22 February 2013

East Africa: Candidate TV Debate in East Africa, Way to Go


KENYA has had a chequered political history but no one can accuse the East Africa nation of not dying while trying. In 2010 while working as General Manager of WBS TV in Uganda, I broached the idea of a televised debate on all TV stations by the 2010 Uganda General election Presidential candidates.

Naturally, President Yoweri Museveni's handler's (M7 was facing stiff opposition from his erstwhile ally turned critique, Col. Kiiza Besigye) , oscillated between yes and may be and finally, came up with an ingenious method to derail the project when they elected to have Yoweri appear exclusively on a Kenyan TV Station, K24 ad thus derail the whole cause by sending his Defense Minister to represent him in our debate.

It was not just President Museveni's handlers who were scared stiff of a Presidential debate at the time , after all, for all intents and purposes, President Museveni is a thinker in his own right, an alumni of Dar es Salaam University who speaks his mind and can hold his own in any debate, and has self-authored his own autobiography . The challenge of that never was debate was that, entrenched deeprooted "Presidentialism " as we have ever known it from the 1960's independence was being challenged openly, on a podium, on issues some of them deeply discomfiting for an incumbent who shot his way to power, with no holds barred.

In the debate held in the Kenyan capital Nairobi , it was significant that the outgoing President Mzee Mwai Kibaki is not on the ballot box. There are no prizes for guessing whether entrenched Presidential interests, most of the time who, operate like shadowy cartels in the corridors of the President's office would have been held. Tanzania's national broadcaster, TBC, attempted its own debate between Parliamentary Candidates in the 2012 General Elections. In fact the debates took off until the ruling party CCM pulled a plug on it's candidates appearance on these debates with opposition candidates for one reason or the other.

Unlike Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda all which have experienced war somewhere along their history, Kenya is the only East African Country where every General Election since the return of multi-party politics in 1992, has resulted in death either before , during or after the election. That out-going Prime Minister Raila Odinga accepted to be challenged publicly by opponents to a debate is laudable. However, more importantly, Presidential debate needs to be entrenched in East African Countries statutes. In future, citizens must retain the right to ask probing questions to those who opt to submit themselves to the will of the people when they want to be leaders.

This tradition must not be left to the discretion of State House mandarins. Many State House officials work purely at the behest of the individual holding the President's office. It explains why the American President comes to office with a certain number of close confidants and when his term ends, he leaves with them. Our systems attempt to say State House Aides are permanent Civil Servants but when the outgoing President vacates office and they are transferred to Ministries of Housing or wherever else , many of them are left rudderless as power and cash has been drained out of them, they operate like zombies and many a bright career comes to a crashing halt.

The Presidential debate is not an opportunity to embarrass incumbents with nasty questions as State House forces imagine. A Presidential debate is a public audit of a President's term of office which gives the public an opportunity to ask questions and obtain answers which mandarins have not pored over and sweetened. It is an opportunity to confront the power men and women because public office remains a property of the people.

The year 2013 Presidential season is a very different season from the Presidency of Mwalimu Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta because in the post-independence period, those two could get away with anything and all was forgiven because they were founding fathers of their respective nations. The challenges facing East Africa today demand accountability of the highest level from all those aspiring to hold public office most of all, the Presidency.

It must be added that Kenya's current constitution has taken away the pomp and power from the Presidency as today the incoming President cannot appoint a friend or family member to the role of cabinet secretary or Ambassador or even Regional Commissioner as those roles must be advertised, interviewed for, selected by the statutory bodies or Public Service Commission and approved by Parliament. In the Kenyan debate, tribalism, education, health and funding of the budget were all discussed openly however the elephant in the room was the discussion over candidate Uhuru Kenyatta's eligibility seeing as he faces charges over crimes against humanity brought by the International Criminal Court over events of 2007/8 elections.

Morally some think he should have stepped aside and cleared his name first. He says he is innocent until proven guilty. Sadly the victims of the battle, some 1300 of them must be turning in their graves seeking justice which has proven elusive. Presidential debate Season II, will be televised across the country ad region on Feb 25th one week to the elections . An estimated audience of 40m watched and tuned in on radio to the 3.5 hr debate which featured eight candidates including Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta, Musalia Mudavadi, Peter Keneth, Ole Kiyiapi, Martha Karua the only female candidate, one mwalimu Abduba Dida and lawyer Paul Kibugi Muite.

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