New Internationalist

KENYA VOTES: Live debate shows potential of country’s democracy

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People are hoping the calm debate shows a more united Kenya kevinzim, under a CC License.

Kenya’s first-ever presidential candidate debate took place on Monday 11 February. A platform rarely experienced in Africa, millions of television viewers watched the eight presidential candidates discuss their vision for the country.

With just a few hours to go before the debate, however, news spread that it had been cancelled after candidate Paul Muite, who had not been invited to take part in the discussion, filed a petition with the High Court. The court ruling in his favour, he was eventually invited to join the debate and it continued as planned.

The election is due to take place on Monday 4 March. The presidential candidates are: Mohamed Dida (ARC), James Ole Kiyiapi (RBK), Uhuru Kenyatta (TNA-Jubilee Coalition), Peter Kenneth (KNC), Musalia Mudavadi (UDF-Amani Coalition), Martha Karua (Narc Kenya), current Prime Minister Raila Odinga (ODM-Cord Coalition) and Paul Muite (Safina Party).

People all over the world were interested in what the candidates had to say. The debate was aired across the Kenyan media and streamed live online for the global audience. Most businesses closed earlier than usual, as people rushed home to watch a piece of history. In fact, by the time the live streaming started, most streets were deserted, with just a few security officers left patrolling them.

Many African heads of state have congratulated Kenya for the friendly and amicable way proceedings were conducted, and it is likely that other African countries will emulate the style of the debate. However, the big question remains: will the country be able to hold peaceful, fair, free, transparent and credible general elections this time round? If it does, then democracy in Kenya will have moved a notch higher compared to what happened around the 2007 general election, which was marred by violence which left 1,300 dead.

The issue that dominated the debate was the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which links Uhuru Kenyatta with crimes against humanity during the 2007/08 post-election violence.

During the debate, candidates blamed current Prime Minister Raila Odinga for not having convinced legislatures to vote for a local mechanism to deal with the accusations against Kenyatta. He defended himself, however, saying: ‘When I proposed for local tribunal to settle this matter at home, some legislatures – who by then were supporting Mr Kenyatta – shouted at me: “don’t be vague, let’s go to The Hague”,’ Odinga explained.

Muhamed Dida bashed Uhuru Kenyatta, saying that he ought to have stepped aside from the race until he could be cleared by the ICC and therefore prove to Kenyans that he is innocent. Martha Karua, the only female candidate, echoed the same sentiments, reiterating that the case against Kenyatta is weighty.

She wondered how Kenyatta would lead the country if elected president while at the same time being convicted by the ICC. Odinga added that it would not be practical to run the government via Skype from The Hague.

Kenyatta defended himself, saying everybody, including leaders, has their own problems but still carry on with daily chores. He assured the electorate that he would be in a position to manage and steer the country forward.

Peter Kenneth and James Ole Kiyiapi said Kenyans would decide who to elect on 4 March regardless of whether or not Kenyatta is fit to lead the country. Paul Muite, however, said his government would investigate the case afresh and that the ICC case should include both Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto. His Safina Party government, Muite said, would ensure a proper investigation which brought the culprits to book.

Another issue touched on was the disputed Migingo Island in Lake Victoria. All eight candidates agreed that they consider the island to be within Kenyan, not Ugandan, territory. Odinga was asked how as Prime Minister he would defend the island. ‘We don’t want to go to war with Uganda over a piece of rock,’ Odinga responded. ‘There is a team of surveyors looking into [ways] to come up with lasting solution.’

Candidates also discussed their system of governance and, if elected, how they would deal with ethnicity issues, as well as security and social services.

Ole Kiyiapi assured Kenyans of free and compulsory basic education for all, while Kenneth promised to ensure affordable healthcare services. Dida promised to ensure food security in the country and to fight corruption, while Mudavadi said his government would address youth unemployment.

Martha Karua promised free maternal healthcare countrywide. Odinga, on the other hand, stated he would fight tribalism just as the late President Julius Nyerere had dealt with it in Tanzania.

The second and final debate is set for Monday 25 February, just six days before the general elections.

Join us for our live blog ‘Kenya Votes’, during the presidential polls on 4 March 2013. We will be working with Radar and citizen journalists reporting on events from all over the country, via SMS.

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