If it was supposed to be a curtain raiser for the main event, the televised debate for the tier-two candidates for Nairobi governor, those with less than five percent in recent opinion polls, was rather underwhelming.
From the line-up of Ms Esther Waringa (independent), Mr Harman Singh Grewal (Safina), Ms Nancy Mwadime (Usawa Kwa Wote) and Mr Kenneth Nyamwamu (United Progressive Alliance), none offered really clear insights on the problem facing Nairobi, or offered clear solutions.
Of the four, only Mr Grewal stood out, while the rest appeared clueless.
But they suffered being given only 90 seconds to answer each question, constantly being cut off midstream as they tried to expound on their plans.
Three candidates – Denise Kodhe (Liberal Democratic Party), Esther Kagure (independent) and Cleophas Kiio Mutua (Ford Kenya) skipped the debate.
The discussion set the bar low for the debate following immediately afterwards of the two leading candidates, which started with a damper when opinion poll favourite Johnson Sakaja of the United Democratic Alliance/Kenya Kwanza failed to take to the stage at the beginning.
That left Polycarp Igathe of the Jubilee Party/Azimio la Umoja coalition to start as a solo debater, but even being on his own was not a walkover as he had to undergo tough grilling from moderators Zubeida Koome of KTN and Mark Masai of NTV.
The first issue was that his resilience had been questioned because he had resigned as deputy governor just months into service in the chaotic administration of Governor Mike Sonko.
He had a clever answer – that he could not in good conscience continue earning a salary for work not done as Governor Sonko had left him idle.
That response was probably a sly dig at Deputy President William Ruto, the Kenya Kwanza presidential candidate, who over the past two years has complained that he has been shut out of government by President Uhuru Kenyatta and therefore disowns all the failures of the Jubilee government, but rejected challenges to resign.
The Nairobi debate was important not just because the capital city is the seat of government and generates 60 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, but also because the race for governor is a showdown by proxy between the two main presidential candidates, Dr Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza alliance and former prime Minister Raila Odinga of Azimio.
Indeed, the time for a showdown came when Mr Sakaja sauntered onto the stage just as Mr Igathe was lauding Mr Odinga.
Asked why he was late, Mr Sakaja replied that he had to give space for an opponent accustomed to being pushed to the front, a dig at Mr Igathe, whose nomination as the Azimio candidate was seen as pushed by President Kenyatta and a wealthy Central Kenya business elite, as was his selection in 2017 as the running mate for the mercurial Mr Sonko.
From the word go, Mr Sakaja also had to face hard questions over the contested university degree from Team University in Uganda that almost had him struck off the ballot.
Mr Sakaja insisted that he indeed graduated from Team University, attributing his woes to powerful forces in government determined to block his candidacy.
Things got testy when Mr Igathe described Mr Sakaja as a charlatan and liar who would divert Nairobi money to private hands, even going to the extent of questioning his identity.
Mr Sakaja responded by accusing his opponent of lack of integrity by surrendering when the going got tough in Nairobi, and then also faced accusations that he failed to vote for Governor Sonko’s impeachment.
It was not until Mr Igathe said ‘don’t kick a dog when it's down’, in reference to Mr Sakaja, that the moderators felt constrained to intervene and caution against abusive words.
Still, the personalised exchanges continued, leaving little room for more serious debate on the really important issues around the running of the capital city in the first half of the debate.
The second half provided more opportunities for Mr Igathe and Mr Sakaja to offer more insights into their plans to resolve major problems such as governance, revenue collection, corruption, housing, water and garbage collection.
On governance, Mr Igathe voiced his support for the Nairobi Metropolitan Services, led by Kenya Defence Forces Lt-Gen Mohammed Badi. It was appointed by President Kenyatta to take over key functions from the elected government before Governor Sonko’s impeachment.
Mr Sakaja disagreed, describing Mr Igathe’s position as akin to a man praising his estranged wife’s lover. In his opinion, Lt-Gen Badi would never have been appointed had Mr Igathe not abandoned his post, and the city, to Mr Sonko’s mismanagement. He reminded his opponent that he would have taken over as governor and implemented his plans, had he not quit.
Mr Igathe pledged to decentralize services within the first 100 days of assuming office, expressing surprise that a waiter working in Dandora had to travel all the way to City Hall for a food handler’s licence.
He also pledged to create a government fit for services, with clear responsibilities for the governor, deputy governor and cabinet. He pledged to sort out issues around garbage collection, building and maintaining pedestrian walkways and markets, and motivating employees.
Mr Sakaja agreed on decentralisation, pledging to divide Nairobi into five semi-autonomous boroughs responsible for services. He also promised to implement standing orders for the City Inspectorate so it can operate within clear guidelines and not just be a force for harassing hawkers, and remove the multiple licence requirements for business so that everything is covered under one permit.
But he cautioned that solutions do not lie in quick fixes of 100-day pledges, saying that he would put in place five and 10-year plans. He couldn’t resist a jab at Mr Igathe by pledging he would not quit within 100 days.
On water, Mr Igathe exposed himself by revealing that he had only recently learnt while on a campaign tour in Ruai that some people in Nairobi still use donkey carts to transport water. That opened the door for Mr Sakaja to take a dig at his ignorance of city realities.
He said he would work quickly to increase water available in Nairobi by ensuring the completion of a link to the Northern Collector Tunnel that should increase supply from some 500 million to 600 million cubic litres, as well as develop other water sources in the city and in neighbouring counties, including boreholes and dams.
He concluded by noting that “dams are not for eating”, a clear dig at Dr Ruto, whose allies have been mentioned adversely in corruption claims around the stalled Kimwerer and Arror dams in the Rift Valley.
Mr Sakaja agreed that water supply needs to be increased, putting the actual demand at over 800 million cubic litres against supply of 500 million.
He proved himself a master of facts on the Nairobi water supply situation, the present sources and opportunities for expansion. He also promised that use of private water bowsers to supply water in Nairobi would end.
When Mr Igathe expressed delight that Azimio would have Ms Martha Karua as Deputy President with her record of putting in place modern water management structures when she served as minister for water in President Mwai Kibaki’s government. That prompted Mr Sakaja to retort that Nairobians would be electing him, not Ms Karua or Mr Odinga, challenging him to stop hiding behind the Azimio principals when he had no answers.
On housing, Mr Sakaja said that his focus would be on partnering with the private sector to take the lead in housing development, saying that the county government will not be in the business of building houses.
To which Mr Igathe responded that his opponent wanted to grab existing public housing schemes by handing them over to private businesses. Mr Sakaja reminded him that he played a key role in representing residents of Majengo Estate when the county government wanted to demolish their low-cost houses and build high-rise apartment blocks that the slum residents could not afford.
In the exchanges, none of the two candidates remembered that a model for affordable housing development already exists in the expansive housing estates put up by the city government mostly in the Eastlands suburbs.
Some remain under the ownership of the county or the National Housing Corporation, while others such as Buru Buru and Umoja estates were passed on to private owners and friendly rental purchase schemes.
Nairobi residents for the first time got a clear picture of those canvassing to be elected governor, heard their development plans and had a chance to gauge their temperaments in a managed environment away from the heady atmosphere of campaign rallies.
The debate should set the stage for the eagerly awaited encounters of presidential and deputy presidential candidates, having shown that there is nothing to gain in a candidate passing up the opportunity to showcase what he has to offer.