Boycotts, dodges and search for best TV debate formula

Kenya 2017 presidential debate

2017 presidential candidates during debate at the Brookhouse School in Nairobi. Globally, presidential debates are used to have voters get an impression of the various candidates – though critics argue that they hardly affect the poll outcome.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

On the evening of February 12, 2013, Mr Raila Odinga and Mr Uhuru Kenyatta took positions at the podium of Brookhouse International School to make history. The country’s first presidential debate was about to start – a good and a stain could be visible for years.

Moderated by journalists Julie Gichuru and Linus Kaikai, the debate was set to allow Kenyans hear the aspirants answer tricky questions – away from the hubris and bravado associated with campaigns and where facts and fiction walk side by side. They were to expound on their manifestos, and explain how they intend to finance their promises. The trickiest part of the scrutiny and public interrogation was the personal: on corruption, illicit wealth, and integrity.

While others on the crowded podium that evening were Mr Paul Muite, Mr James ole Kiyiapi, Mr Musalia Mudavadi, Mr Mohammed Abduba Dida, Ms Martha Karua, and Mr Peter Kenneth, attention was on Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta whose Cord and Jubilee coalitions were the leading contenders for the 2013 race to succeed President Mwai Kibaki.

Mr Kenyatta was coming to the podium with an International Criminal Court case threatening to scuttle his second presidential bid. More so, he had picked another ICC indictee, William Ruto, as his running mate thus complicating the Jubilee ticket.

Post-election violence

On the other hand, Mr Odinga, one of the leading contenders, had rejected the 2007 election results thus triggering the post-election violence of 2007/2008 which left 1,100 people dead and 650,000 displaced. While a coalition government had been put in place and Mr Odinga appointed a Prime Minister – the 2013 debate was taking place when the incumbent Mwai Kibaki had thrown his weight behind Mr Kenyatta, a deputy prime minister.

Then came the elephant in the room: “How will you govern with an international criminal case on you?” Mr Kenyatta was asked. The room went quiet: “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.” It was a clever dodge as he played down the challenge posed by the international court.

Dodging questions

Dodging questions rather than giving clinical answers is one of the hallmarks of such debates – but only if the other contenders do not push you. During that debate, Mr Odinga pressed the button and taunted Mr Kenyatta: “I know it’s going to cause serious challenges to run the government by Skype from The Hague.”

The moderator pressed Mr Kenyatta to expound on that point: “If Kenyans choose to elect me, it means they have confidence in my ability to address the ICC issue and lead the country. I will be able to clear my name at ICC and at the same time implement my manifesto.”

Presidential debates globally are tricky. Candidates are usually worried of gaffes, blunders and lack of knowledge on topical issues.

When the first televised US presidential debate took place between Richard Nixon and JF Kennedy in 1960, more than half of polled voters said they were influenced by the debates. Nixon was so much outfoxed that in 1964 Lyndon Johnson refused to participate in such a debate. In 1968 too, Nixon boycotted another debate – though he won the election (and later impeached). It was not until 1976 that televised presidential debates returned to the US, and have been held in every presidential campaign since.

Kenya has had its share of drama, too. Initially, the first presidential debate was to feature only two of the leading contestants – Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga– borrowing heavily from the US presidential debates. But Mr Muite went to court and received an injunction to stop the debate unless all the aspirants who were cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission took part.

While the event was scheduled to last for two hours, it lasted three and half hours – as it stretched the moderators and the candidates.

Question of land

During the second debate, the question of land, integrity and economy featured in a debate moderated by Joe Ageyo and Uduak Amimo. Here, Mr Kenyatta was put into the test on how much land his family owns in Kenya. Said Kenyatta: “I will not deny it, nobody has ever pointed that I was involved in any impropriety on land in this country. We have not acquired any land illegally in Kenya except through willing-buyer willing-seller.”

With the lessons learnt from the crowded podium, the 2017 debate held under the aegis of Debates Media Limited at Catholic University of East Africa was set to have two debates. But this was also hit by controversy after President Kenyatta decided to opt out.

Mr Raphael Tuju, the Jubilee Party secretary-general, charged that the “debate (was) being organised through advertisements in the media by some people we do not know. They went ahead to give the dates of the debate with no consultation with the president. They have not contacted State House or the party. We do not know what the ground rules are and we won’t participate. This whole thing smells of conmanship.”

Rather than face the media debate, Mr Kenyatta had gone online to answer questions from Kenyans pledging to create 6.5 million jobs in the next five years, continue to invest in infrastructure, education and training, and a put in place a high-tech economy.

Debate watered down

Mr Kenyatta’s exit had watered down the 2017 presidential debate and that had left Mr Odinga to run a solo-show since the organisers had arranged to have only the top two contestants in a single set. That came as six running mates, including Mr Ruto and Mr Kalonzo Musyoka, skipped their scheduled debate leaving only Mr Muthiora Kariara to star alone.

A separate Presidential debate, moderated by Ms Yvonne Okwara, held earlier attracted only three candidates, Dr Ekuro Aukot of Third Way Alliance, Dr Jeff Kavinga Kaluyu (Independent) and Prof Michael Wainaina, while three more candidates snubbed the show. These included Mr Cyrus Jirongo, Mr Joe Nyagah and Mr Abduba Dida, who would later take Debates Limited to court alleging that he had been discriminated against. He lost the case.

Evaded public scrutiny

By boycotting the debates, the politicians had not only evaded public scrutiny but also failed to swing uncommitted voters to gauge the candidates.

Globally, presidential debates are used to have voters get an impression of the various candidates – though critics argue that they hardly affect the poll outcome.

Supporters of presidential debates argue that they help in agenda setting and bring attention to policy issues which candidates usually skip during campaigns.  But at the end of the day, they test the state of our politics, and showcase the men and women who want to lead the nation. If there is a goof, there is usually no comeback. That is why some politicos fear such debates.


[email protected]; @johnkamau1

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