Kenyan candidates trade barbs in first ever presidential debate

Eight presidential candidates crowded onto the stage for a 3-1/2 hour debate on issues ranging from education to one candidate's war crimes trial. Blogger Tom Murphy followed along.

Kenyan presidential candidates, from left, Mohammed Abdula Dida, James ole Kiyiapi, Uhuru Kenyatta, Peter Kenneth, Musalia Mudavadi, Martha Karua, Raila Odinga, and Paul Muite, take part in a televised debate in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday.

A version of this post appeared on the blog A View From the Cave.  The views expressed are the author's own.

Kenya held its first ever presidential debate on Monday, a historic event.

The eight candidates gathered in Nairobi to debate the most pressing issues in the first of two televised debates. Candidates from minority parties with no chance of making a dent on election day stood side by side with the frontrunners. Represented were favorites Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, along with Musalia Mudavadi, Martha Karua, Peter Kenneth, James ole Kiyiapi, Paul Muite, and Mohammed Abuda Dida. The event went over its scheduled two hours – lasting nearly 3-1/2 hours when all was said and done.

However, it was not because the candidates were wasting time or talking too much. An efficient tandem of moderators – NTV’s Linus Kaikai and Citizen TV’s Julie Gichuru – moved the conversation along, kept the candidates to their time limits, interrupted them when the question asked was not answered, and provided immediate follow-ups when necessary.

Twitter followed along with the hashtag #kedebate13 and became a worldwide trending topic (Reminder to Jimmy KimmelKenyans do tweet). Kenyan activist and lawyer Ory Okolloh assembled a list of tweeters who would be fact checking the claims made by the candidates.

The opening topic was related to the issue of the post-election violence and the tribalism that fueled it. Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga, who come from different tribes, described their previous experiences working together in the government to prove that they were unifying leaders rather than divisive tribalists. Other candidates took on the question rather than deny it being a problem.

“We need to look Kenyans in the eye and tell the truth. We must break historical bondage we have been tied to for the last 50 years,” Mr. Kenneth said.

Post-election violence

The issue is important because it was used to create the divisions during the 2007-08 post-election violence, whose aftermath Kenya has struggled to deal with over the past five years. Roughly 1,100 people died and 650,000 were displaced. An agreement was made between Odinga and Mwai Kibaki with the two sharing power as Prime Minister and President, respectively. The Inter Press Service reported that some 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were still awaiting return to their homes in Rift Valley Province, citing corruption and hostility towards the IDPs as the reason for the stalled return. Justice was equally slow with only 14 convictions for serious post-election crimes.

The violence that followed the Kenyan presidential elections in 2007 stemmed from the belief that the incumbent, President Kibaki, stole the election from Odinga, his former ally. Major political figures were accused of fanning the flames of hatred and even helped to plot some of the attacks.

They were referred to the International Criminal Court, which is now pursuing charges against prominent figures including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, member of Parliament William Ruto. In March, Kenyans will decide a new president. Eight candidates are running, but it is primarily a contest between the man who lost the presidency in 2007, Odinga, and a pairing that could very well end up jailed by the ICC, Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto.

Zingers and lighter moments

Things turned when the proverbial elephant in the room was addressed. Moderators asked the candidates about the issue of justice and specifically the ICC. Kenyatta was pushed to talk about how he would be able to govern if undergoing a trial at the ICC with the potential of a conviction.

He answered, “If I am elected, these challenges don’t prevent me from undertaking my responsibilities. If people elect me, they have confidence that I can still handle my problems and still discharge my duties as president. The job that I seek is going to be given by the people of Kenya.”

That defense led Odinga to quip, “I know it’s going to cause serious challenges to run the government by Skype from The Hague.”

Other lighter moments came from fringe candidate Mohammed Abuda Dida who, along with Paul Muite, was added at the last moment to the debate. The two men flanked the main field with different podiums set slightly off the main stage. When it came to the question of healthcare, Dida offered this perplexing answer:

“If you want to be healthy eat when you are hungry. I do not know who brought these eating schedules with lunch and dinner. When you are hungry you do not fill up your belly with food – you need a third of food, a third of water then the other third is breathing space.”

What lies ahead

Topics including national security and state sovereignty were covered and the audience had the opportunity to ask questions as well. Social issues like education and maternal mortality were raised with the candidates disagreeing on both the problems and solutions.

For his part, former education minister James ole Kiyiapi offered a plan to expand schools and teachers. “I will take 3 billion Kenyan shillings and go to 300 day schools and build classrooms which in total will take in 150,000 pupils. I would like to hire 20,000 teachers every year,” he said. Kenneth disagreed, saying it was a problem of distribution, not the number of teachers.

He argued, “We have a problem of distribution of teachers. We have to have polytechnics in every constituency. We have not invested in education using the money we have borrowed.”

Despite there being eight candidates on the stage, the only candidates who stand a change of winning are Odinga and Kenyatta. This fact was apparent in the first half of the debate when Mr. Kaikai made sure that the leading candidates had ample time to discusses the issues at hand while the rest were given only 30 second opportunities to interject.

Blogger and Stanford political science graduate student Ken Opalo has crunched the poll numbers, finding that Kenyatta holds a lead of about 740,000 votes over Odinga.

(This article was edited after first posting to make two corrections. Around 1,100 people died in post-election violence, not 13,000; there are eight candidates for president, not six).

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