Presidential Debates will separate grain from the chaff of Kenyan politics

There is much premium in the debates for the discerning voter. And it is desirable that every single Kenyan voter should be discerning

 By Denis Galava

All eyes are on the deputy president, Dr William Ruto, and ODM leader, Mr Raila Odinga, as the clock ticks towards Kenya’s third presidential debate, ahead of the August 9 General Election. In spite of an unprecedented wide slate of presidential hopefuls, the race to the House on the Hill has turned out to be a two-horse affair, between Ruto and Raila, who is also a former Prime Minister.

Ruto is running on the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) ticket, under the broad banner of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance that also brings on board Amani National Congress leader, Musalia Mudavadi, and Ford Kenya’s Moses Wetang’ula, among other political heavy weights. Ruto’s running mate is MP Rigathi Gachagua of Mathira.

Raila, the Azimio-One Kenya Alliance flag bearer, is on the same ticket with Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua. The two running mates will also be expected to face off.

The debates, organised by the Media Owners Association of Kenya, Media Council of Kenya and the Kenya Editors Guild, give the two foremost contenders the opportunity to explain themselves to the public on a raft of issues. This should put paid to a miscellany of complaints against perceived “biased media coverage”.

In a recent statement, the Ruto team said: “We expect the media to play their rightful role in cultivating a healthy, robust and inclusive discourse. Our democracy depends on the media, to make our political environment less divisive and less toxic.”

During the debate, the candidates will be asked to respond to the same issues, and given the same amount of time to respond. It is the perfect meeting point for the candidates, the media and the public. This is especially so given the cloudy and often suffocating environment that has informed the Kenyan political space over the past four years. The country has virtually been in campaign mode, without any clear sense of focus on what is on offer to the electorate, beyond vague generalities and innuendo. In the place of public discourse there has been public diatribe, and in the place of rational exposition of ideas raw emotion, sometimes of an incendiary nature. The debates, therefore, should give the voter – and especially the sober undecided one – the opportunity to place the two foremost candidates on the scales and to decide whom to vote for.

As things stand, both camps have distinguished themselves for what easily passes for caustic and toxic ventilation of anger. Their lieutenants have easily excelled in catcalls, verbal depredations, and sundry name calling. Serious allegations have been levelled without substantiation, or reflection on their import and impact. Partisan crowds have followed either side, regardless of the quality of logic in what is said, and what is left unsaid.

The mass following suggests that the ordinary-to-average Kenyan voter has possibly already decided which way to vote. The country, historically, has preponderant populations that swing to whichever political space ace politicos from their tribes go into. These, mostly alpha male types, gravitate to whichever space, with the tribes in tow. The debate – or debates – will possibly not mean much for those considered in other democracies in the world to be voting machines. However, there is much premium in the debates for the discerning voter. And it is desirable that every single Kenyan voter should be discerning.

This year, the judicious voter wants to understand Ruto’s bottom-up agenda better than what has been said on the stumps. What, exactly, is it and how does Ruto plan to implement it? What resources are necessary and what is their base? What is his position on corruption and on Kenya’s professed war against it? What does he make of his adversaries’ accusations that he is now the poster boy of this vice? And how would he engage the fight to eradicate the vermin, without which the country can hardly expect to meet its official financial obligations and to realise its development and social and economic visionary agendas? These, and many more ad rem questions, stand to become clearer in the sober environment that presidential debates provide.

Similarly, there is an array of questions for Raila. He has been a veritable co-president with Uhuru Kenyatta since the fabled handshake that healed the electoral wounds between the two in 2018. Why should he not share in the blame for any shortcomings in the government – real, or imagined –  and especially in Uhuru’s second term? The cost of living has gone right through the roof. Foodstuff and petroleum products cost an arm and a leg. Raila says his government will bring these costs down. How does he purpose to go about this crisis that the perceived co-presidency between him and Kenyatta has failed to resolve. Where is the magic wand?

Besides, there are also perceptions and allegations that Raila, or at the very least his political cronies and acolytes in ODM, have been beneficiaries of graft in Uhuru’s second term in office. Covid-19 related narratives, especially, abound. Raila needs to come clean on this, in the sobriety of a presidential debate. So, too, would he come clean on his running mate, Karua, whom he previously accused of masterminding and spearheading what he has often cited as the stealing of his presidential election in 2007. Karua was the Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion minister. Raila has no kind word for her in his autobiography, The Flame of Freedom.

First floated in the United States in 1956 by a Maryland university student, the presidential debate model is globally becoming a very useful instrument for measuring candidates and assessing what kind of government and leadership they would provide, but a dreaded platform in Africa. Although the American proposed 1956 debate did not take place, the 1960 faceoff between Senator JF Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 was key to Kennedy’s election. This was despite the fact that Nixon won two of the four debates, while one was a draw. Kennedy’s sterling performance in the first debate in which he floored Nixon boded well for him to the very end, when the senator marginally defeated the vice president.

As in the United States, presidential debates in Kenya have had challenges. In the United States, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter (Democrat) declined to share the same platform with the independent Senator John B. Anderson. And Ronald Reagan (Republican) said he would not participate without Anderson. Reagan and Anderson were left alone in the first debate, while Reagan eventually accepted a one-on-one with Carter in the subsequent debate – and in which his seasoned stagecraft as a movie star enabled him to outshine President Carter.

In Kenya, the two main contenders in the 2017 election, Uhuru and Raila, pulled out of the debate at the eleventh hour, leaving it a low-key affair by six contenders of humbler note. While they blamed their pulling out on the format of the debates, it is thought that it was hugely the exceedingly bad blood between them that drove the boycott. They could not bring themselves to share a common platform, after the excessive pejorative public chutzpah between them in the preceding months. Rational voters were denied the opportunity to glean into their visionary and missionary agendas.

Kenyans hope the two leading presidential contenders will show up for the debates, slated for next month, to give the electorate and opportunity to appreciate the granular details of their competing agendas, over and above other broad questions.

Dr Galava is a Consultant with the World Bank and a former managing editor with the Nation and Standard.