Kampala. Voice of America senior editor Shaka Ssali has said he considered a last-minute withdrawal from co-moderating last weekend ’s presidential debate after organisers told him he would not question Mr Yoweri Museveni, the ruling NRM party candidate, as a precondition for the latter’s participation.
“I found myself in a box in a way because I am not a kind of a scripted guy (interviewer). I tried to get out of the box but there was not much opportunity,” Dr Shaka, host of the popular Straight Talk Africa programme, told this newspaper in an interview yesterday.
The decision to sideline the Uganda-born American journalist, which was noticeable to the audience and viewers of the televised debate, and a subject of frenzied discussion on social media, caps more than a decade of his uneasy relations with the government that considers him as an Opposition points man.
The fall-out resulted from Dr Shaka giving an international media platform to President Museveni’s main challenger, Dr Kizza Besigye, who, after losing the 2001 election, eluded a round-the-clock surveillance and fled the country.
“When Besigye escaped, the head of the external security of a third-party country called me and said somebody wanted to speak to me, and when I was put through, the voice was of Besigye. I asked if I could be the first to bring his voice to the world, and he said ‘yes’,” Dr Shaka said.
The President and his handlers afterward began feeling uncomfortable with what they considered the journalist’s critical reporting.
Last weekend’s second presidential debate was, like the inaugural one on January 15, organised by the Elders Forum, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda and the National Consultative Forum with support from the United Nations Development Programme.
Mr Museveni skipped the first discourse, calling it high school-like, before an about-face to attend the follow up which discussed foreign policy and regional integration.
“I was told that the President was not comfortable with me asking him questions. I asked how is that going to work. How can I be a co-moderator and not ask the principal? They said that was the condition he gave,” Dr Shaka said, adding: “I felt very uncomfortable, but again I had to look at the bigger picture; the trees are going to fall but the forest will remain.”
Other moderators were African Development Bank’s Joel Kibazo and Dr Suzie Muwanga, the head of the Department of Political Science at Makerere University
This was the first time he was speaking about his perceived under-performance that sharply contrasted his characteristic gentle but firm questioning of guests on the VoA’s flagship programme that he initiated.
State House aides previously told Daily Monitor that Mr Museveni overruled their counsel for him not to attend the debate, but on condition that Dr Shaka, a doctorate degree holder in cross-cultural communication, was not one of the panelists.
The President later relented as long as Dr Shaka was neither the lead moderator nor asked him a question. His only direct question to Mr Museveni was one addressed to all candidate about their most important and regrettable decisions in public life, after a tacit one about an individual who treats citizens as “subjects” and says “my oil” --- euphemism for Museveni --- was lost in uncritical response from Independents Prof Venansius Baryamureeba and Maj Gen Benon Biraaro.
Dr Shaka yesterday confirmed that by 4pm last Saturday, he had seriously considered pulling out of moderation altogether but its chief convener, Justice James Ogoola, persuaded him to stay on.