Guest Post: Kenya’s first presidential debate

(Jessica Grody is Project Manager for the Uwezo Evaluation Team, and is currently based in Nairobi)

Yesterday marked a historic event in Kenya: eight candidates participated in the country’s first ever presidential debate. With less than a month to go until the March 4th elections, the presidential aspirants assembled for the first of two organized debates, broadcast across the country on multiple television and local radio stations and live-streamed on YouTube. It would be easy to write many pages chronicling the faults and missteps of this election process, which include a fight over the election date itself, a series of delays in voter registration following the botched procurement of voter registration kits, last minute party defections by candidates who failed to win their party’s nominations, and of course the impending ICC trial of a leading candidate to investigate his role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, but I choose instead to focus on some of the many positive aspects of the debate.

Perhaps the first sign of success was the interest in the debate itself. Despite the cynical assertions I hear regularly that in this election, like in all others before, people will vote along ethnic lines, everyone I know in Nairobi, friends and colleagues, taxi drivers and security guards, tuned in to hear the candidates make their cases for why they deserve your vote. While the six leading candidates were originally invited to attend, the two others whose names will appear on the ballot won the right to participate after one successfully obtained a court order to guarantee his inclusion. While I’m not sure if their inclusion added to the discussion or merely took time away from the candidates who are more legitimate contenders, it is significant that they were able to avail themselves of the justice system to participate in the democratic process.

The debate lasted more than three hours and addressed tribalism, education, health, corruption, security, and other issues. I heard criticisms that the rhetoric was less debate and more stump speech, but three hours of conversation on the major issues facing Kenyans provided a fairly clear understanding the candidates’ positions and was definitely democracy-in-action.

This debate also highlighted achievements towards equality and inclusion. Even though Martha Karua is not expected to win, it’s notable that a female candidate is participating as a respected contender. The debate was moderated by one male and one female news anchor, and the pre- and post-debate analyses included both male and female experts and commentators.

As a quick aside, during his answer to the question asked about education, Peter Kenneth talked about the need to improve the quality of education rather than just the quantity, and pointed out that increasing school inputs (classrooms, books) is not equivalent to improving learning outcomes. That is one of Uwezo’s main focuses, so it was encouraging to have that message repeated by a presidential candidate.

A lot could go wrong between now and the inauguration of the next president, most seriously a repeat of the ethnic violence sparked by alleged fraud during the previous election, but the completion of this first successful presidential debate deserves to go down in the books as a positive step towards an open and fair democracy in Kenya.

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