Kenya Holds Historic Presidential Debate

Flickr, Albert Kenyani Inima


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

The eight candidates* gathered in Nairobi to debate the most pressing issues in the first of two televised debates. The young country’s event was everything that the 2012 US presidential debates were not.

Candidates from minority parties with no chance of making a dent on election day stood side by side with the front runners. The event went over its scheduled 2 hours lasting near 3.5 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 Kimmel: Kenyans do tweet). 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. Kenyatta and Odinga, both 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 with strong statements from Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua. “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,” said Kenneth.

Post Election Violence

The issue is important because it was used to create the divisions during the 2007/8 violence. Kenya has struggled to deal with the aftermath of the post-election violence over the past five years. Roughly 1,3000 people died and 650,000 were displaced. An agreement was made between Odinga and Kibaki with the two sharing power as Prime Minister and President, respectively. IPS 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 stalled return. Justice was equally as slow with only 14 convictions despite opening 5,000 files.

The violence that followed the Kenyan presidential elections in 2007 stemmed from the belief that incumbent President Kibaki stole the election from former ally Ralia Odinga. 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 who 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 and Kibaki cannot run, or steal, this election for himself. Six candidates are running, but it is a contest between the man who the presidency was stolen from in 2007, Odinga, and a pairing that could very well end up jailed at the ICC, Kenyatta and Ruto.

this debate is useless.i thought they’d talk about how to impliment their policies..WTF #KEDebate13 #debate254

— Toni Kabui (@tonijizy) February 11, 2013

Zingers and Lighter Moments

Things turned when the proverbial elephant in the room was addressed. The candidates were asked 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 with the audience having the opportunity to ask questions. Social issues like education and maternal mortality were raised with the candidates disagreeing on the problems and solutions. For education, former education minister James ole Kiyiapi offered a plan to expand schools and teachers. ” I will take Ksh 3 billion and go to 3,00 day schools and build a classroom which in total will take in 150, 000 pupils. I would like to hire 20, 000 teachers every years,” he said. Kenneth disagreed saying it was a problem of distribution, not about the number of teachers arguing, “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 contest appears to be between only Odinga and Kenyatta. This fact was apparent in the first half of the debate when Linus made sure that the leading candidates had ample time to discusses the issues at hand while the rest were given 30 second opportunities to interject. Blogger and Political Science PhD student Ken Opalo has crunched the poll numbers finding that Kenyatta holds a lead of about 740,000 votes over Odinga.

I estimate that Mr. Kenyatta will get 48.87% of the votes cast to Mr. Odinga’s 41.72%, which means that a run-off is almost inevitable. I don’t expect Mr. Kenyatta to hit the 50% mark since my model is slightly biased in his favor (especially coming from the Rift Valley turnout figures from 2007 that I use as a basis of estimating turnout in 2013).

Debates have little measurable impact on US presidential elections, but Kenya’s first may be different.

* Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, Musalia Mudavadi, Martha Karua, Peter Kenneth and James ole Kiyiapi, Paul Muite, and Mohammed Abuda Dida


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]