Nairobi — Kenya's eight presidential candidates held the country's first ever face-to-face debate on Monday (February 11th) as tensions mount ahead of next month's election.
Kenya's eight presidential candidates held the country's first ever face-to-face debate on February 11, 2013. [AFP] Play Video
The candidates -- Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi, parliamentarian Martha Karua, Assistant Minister for Planning, National Development and Vision 2030 Peter Kenneth, former Education Permanent Secretary James ole Kiyiapi, former parliamentarian Paul Muite, and businessman Mohammed Abduba Dida -- took the stage at Brookehouse International School in Nairobi at 7:30 pm local time and answered questions on a wide range of topics until 11 pm. The debate was scheduled to last only two hours.
Issues addressed during the debate included governance, security, social services and party politics. All the candidates pledged to fight corruption and tribalism, and seemed to agree that implementing the constitution would be key to addressing those issues.
A second debate scheduled for February 25th will cover economy, land, devolution and foreign policy.
ICC trial exposes tensions
Monday's debate exposed tensions surrounding the upcoming International Criminal Court (ICC) trial involving presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto for their alleged role in orchestrating violence after the 2007 election.
The trial, set to begin on April 11th, could clash with a presidential run-off vote, due within a month if a candidate fails to win 51% of total votes in the first round.
Kenyatta and Ruto face indictments for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the 2007 poll. Both men have denied responsibility.
When asked how he and Ruto would juggle court appearances and run the country if elected, Kenyatta said, "I will be able to handle the issue of clearing our names... while at the same time ensuring that the business of government continues."
But his key challenger scoffed at the possibility of running Kenya from The Hague-based ICC.
"I know that it will pose serious challenges to run a government by Skype from The Hague," Odinga said. "I know that it is not practical."
Despite sometimes heated exchanges -- mostly over Kenyatta's future as he prepares for a potentially lengthy ICC trial -- the rivals stressed the importance of not repeating the violence of the last poll.
"Personally I have no differences with the honourable Raila... but we may differ on how to handle some of the issues," Kenyatta said, looking at Odinga.
In return, Odinga called Kenyatta "my brother" and said they were "the best of friends".
Separating politics from tribalism
Kenyans crowded into entertainment spots and homes to watch the historic debate, broadcast live on television, radio as well as on the internet for viewers overseas.
Adams Oloo, a political analyst who also heads the University of Nairobi's department of political science, told Sabahi the debate gave voters an opportunity to evaluate the candidates on their policies.
"This is the first time we saw the presidential candidates explain in a sober manner what they stand for," he said. "They have been giving their manifestos through political rallies in passing and with lots of drama and entertainment that has made it hard for the public to even understand or believe in them."
Alan Mungai, 30, a shoe shiner from Nairobi's Langata neighbourhood, said the debate helped him gauge the candidates for the first time.
"For the first time, I had to weigh them on the context of issues, and now I can make an informed choice divorced from tribe," he said. After watching the debate Monday night, Mungai, a Meru, said he decided to vote for Kenyatta, who belongs to the Kikuyu ethnic group.
Wanjiru Kimani, a teacher at Karen C Primary School in Nairobi, said putting the candidates on the same platform helped diffuse tensions between various ethnic communities.
"Seeing them hug each other, refer to each other as brothers and fathers during and after the debate, was good for their supporters to see that [the candidates] are not enemies -- they only differ on their ideologies," she said.
However last week, Human Rights Watch warned the risk of political violence in Kenya was "perilously high", noting that the "underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place."
Media houses produce historic event
Director of operations for the debates Francis Munywoki said an estimated 100 million shillings ($1.1 million) was spent on Monday's debate, paid for by a partnership of Kenyan media houses including Nation Media Group, Royal Media Services, Standard Group, Radio Africa, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Media Max and 34 radio stations.
"This was an opportunity for the candidates to engage the audience and show what really differentiates them from their competitors," Munywoki said according to the Daily Nation. "This way, we want to use the media to help the electorate make informed decisions during the elections and at the same time, create peace."
The debate was nearly put on hold after two lesser known candidates -- Muite and Dida -- were initially excluded from the meeting, with Muite obtaining a court injunction to ensure they were allowed to take part, according to AFP.