Kenyans do it Better: On the First (Ever) Kenyan Presidential Debate

Eight politicians stood behind podiums in a crescent-moon formation as a journalist asked questions about factionalism, education, health, and the economy. Sounds like a pretty standard – and boring – debate, especially to those of us used to watching pols glide through them, all trite soundbites and poll-tested positions, bereft of substance or interest.

But in Nairobi, Kenya, the first presidential debateever – was anything but boring; the debaters were engaged, articulate, and – critically – actually answering the questions asked*.

To an American, the moderators’ tough questions and follow-ups – up to and including prodding the debaters with phrases such as “OK, but can you please answer my question?” – was a welcome reprieve from the tepid debates (which may be too strong a word) we’re used to. Kenya is well-known for being a heavily factionalized, tribalized society, so it was interesting to see the debate kicked off with a question that hit that issue head-on. While the answers given were pretty standard (Raila Odinga: “Kenya for all, not just for a few elite;” Uhuru Kenyatta: “Tribalism is a cancer…it has been a source of conflict, a source of death**”), it was impressive to see the question posed.

Throughout, the moderators refused to let the contestants get away from questions, and were very inclusive; even though Kenyatta and Odinga – sons of the first President and Vice President, respectively – command something like 86% of the vote according to polls, the others were still given a chance to interact and respond. In my opinion – shared by those I was with – both Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua came across as leaders or future leaders of Kenya.

The debaters were generally straightforward in their answers; my favorite exception to this came when Mohammed Abduba Dida responded to the question, “How old is your party?” with the answer (I’m paraphrasing) “The ideas that my party was founded on are very old.” They were polished but not too polished, and unfailingly civil towards one another – though it would have been nice if they had directly responded to each other more often.  All in all, a debate worth watching, and one that most can learn from.

Compare this to America, where politicians manage to dodge a question, speak a lot without saying anything, and fling ad hominem attacks at each other; where moderators are allowed very little control and exert even less of it; where time is used to deliver a series of miniature stump speeches designed to appeal either only to the base, or cheap platitudes devoid of value (which brings to mind the classic The Simpsons clip where – disguised as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole – aliens assert the value of “abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”).

Five years ago, Kenya was wracked by ongoing violence due to perceived “voting irregularities,” which in this case is a euphemism for “Kibaki and the Kikuyus may have stolen the election,” so all eyes are on the country again this year, which votes on March 4th. Human Rights Watch is sounding the alarm and calling the risk of political violence “perilously high,” and it’s likely that a runoff on April 11th will be needed to decide the winner (coincidentally,  also when Kenyatta’s ICC trail begins).

One thing is for sure: over-optimistic or not, let’s hope that this first debate is a bellwether for how competing Kenyan political parties will govern, and act – not only for the country’s sake, but for Africa’s, and ours, too.

*It also helped that sitting in the room with me were Kenyans, Ugandans, Brits, and Americans, all with varying views and knowledge of Kenyan politics.

**Which Kenyatta is alleged to know a thing or two about; he’s a frontrunner in this election despite being accused of committing crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting violence after the previous election in 2007.

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