Raila Odinga may be the biggest loser if he skips today's presidential debate

Kenya election presidential candidates

Presidential candidates, from left, Raila Odinga, George Wajackoyah, William Ruto and David Mwaure Waihiga.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media group

If Azimio la Umoja candidate Raila Odinga makes good on his threat to skip the presidential debate tonight, it will be very difficult for him to counter claims that he chickened out at the prospect of going head-to-head against Kenya Kwanza flag bearer William Ruto.

The Deputy President was quick to go full throttle on the narrative that the former prime minister pulled out to avoid humiliation.

If he is disappointed at losing the chance to put on display his debating skills against Mr Odinga, he might also be celebrating the opportunity offered to go on the offensive against his opponent for withdrawing.

He will also be salivating at the fact that he might hog the stage on his own and take full advantage to tear into Mr Odinga without rebuttal and counter-accusations.

Mr Odinga’s late decision to avoid the encounter was confirmed in a statement released on Sunday by his presidential campaign spokesman Makau Mutua, who dismissed the event as ‘empty, self-serving political theatre’.

Why Raila was advised to skip presidential debate

He said that instead, Mr Odinga and his running-mate Martha Karua would host a televised town hall meeting at the Jericho Social Hall where ordinary Kenyans would get the opportunity to put questions directly to them.

On campaign platforms the previous day, some of Mr Odinga allies such as Azimio Secretary-General Junet Mohamed and trade union boss Francis Atwoli had hinted that he might skip the debate if demands for focus on corruption, integrity and governance were not met.

However, that was treated as the usual campaign platform rhetoric, until Prof Mutua issued an official statement. Ironically, it was Mr Odinga who had at the onset confirmed with the debate organising committee that he would attend, and in public scoffed at DP Ruto’s threats to avoid it.

All along in the run-up to the debate, it was the DP who had been threatening to boycott it, the matter only being put to rest when his Kenya Kwanza running mate Rigathi Gachagua turned up last week to debate with Azimio counterpart Martha Karua.

The DP’s threats to boycott an event that is becoming an entrenched tradition of the Kenya electoral system were flagged on June 2 when his Director of Communications Hussein Mohammed released a statement saying that the communication team advises the candidate against participation.

Ruto urges Raila to attend Presidential Debate

They were particularly concerned with the role of media houses and specific television anchors they complained had been against their boss, singling out Royal Media Services whose proprietor S.K. Macharia, has openly been campaigning for Mr Odinga.

The complaints were lent weight when a media monitoring survey released by the Media Council of Kenya showed Mr Odinga getting much more space in TV, radio and newspaper coverage than his rival.

The report, covering the months of April to June, was, however, at variance with another study up to May by the Election Observation Group showing media coverage of the DP and Mr Odinga roughly at par.

DP Ruto and his troops continued to publicly dismiss the presidential debate and also ramp up attacks on media they insisted was biased.

Even after the Media Council issues a fresh monitoring report indicating that media coverage had become more balanced, the DP’s communications team turned to now questioning credibility of the media regulatory body, whose earlier report they had welcomed.

That was typical of a team that loves to play hardball.

Even when Dr Ruto’s participation was finally confirmed last week, hardball tactics remained evident. Mr Mohammed released a statement demanding that the debate be limited to a set of issues he listed, and asked to be furnished with the amount of time that would be devoted to each subject.

It was almost tantamount to listing the preferred questions, but ironically, it was the list that Mr Odinga’s spokesman, Dr Mutua, used as justification for the Azimio candidate’s own turnaround on debate participation.

Mr Mohammed had demanded that the debate focus on agenda issues rather than personality attacks, ignoring the fact that at the running mate’s debate, Mr Gachagua had spent all his time evading issues and diverting attention from the records of the Kenya Kwanza candidates to the failings of President Kenyatta.

Announcing Mr Odinga’s decision to skip the debate, Mr Mutua seized on the Mohammed list to claim, falsely, that issues of corruption, ethics, integrity and governance had been made no-go zones.

The campaign secretariat had made no such commitment and had in fact shared with both sides the broad thematic areas to be covered. Prof Mutua also hit out strongly at Dr Ruto’s character and record, concluding that such a person was not worth sharing a platform with.

To the contrary, however, one would assume that Mr Odinga would have jumped at the chance to publicly debate Dr Ruto and tear him to bits on the listed flaws.

It is easy to reach the conclusion that if Mr Odinga doesn’t turn up at Catholic University, he will be the biggest loser. He will not only miss the opportunity to showcase his campaign platform and demonstrate his suitability over his opponent, but will never be able to counter the narrative that he ran scared at the prospect of facing Dr Ruto.

There is still the chance that like Dr Ruto before him, Mr Odinga will ignore bad advice and agree to participate.

If so, the stage could be set for a riveting duel between a younger and nimbler master of the debate platform, and an older opponent who may not be as sharp and agile, but is bears as stellar record in the quest for human rights and democracy and is not weighed down with anywhere near as many skeletons in his closet.

If the DP debate is anything to go by, Dr Ruto, as evidenced by the Mohammed list, will want to evade scrutiny of his record and focus on his campaign platform. He may also adopt the Rigathi tactics by diverting attention to the Uhuru Kenyatta record and the alleged state capture. 

One-man debate

Mr Odinga, in turn, will if well prepared come armed with a treasure trove of ethical questions hanging over the Kenya Kwanza ticket. He will also be able to make the case that Dr Ruto can hardly continue pointing the finger at President Kenyatta when he remains second-in-command in the Jubilee administration and continues to enjoy the perks of office.

For now, however, millions of television viewers might have to be resigned to a one-man debate, a reversal of 2017 when Mr Odinga faced the moderators on his own after President Kenyatta skipped the event.

This is a format that will favour Dr Ruto, as the moderators are unlikely to push him as hard as an opponent would.

He might have a field day giving long and winding answers to questions and making his own allegations against an absent opponent without risk of robust challenges and counter-accusations.

In one-on-one TV interviews, Dr Ruto has proved himself a master of the game. Part of that has often been helped by the fact that throughout most of his tenure as DP, he has scrupulously avoided interviews unless with ‘friendly’ journalists who could be depended on no to ask hard questions.

In recent months, he has accepted interviews outside the narrow circle of trusted acolytes embedded in his campaign. In the past week alone he has sat down with a number of foreign TV stations as he sought to reach a global audience.

If it is a solo debate, moderators Yvonne Okwara and Eric Latif will have to be at their best to avoid turning into the Ruto Monologue. They will have to ensure he doesn’t go beyond the allotted time for each answer, ask the follow-up questions, challenge inconsistencies and falsehoods, and ask the probing questions. 

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