Kenya held its first-ever televised presidential debate last week as eight candidates took to the podium for four hours to tout their ability to lead the country. Millions tuned into the event hosted at the Brookhouse International School in Nairobi, which was carried on over 40 local TV and radio stations, as well as YouTube. The debate was moderated by NTV’s Linus Kaikai and Citizen TV’s Julie Gichuru, and touched on a variety of topics including education, health care, corruption, and tribalism.
Initially, only Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta, Martha Karua, Peter Kenneth, James ole Kiyiapi and Musalia Mudavadi were approved by the Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission for the debate. However, they were joined by Paul Muite and Muhamed Abuda Dida after the former filed a successful last-minute petition to the High Court.
Although the debate included a variety of topics, the issue of tribalism took center stage. Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo, and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyetta, a Kikuyu, are seen as the two front-runners in poll. All of the candidates expressed a desire to reduce tribalism in Kenya, but some such as Peter Kenneth suggested the front-runners were disingenuous due to their reliance on support drawn along ethnic lines.
Uhuru Kenyetta faces trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for crimes against humanity following post-election intra-ethnic violence in 2007, during which over 1,100 people were killed and more than 600,000 displaced. Analysts argue that the ICC charges have lent credibility to Kenyetta, merely fostering an “us-vs.-them” mentality among his Kikuyu supporters.
EU Ambassadors, including British High Commissioner Christian Turner, have stated that they are unable to meet with ICC indictees “unless essential,” which raised the possibility of western powers being unable to recognize the new Kenyan government should Kenyetta be elected. Kenyan Foreign Minister Ongeri slammed the remarks from EU envoys as “clearly inflammatory” and “could amount to taking sides and even allegations of advance rigging.”
Most are still expected to vote along ethnic lines, but first time voters are regarded as a wild-card since younger generations have tended to place less emphasis on ethnic origin. Kenyetta may hold an advantage in this demographic because of his extensive use of social media. For the tech-savvy youth, he is only a tweet away.
Kenyetta emphasized that he is seeking an elected position in office, not an appointed one. As such, the populace is aware of the charges he faces and will choose their leader on the March 4th ballot accordingly. This forces an important point not to be lost amongst the political challenges; the fact that presidential debates are simply taking place. An informed society will only serve to strengthen democracy, and Kenyans have enthusiastically tuned in.
Another debate will be taking place on February 25th to cover topics such as the economy and land use.