Yesterday, the presidential candidates of Kenya took to the nation’s mainstream television and radio stations for the country’s first ever presidential debate. The debate aimed to engage the candidates in matters close to the heart of Kenyan voters as they approach the first round of the presidential election on 4 March. Perhaps sensing that this was an historic moment, the eight candidates started stiff yet polished, showing a crisp concern for the dilemmas that have faced Kenyan politics for the past five years.
On the first main topic of ‘tribalism’, leaders maintained that, as James Ole Kiyiapi argued, ‘all Kenyans are born equal’. Uhuru Kenyatta started with a strong rejection, saying: ‘tribalism is a cancer that has afflicted this country’ and suggesting that the implementation of the constitution would help confront it. Raila Odinga countered by acknowledging that, although ‘ethnicity is a disease of the elite’, it cannot be denied that ‘Kenyans come from somewhere—they cannot come from the moon.’
The presenter pushed the concern specifically towards Kenyatta and Odinga, suggesting their political campaigns were being based around specific ethnic groups. ‘We are conducting a national campaign’, responded Kenyatta, claiming that when he had recently asked a community not to divide their vote this was nothing other than encouraging the most effective way of supporting his candidacy. Odinga also firmly countered attempts to frame the election as an ethnic confrontation by saying, ’I agree totally with my brother Uhuru Kenyatta. We have nothing personal, in fact, we are brothers’. This was a strong moment of unity, and Odinga backed it up by repeating how he had, in 2002, voted for the Kikuyu candidate Mwai Kibaki, telling everyone at the time, ‘Kibaki tosha’ (Kibaki is enough).
There was no let up by the presenter on tackling the tension surrounding the electoral campaign, with focus concentrating on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) charges against presidential candidate Kenyatta and his running-mate William Ruto. Asked how his team can govern whilst at the same time standing trial at the ICC, Kenyatta answered, ‘we have not been found guilty in any way’. He argued that he would handle the issue of clearing his name whilst at the same time acting as president.
Presidential candidates Mohammed Dida and Martha Karua depicted Kenyatta and Ruto’s refusal to stand down from office until being cleared by the courts as going against the spirit of justice, and Odinga drew laughs as he reprimanded that it was ‘not practical’ and would ‘pose serious challenges to run a government by Skype’. Kenyatta countered that this was a question for the Kenyan people to decide. He reiterated that he was vying for an elected position, not an appointed one, and that this meant it was not illegal for him to stand.
Focus then turned to why a local trial had failed to be set up during the last parliament to try the ICC suspects. Whilst the candidates scrambled to demonstrate how much they had made efforts to resolve the issue locally, Karua teamed up with Kenyatta to accuse Odinga as having secretly supported going to the ICC. In response, Odinga distanced himself from the claim, pointing out that it was Kenyatta and Ruto who were in support of an ICC process until they realised they were among the suspects.
On the question of why political parties were so transitory in Kenya, Odinga explained how this was a challenge facing countries that have come from a single-party system, and a comparable process could be seen in the democracies of Eastern Europe. When challenged by the presenter on what consistent ideology he had, however, he made an unconvincing response: ‘social democracy’.
Closing part one of the two-part debate, candidates were challenged on whether the island of Migingo on Lake Victoria should be considered part of Kenya. Kenyatta and Peter Kenneth responded with convincing statements that Migingo was part of Kenya, while Odinga emphasised how it was ‘inconceivable that Kenya and Uganda would go to war over a piece of rock’. Paul Muite came out with the most extreme position, controversially saying he would ‘send the navy’ before negotiating because Uganda did not have one.
The second round of the debate fielded questions from the audience, chosen to exhibit the concerns of a diverse mix of Kenyans. The first question brought to the fore the issue of the Tana River killings between the Pokomo and Orma peoples during 2012. Candidates assured the public of their commitment to internal security with Kenneth arguing that he would cut the indulgences of government to help fund security reform. Odinga instead responded to the question more indirectly, explaining that pastoralism was an increasingly difficult issue in the light of climate change and deploring the fact that Kenya was fixed in a ‘cowboy culture’ last seen in the United States before the industrial revolution.
In response to questions texted and tweeted in, the presenter asked whether the candidates could give assurances that the violence of the 2007/8 elections would not be repeated. To this, Odinga’s opening shot was that he had participated in the last four elections and that it was only in the last one that violence occurred after the results came in. He asked the media to help the campaign not follow ethnic lines, a point seconded by Kiyiapi.Karua focused on the role of the judiciary, saying ‘if one is unhappy, you go to the court’. All candidates noted that they would accept defeat, with Kenneth summing up the mood by stating: ‘Kenya is greater than all of us’. Dida went on to further raise the moral tone, however, positing ‘I don’t know why people have run away from God’, and noting how God had already decided who would win the presidential election so it was something we have to accept.
In response to a question on the lack of citizens transferring from primary to secondary education, Kenneth insisted that the previous government had borrowed enormous sums and then wasted the money. Madavadi speculated over privatising the Mombasa port and the country’s airports as a way of raising money for government, whilst Odinga placed specific emphasis on the need for sanitary towels to be provided for primary schools so that girls were given an equal chance of proceeding to secondary education.
Attention was then drawn to the extreme discrepancy in pay between teachers and politicians, leading to quick exchange between Karua, Kenneth, Odinga and Kenyatta. Karua brought up how lavish the spending had been on political campaigns and asked: ‘if they continue with that lavish spending, where will the money come from?’ In response, Odinga brought laughs by quipping ‘campaign time is campaign time’, and that money is raised for it through private fundraising. But Kenneth pushed him further, asking why he had earlier admitted the government had lost KSh 30bn. Odinga replied that this was attributable to the fact that the previous government was a coalition, saying ‘there is very little you can do’ and passing the buck to Kenyatta. The previous Minister of Finance agreed that ‘there is a lot of wastage in government’ but responded that it was the Prime Minister’s Office that was guilty of the biggest misuse of funds for foreign trips.
By the end of the debate the mood had eased, with candidates speaking more openly and revealing a sense of their characters, if not exactly how they would go about tackling corruption. Dida caused ripples of laughter by describing how politicians were eating so much they did not even know how to leave first, space for food; second, space for water; and third, space for breathing.
Kenya’s first presidential debate can be counted a victory for the country’s media, who came together on an unprecedented scale. Candidates will face each other for a second time on 25 February.