It was one of the most anticipated pre-election events and it lived up to its billing as Kenyans both from within the country and the Diaspora witnessed the first ever presidential debate in the county's history.
On the evening of Feb. 11, eight presidential candidates, seven men and one woman cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), faced off for about four hours at the Brookhouse International School, a private school in Karen, a Nairobi suburb.
Raila Odinga (CORD) and Uhuru Kenyatta (Jubilee Alliance) -- the pollster favourites were joined by Martha Karua (Narc Kenya), Peter Kenneth (Eagle Alliance), James Ole Kiyiapi (Restore and Build Kenya Alliance), and Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi (Amani Coalition). The six were joined by Paul Muite (SAFINA) and Mohammed Abuda Dida (Alliance for Real Change) after they filed a successful petition at the High Court to be included in the debate.
There are 52 registered political parties in Kenya but the parties are allowed to form pre-election coalitions in efforts to build up their chances of being on the winning team. According to political pundits, this will be even more important this year because the new constitution requires that the President win by a 50% plus one.
The first of three US-style debates--an initiative of the Kenyan media fraternity moderated by two of Kenya's most celebrated television journalists Linus Kaikai and Julie Gichuru saw candidates deliberate on a number of topics ranging from governance, education, healthcare, security, corruption, ethnicity and the little matter of Migingo Island.
Expectedly though, the issue that got a lot of attention was about the crimes against humanity charges that Uhuru Kenyatta, one of the favourites for the March polls is facing at the ICC in The Hague. Uhuru, the son of Kenya's founding president; Jomo Kenyatta was put to task to reveal his plan of how he would govern the country if he were elected president and convicted at the same time.
Uhuru said he was seeking an elective position and not an appointive one. He argued that Kenyans are aware of the charges he faced and they have a right to choose their leaders. He said that the possibility of the cases being heard in Arusha, Tanzania would reduce the burden of travel that he might face as president.
Uhuru, who has denied any wrongdoing, was quick to reassure the voters that he would be able to govern while fighting the charges in The Hague. "The job I seek is going to be given by the people of Kenya ... who full (sic) well know the personal issues I am confronted with," he said.
But his opponents were divided on the issue with Peter Kenneth saying he wants to beat Uhuru in a fair contest in the ballot, and therefore supported Uhuru's bid to vie for the presidency. Martha Karua better known in Kenya as the "Iron Lady" because of her firmness said Uhuru's candidature was an expression of impunity while Kiyiapi, Dida and Mudavadi warned of ramifications of Uhuru's presidency to the country.
Known for his laid-back but candid style, Raila Odinga welcomed Uhuru's competition but remained doubtful about his ability to manage the country's affairs via 'Skype.'
"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."
Showing his famous combativeness during interviews, Linus Kaikai shot off with another important question, asking the candidates to talk about the role of tribalism in politics, pressing the two frontrunners - Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga - on perceptions that their campaigns were exploiting traditional tribal animosities.
The two men are members of Kenya's premier political dynasties, and observers say their rivalry mirrors the relationship between their fathers. Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya's first president and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was vice president until he fell out with his leader, resigned and founded an opposition party. Kenyatta is a member of Kenya's dominant Kikuyu tribe, and his running mate, former education minister William Ruto, is a Kalenjin. Odinga is from the Luo tribe, which has never held the presidency.
However, during the debate, both Kenyatta and Odinga rejected the claims that they were running ethnic campaigns. "Tribalism is a cancer that has afflicted this country for a very long time," Kenyatta said. Odinga described tribalism as "a disease of the elite".
Odinga noted that ethnicity is a disease of people who are in competition for resources. He said that now that Kenyans have a legal framework that can deal with this problem, the citizens will soon enjoy a Kenya for all. But other candidates like Kenneth declared: "The problem of this country is due to poor and weak leadership and if it was dealt with speedily impunity could have been a thing of the past."
Mudavadi insisted: "Ethnicity is real (and) has brought a sense of insecurity among communities. If an audit was done in the public and private sectors you will find a lot of inequality along tribal lines." Martha Karua, the only woman standing for president and a former justice minister pointed out that nobody got their food from their tribe. Karua's opening line was: "To deal with ethnicity I will ensure we equalize development in all areas by deliberately giving more funds to undeveloped areas."
But despite the political correctness with which most candidates spoke, some observers might have struggled to reconcile the fine words delivered in this public arena with reports of hate speech and intimidation on the campaign trail persisting hardly a month before 14 million Kenyans go to polls on March 4 to elect the President, MPs and County representatives.
More than 400 people have already been killed in 2012 and this year in intercommunal clashes that human rights organizations have linked to politics . But amid all the praise for a historic debate, there was also some criticism, with some Kenyans suggesting that having all eight candidates made the format too cumbersome.
Migingo Island on the Agenda
Not to miss out on the historical debate was Migingo, the rocky little island in Lake Victoria measuring about an acre of land. Most of the candidates questioned why no action has been taken by both Uganda and Kenya to resolve the matter but Raila Odinga explained that the survey work commissioned earlier is still ongoing and he is optimistic that the issue would be resolved peacefully.