22 February 2013

Kenya's Presidential Debate


It was highly billed, widely broadcast across all major mainstream radio and TV networks and, while it lasted, effectively dominated the social media traffic in Kenya. It also displaced prime-time TV programming on key stations in the neighbouring East African countries of Uganda and Tanzania, secured representative airing in other states in the region and had the keen interest of the international cable networks like CNN, BBC and Aljazeera.

The first ever Kenyan Presidential debate, which survived a last-gasp attempt at a court injunction to freeze it due to the purported exclusion of two presidential candidates, was indeed the most anticipated and watched political event of the region in recent history. For good reasons. It was a great moment of democratic symbolism for the Kenyan state which had only embraced a multi-party political dispensation in 1992 under intense external and internal pressure.

All eight candidates, campaigning for the March 4 elections to replace President Mwai Kibaki who is ineligible to run after hitting the constitutional two term limit bar, are keen to go on record preaching the message of a peaceful and non-violent electoral process. This is important to Kenyans after the deadly ethnic-driven violence that followed the last election in 2007. About 1,200 people died and about half a million were displaced internally and across the borders.

Brookside School in Nairobi hosted the debate set up in a delightful live-audience ambience apart from the two unmatched podiums - for Safina Party presidential candidate Paul Muite and Mohammed Dida of Alliance for Real Change - the two candidates who were initially not invited to the historic event.

The absence of the first principal in itself was a contributory factor in the success of hosting this event. Most sitting African presidents who are electoral candidates are loathe to participate in open presidential debates and often frustrate any independent efforts to organise them. Four of the candidates hold positions in the current power-sharing government. The only woman candidate, Martha Karua, had earlier resigned from the Justice Minister docket.

The moderators focused on a few key issues facing Kenyans - tribal-based politics, health, security, education - eliciting well-rehearsed, textbook responses with sound rhetorical persuasion from the candidates. There were moments where candidates quoted current statistics to buoy the pledges on what they would do once in office to fix the education sector, homework well done.

However, the debate organisers' enterprise seems to have centred more on achieving the event rather than managing it as a prism through which the nation and the world would be given a sense of each of the candidate's charisma, persona, intellect and grasp of key national issues.

The inability of the moderators to focus on and expose key policy, strategic and tactical variances in the candidates' measure of the best socio-economic agenda for Kenya over the next five years was disappointing at best. There was just not enough interrogation of the candidates' personal credentials in managing society.

On national security, the feeble steering of the moderators moved the debate to Mgingo Island which, though a contested issue with neighbours Uganda, is deficient in strategic importance to qualify as a primary substantial threat to Kenyan national security. In fact, the Mgingo island dispute only draws its media spotlight from the patriotic obligation of both nations not to surrender the sovereignty of any land on which they can place legitimate territorial claim.

The candidates were not given adequate opportunities to be assessed on the more pressing security issues like the (Somalia-based terrorist Al Qaeda off-shoot) Al-Shabaab question, secessionist movements in the coastal city of Mombasa, thriving petty and organised urban crime and the illegal arms crisis in North Western Kenya.

Deputy Prime Minister (and son of Kenya's founding president) Uhuru Kenyatta is widely considered the main challenger to exit polls favourite Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the cameras and moderators inadvertently spent inordinate time on both of them; Odinga answering to governance gaps and failures relating to his current position as Prime Minister; Kenyatta fielding questions derived from the uncertainty surrounding his pending trial in the Hague by the International Criminal Court over his alleged role in the 2008 post-election violence.

Near word-for-word repetition of answers from Uhuru Kenyatta on the ICC question showed his script-discipline but sadly, also exposed a lack of creative eloquence which could re-ignite the assertions that he is coach-dependent and by no means motivated by any deep political convictions. There is a strong belief that the Uhuru project is conceived and sponsored by a veiled cluster of wealthy Kenyans keen to recapture the leverage of political power to further propel their prosperity appetite.

The debate that lasted a little over three hours struggled to retain public attention in the second half. At one point, the debate was allowed to degenerate into a seesaw battle between Odinga and Karua over a non-substantive point which only served to draw out statements of direct contradiction to highlight their differences in perspective on how some events in cabinet unfolded.

Whereas the debate could have been deliberately constructed, the fallout remains amorphous. The post-debate processing of key media and society leaders' views on the candidates' performances does not have the benefit of precedent or a range of expected standards. Opinions shall be sharp, divided and entirely subjective. There is political capital to reap by skewing real public sentiment as seen by the furore over the exit polls.

Also, the significance of the outlook of political analysts working for the international TV and media groups who enjoy wide audience reach in Kenya and the East Africa region cannot be discounted. Oftentimes, the extreme pressures to meet filing deadlines constrain these analysts to flimsy and misleading conclusions on the performance of participants. Their signature tendency is to insulate against backlash by wrapping inaccurate opinions in attributive phrases like "most people agree so-and-so carried the day".

The extent of influence all this shall have on enabling voter decisions and shaping the trend of the elections can only be speculative. There shall be a second and final round of debates on Feb. 25.

Joseph OSSIYA is a socio-political commentator based in Kampala

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