Monday, 25 February 2013

Kenya’s second presidential debate

For the second and last time before the 4 March election, eight presidential candidates of Kenya took the stage for a televised debate. Although Uhuru Kenyatta, leader of the Jubilee Alliance, had declared last week he would not appear in protest over the attention given in the first debate to his status as International Criminal Court (ICC) suspect, Kenyatta reversed his decision in time to appear alongside his rivals. Just as with the first debate held two weeks before, this guaranteed a show-down between Kenya’s two titans: Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, leader of the CORD alliance. The two have been neck-and-neck in opinion polls with one week remaining before election day.

Discussion started with a question on what the minimum wage in Kenya should be. All candidates avoided giving a specific answer, missing a key chance to engage with ordinary wananchi (citizens). Martha Karua explained how it was not about a minimum wage but a livable wage and whether this was possible, but presenter Uduak Amimo responded by highlighting the enormous disparity between politicians’ pay cheques and Kenyans' average incomes. In reply, Mohammed Dida relaxed the atmosphere as he heralded how nobody should be allowed to be a ‘super Kenyan’; he advocated equity as ‘we all have the same stomachs.’

Kenyatta approached the question by arguing he would focus on bringing the cost of housing and food down. In turn, candidate Musalia Mudavadi said he would concentrate on the price of fuel.

Attention then turned to the country's gross inequality, which has been on an exponential rise. Presenter Amimo pointed out how in 1972 the International Labour Organization had suggested a freeze on the salaries of Kenya’s politicians, and asked the presidential candidates if they would commit to such a move.

None of the respondents chose to do so until Dida came out declaring how he would not only suggest a freezing of the salaries but also that politicians pay back some of what they had  already received. Odinga followed suit, albeit at a more measured pace, continuing that he would lead by example if elected.

This gave opening to directly addressing the question of corruption, only skirted upon at the close of the first presidential debate. All candidates were put pressure on to answer accusations both fresh and old. Paul Muite was asked whether he had indeed taken a 20 million KSh bribe but replied how this allegation had been part of an orchestrated campaign to silence his investigations into the Goldenberg scandal. He nevertheless accepted how ‘individuals around me may have got money’ at the time.

The next target was Mudavadi, dubbed by Ruth Nesoba in a BBC article as ‘Kenya’s kingmaker’ as he commands the support of voters that may tip the balance between Kenyatta and Odinga in the event of a second-round run-off between the two titans. He was asked to give an account of his role in the Goldenberg scandal as well as the more recent 2010 cemetery scandal. Mudavadi defended his position by arguing he was the one that had terminated Goldenberg, and that he had asked PWC to conduct an audit. On the cemetery scandal he claimed it was the Nairobi City Council making mistakes.

Karua was accused of not supporting whistle blowers of corruption during her time as Minister of Justice. She weakly replied that John Githongo, the corruption tsar who had first exposed the Goldenberg scandal, could not have been supported by her as he was out of the country at the time.

Odinga received focus for his involvement in various graft projects including the Kazi kwa Vijana (Work for Youth) scheme and the “maize scandal” of the urban food subsidy programme. Odinga replied that he had suspended ministers suspected of being involved in the maize scandal and defended the Kazi kwa Vijana scheme as having had a complicated and mixed outcome.

Although the stains of office had so far escaped presidential candidate Dida, he was quizzed about a company of his that organises Kenyans to work in the Middle East in domestic capacities. The presenter gave the hint that this could be a case of people-trafficking, given the poor treatment of foreign labour that results.

After Odinga stated “I stand hear with a clean conscience,” Dida drew laughs by putting his finger on the problem of debating corruption with politicians: “Do you expect a thief to tell you ‘I’ve stolen’?” He advanced that because Odinga had been in office for so long, he had to take some responsibility for the scandals that had plagued Kenya’s 9th and 10th parliaments. In response, Odinga emphasised how his hands had been tied by the violence of the 2007/8 period, and that he had during those years sacrificed his autonomy in taking political action for the sake of peace.

A tweet from Ory Okolloh, co-founder of Ushahidi, summed up the discussion on corruption, saying it was a ‘reminder that we are choosing who is the least criminal’.

The second half of the debate focused on the distribution of land and the country’s natural resources. This sparked intense argument between the candidates, and brought some of the fastest and hardest exchanges.

Peter Kenneth was the first to raise the stakes, arguing that the land issue could not be solved without someone with clean hands being in a position of leadership. Karua then struck out at Kenyatta, suggesting that the Kenyatta family was one of the largest land owners in Kenya and owned more than half of the country. She pushed at how Kenyatta’s running mate, William Ruto, was currently in court suspected of having stolen land in the wake of the 2007/8 post-election violence from Adrian Muteshi.

In a reputationally damaging display, Kenyatta never took by the horns the accusation that his family owned more than half of Kenya, leaving a gaping hole in the legitimacy of all his comments about the need for addressing indigenous rights. When pushed by the presenter on Karua's point, Kenyatta said that the Public Officer Ethics Act required parliamentarians to declare their wealth, and that if anyone wanted to find out they could consult the Speaker’s office.

Kenyatta attempted to dodge accusations by noting how Odinga had been the Prime Minister and had personally appointed the Minister for Land who had not solved the problem over the past five years. Odinga replied that the problem was one of ‘enough land for each one’s needs, but not enough land for each one’s greed.’ Referring to Kenyatta, he advised voters that ‘you cannot allow a hyena to protect your goats.’

Muite responded to the land issue by arguing he would repossess land that had been grabbed, but Kenyatta defended his position by affirming how ‘land that we own as a family has been purchased on the basis of willing buyer and willing seller.’

In a calculated move, Dida then pressed the wound caused on Kenyatta’s reputation by reading a Daily Star article where residents of Kiambu, the birthplace of Jomo Kenyatta (independence leader and father of Uhuru Kenyatta), were complaining how politicians of that area had taken advantage of the injustices the colonials had previously committed by grabbing all the land.

It is then that direct confrontation over the injustices of the land issue ensued. Odinga made a deft move by pretending he was sympathetic to Kenyatta having been put in a corner but then quipped how this was because Kenyatta was an ‘innocent inheritor—he did not commit the original sin’.

In response to an evocative question by a Nubian human rights activist, presidential candidate James ole Kiyiapi argued that the troubles suffered by the Nubian community was a case of local elites taking communal land. He decried the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ mentality of Kenyatta, saying it was necessary to have safeguards in place for those indigenous communities oppressed by market forces they did not understand.

In a courageous move, the presenter then fielded the final question of the night in Kiswahili, and asked all respondents to respond likewise. Bringing the value of the presidential debate to a new level by suddenly connecting with a wider audience of Kenyans, the candidates thus closed their feisty discussion with the topic of the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), attempting to bring each other to account over why a permanent solution had still not been found five years after the displacement had occurred.

Candidates then summed up their positions, with Dida exhorting listeners to ‘consult your God for the right decision’ and Karua making an emotive appeal in Kiswahili to unite in building the country together. Although there was no overall winner of the debate, there was certainly a loser. The night was an embarrassment for Kenyatta's Jubilee Alliance campaign and will dent their chance of victory.

Kenya's presidential elections will be held on 4 March, with a second-round run-off scheduled two weeks later if a single candidate does not win over 50% of the votes in the first round.