challengers.
President Yoweri Museveni missed the first presidential debate and later said such events "should be left to high school students." But he took part in Saturday night's debate, which was watched by millions on live television, amid signs the race is tighter than previously thought.
"The bottom line is no one can play around with the security of Uganda when I am president," the 71-year-old leader said.
Ugandans will choose a new president on Thursday, and opinion polls have shown Museveni in a close race with opposition leader Kizza Besigye to lead this east African nation of 36 million.
Uganda has not had a peaceful transfer of power since the country's independence from Britain in 1962. Museveni himself took power by force in 1986.
Besigye, a four-time presidential candidate, has been holding massive rallies across the country as he campaigns on a promise to clean up Ugandan politics and to improve government efficiency.
"I was disappointed when Museveni did not attend the first debate, because he should be a role model for others to follow," said Junior Muhwezi, a university student who watched Saturday's debate.
Museveni has been a U.S. ally on regional security, especially on the topic of Somalia, which has been plagued by attacks by violent Islamic militants. But at home, Museveni's critics accuse the 71-year-old of increasingly behaving like a dictator.
Last month an army general who criticized Museveni as authoritarian was arrested by the military and sent to jail, drawing condemnation from critics who accused the government of intimidating perceived political opponents.