Kenya’s first ever presidential debate has gone down well with voters and pundits alike as the country heads towards a general election on March 4.
The February 11 debate in Nairobi was and broadcast live by all eight Kenyan TV stations and 34 radio stations. It was also streamed on the internet to millions of viewers in the country and abroad.
The eight candidates vying to take over from incumbent president Mwai Kibaki shared a stage to carefully set out their reasons why they should be voted into the top job.
Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, Peter Kenneth, Musalia Mudavadi, Martha Karua, Paul Muite, James Ole Kiyiapi and Mohammed Abduba Dida spent almost four hours answering questions from hosts Linus Kaikai of Kenya’s NTV channel and Citizen TV’s Julie Gichuru, as well as from a studio audience.
Analysts said the debate was the first genuine opportunity that voters had had to hear candidates being pressed on their policies and aspirations.
If there was a downside, some commentators said the debate let candidates off too lightly on certain serious issues, including security.
This will be the first presidential election after Kenyans voted in a new constitution two-and-a-half years ago, and since the bloodshed which spread across the country following a disputed poll result in December 2007.
This televised debate focused on the candidates’ policies for governance, social services, health, education and security. A second debate, scheduled for February 25, will cover the economy, devolution, foreign policy and land.
Njeri Kabeberi, who heads the Centre for Multi-Party Democracy in Nairobi, was pleased with the way the debate put pressure on candidates to live up to voters’ expectations.
“This debate helped people to see how their candidates are faring, whether their candidates actually understand the issues they have discussed, whether they understand their manifestos, whether they understand what Kenyans really want,” she told IWPR.
“It is one thing to say what you want to give – but is that what Kenyans want? That is the opportunity they got during the debate.”
Kabeberi predicted that the second debate, which will come just before voters go to the ballot box, would have an even stronger impact.
Many voters echoed Kabeberi’s views, saying they got a real chance to assess the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to the rhetoric of the campaign trail.
Ken Mwango, an electrician in Nairobi, told IWPR, “I was not sure [who to vote for], but now I know because they spoke about issues. We are used to them making unrealistic promises in campaigns.”
Felix Owuor, country director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, agreed that the event gave people an opportunity to scrutinise their possible leaders as never before.
“It was a time to evaluate their key policies – for the first time, because Kenyans are not used to this. It was a perfect opportunity for them,” he said.
Kepha Ombiro, a student at the University of Nairobi, said he was particularly impressed with how the two hosts put the candidates on the spot with regard to tribal politics.
Kenyatta, of the Jubilee Alliance, and Odinga who is standing for the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, have been accused of focusing on winning votes among their respective ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and Luo, which are the largest in Kenya.
During the February 11 debate, Kaikai and Gichuru pressed both candidates to explain themselves.
“Those are the issues that bothered me most. They should see Kenya as one large tribe and not 42 sub-tribes,” Ombiro said. “I hope they will not go back to such [ethnically-focused] campaigns, because they gave that assurance at the debate.”
Recent opinion polls conducted in Kenya show that ten per cent of the 14 million registered voters are still undecided how they will vote on March 4.
Owuor said the debate would have a particularly strong impact on this section of the electorate, particularly as it pushed lesser-known contenders into the limelight.
“Candidates like Kenneth, Karua and Mudavadi must have convinced the undecided lot – they performed very well,” he said.
In one survey of 328 viewers, 34 per cent said the debate made them change their mind about who they would vote for.
While opinion polls suggest that the lesser-known candidates have little chance of winning, they played an important part in the debate.
Dann Mwangi, a Nairobi-based lawyer, said he was impressed by a fierce exchange between Ole Kiyiapi and Peter Kenneth on education, specifically on the numbers and distribution of schoolteachers across the country.
“When you hear such issues being discussed, then you understand that each candidate has got their way of dealing with problems facing Kenyans, and it leaves us with a choice,” Mwangi said.
For Dismas Mokua, a public relations expert in Nairobi, the fact that all eight candidates were present made for a more wide-ranging debate, with the lesser candidates given a chance to probe the more well-known figures. He noted that even frontrunners Kenyatta and Odinga appeared nervous.
“Candidates like Karua were speaking about real issues,” he said. “While some candidates were trying to sweep away that issue of [tribalism], Martha [Karua] was spot-on with it, she did not mince her words.”
While the debate got candidates to engage on some key issues, some observers felt important areas got left out.
Mugo Kibati, director general of the government’s Vision 2030 programme, said the debate did not touch on candidates’ plans to ensure Kenya meets its development targets over the next five years and beyond.
Vision 2030 is a plan to tackle economic, social and political problems and turn Kenya into a middle-income country by the end of the next decade. It is a binding target for government, whichever party is in power.
Kibati said the strategy needed to be articulated clearly to Kenyans, and embraced by the whole population.
“Since the political parties claim to have aligned their party manifestos to Vision 2030, extensive reference to the Vision had been envisaged and should still be upheld in both the debates and the electoral campaigns,” Kibati said.
Some observers saw the debate as a missed opportunity to hold candidates to account for recent tensions, particularly those created by the party nominations of candidates.
During the January ballots several political parties were accused of putting forward candidates who had actually lost in the initial local-level selection process, prompting incidents in several nomination venues.
Angry protests in towns such as Kisumu in western Kenya, as well as reports of young men arming themselves in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, brought back memories of the 2007-08 bloodshed, in which over 1,100 people died and 600,000 were forced from their homes.
A series of violent incidents across the country over the past year has added to fears of renewed unrest.
“The majority of the aspirants at the presidential debate were leaders of political parties,” Eric Mutua, chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, said, “and they should have been asked what transpired during their recent shambolic political party nominations.”
Mutua recommended a change in format for the second debate on February 25. Instead of candidates taking questions from presenters and the audience, he would like to see them engage in direct debates with each other.
“Let the candidates ask each other questions,” he said.
Public relations expert Mokua said the candidates were likely to have learned a lot from the first debate, and he was optimistic that the next one would be even more lively.
“All of them must have learnt a lesson or two. They must have known to prepare for all manner of questions, and I hope they prepare for it, especially on issues like the economy because those are the issues to determine their support base,” he said.
This article was produced as part of a media development programme by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation in partnership with Capital FM.