15 February 2013

Kenya: Dida Spiced Up the Presidential Debate

It couldn't have been a better moment for the Kenyan press these past two weeks. Sud- denly surprises are popping up from the woodwork. Last week, Sarah Serem, the chair of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, shocked the nation by slashing the salaries of the incoming president and his deputy by as much as 35 per cent. The Cabinet and other constitutional office holders were not spared either.

Much as the salary cuts were welcome, there were murmurs the cuts were not deep enough. Most Kenyans felt there was no justification for the Speaker, Chief Justice and Deputy President to earn Sh1 million monthly along with other obscene packs. The majority felt that MPs, permanent secretaries and most state officers should not earn more Sh300,000 based on the nature of their work.

When the Cabinet met the following week, it felt that those pay cuts had not gone deep enough to make any meaningful change. For example, why would the state pay just 3,000 of its top employees Sh14.5 billion annually at the expense of the rest of the civil service? The cuts announced by Serem would only save the state Sh1.5 billion, a saving that did not sit well with the Cabinet. Incidentally, as the Cabinet was mulling over the new guide- lines, town hall meetings carried out by the Salaries Commission in various parts of the country seemed to be in tandem with the Cabinet view.

Kenyans demanded tangible cuts in order to pay for other services.This week, the presidential debate that involved all the eight candidates missed this important issue. Maybe it was due to the inability of the moderators to capture this issue that denied Kenyans personal opinions on salary cuts for the state officers.

The presidential debate had its own exciting and low moments. And, as one of the media analysts put it, it was good because it wasn't bad! Part of the weakness had to do with the organizers. Asking eight talkative politicians to share 120 minutes dis- cussing national issues was obvi- ously a tall order. It meant that each candidate would spend 15 minutes before factoring in two talkative moderators who chose to compete with the candidates.

In the final analysis, the pro- gramme was overrun by another 90 minutes with no apologies from the moderators. Of the eight candidates, only three could be considered serious contenders. Others had come into the hall ostensibly to introduce themselves to Kenyans. And with just two weeks to the curtain fall, it will be a miracle if some of them make it to third position. One of the surprises of the night was Mohamed Dida; the presidential candidate who until a few weeks ago Kenyans did not know existed. However, when he presented his nomination papers to the IEBC under the banner of the ARK party, the country took a look at the 39-year-old former high school teacher.

This husband of three wives and father of 11 children provided light moments for an otherwise heavy night loaded with the usual political rhetoric. On healthcare, he provided a simple solution telling Kenyans they should only eat when they are hungry and even then they "should leave room for water and air" rather than stuff them- selves up.

Dida said the wealthier presidential candidates are wasteful, traversing a small country like Kenya sometimes using as many as eight choppers at a time. He said he will campaign on foot, by public buses and matatus all over the country. He exuded confidence that he is ready to rule the world not just Kenya or Africa. One of the highlights of the night was the introduction of the "elephant in the house" in the debate.

With the introduction of this Hague issue, suddenly the antennas of the big guns were up. At this point, Uhuru Kenyatta vigorously defended himself against accusations that he is breaking the law by refusing to step aside despite his pending criminal case due at The Hague in April. With Raila Odinga wading in the discussion wondering whether Uhuru would run Kenya using Skype should he be elected Kenya's fourth president, Uhuru retorted that it was up to the Kenyan voters to decide since he is not looking for an appointed position.

On this position, he found support from an unlikely candidate - Paul Muite of Safina - who even went ahead to imply that if there were two people who need to be at The Hague, it is Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga since they were the 2007 presidential contenders.

With the first round of the presidential debate behind us, one hopes that the next one on February 25 will be better organised with moderators respecting Kenyans by keeping to the schedule. More importantly, it is hoped moderators will this time pay more attention to substantive issues such as the fight against corruption, waste in government spending and growing the economy rather than dwelling on tired subjects like the ICC and age-old feuds between Luos and Kikuyus.

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