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.

A template for writing about African elections

I just came across Sean Jacobs’ interesting blog, “Africa is a country,” which directed me to this  piece about how predictable African elections, and their failings, have become. Reads like a “mad lib” story — in this case, humorous and clever because it rings sadly true…

“….Nothing underscores the apathy and inconsistency that characterize Western diplomacy in _____ more than the current impasse…The legitimacy crisis threatens to trigger another round of civil war in a country that has already __________ (short-phrase recap of how many people died there in recent memory, thereby justifying interest).”

“The ____________[major INGO] cited serious irregularities, including the loss of _____ (electoral documents) in _______ (city/town/village), a _____ stronghold….. Meanwhile, according to ________ (INGO) multiple locations in _______ (another city/town/village), a bastion of __________ (current ruler) supporters, reported impossibly high rates of 99 to [over] 100 percent voter turnout, with all or nearly all votes going to the incumbent.” (Note: Some wisely fix this slightly lower than 99 percent; adjust as needed.)

“….As grievances and disputes over electoral law arose, the CENI [independent electoral commission] failed to provide an adequate forum for dialogue with the opposition.” (Sorry, players, that one goes verbatim in every election post-game.)


A bit of Donald Trump politics in Zambia?

Just a few months ago, my fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump, made a series of public outcries that our President Obama might not be a “real” American, and accused him of foreign origin. It was a few weeks of utter silliness, until the White House finally put the issue to rest by releasing a copy of his birth certificate.

Now the Zambian opposition is doing much the same — accusing Rupiah Banda of “foreign” parentage, and hoping the high court will render him ineligible for the next election. It would be cute to say that the Zambians were taking a play out of the Trump book, but this one has a Zambian precedent that pre-dates the Donald, when much the same was done to President Kaunda, the founding president of that country!

Daily Nation: – Africa |Zambia opposition party moves to court to contest Banda’s parentage.

Zambian President Banda

The current debacle involves accusations that Banda’s father was Malawian. The not-so-amusing part of all this is that 50 years ago, these states did not exist, and Africans decried the arbitrary colonial boundaries that divided ethnic and cultural groups. (My colleague, Dan Posner has a nice article about the implications of this division in Malawi and Zambia, and a larger argument about African boundaries can be found in Jeff Herbst’s book.)

While patriotism can be a positive force for state-building, these types of cheap political maneuvers, which needlessly distract voters from substantive issues, are as big a waste of time for Zambians as they are for Americans.

From Nairobi

I arrived last night in Nairobi and today we kick off the field research for our evaluation of the Uwezo initiaitive. I’ll be here a few days for training until we dispatch to other provinces. After months of planning, it’s exciting to finally get going on this work.

The taxi driver who brought me from the hotel confirmed that business has been booming in Nairobi. His one fear, however, is the upcoming elections — that once the campaigns begin, violence may come next. Which is the same anxiety people expressed when I visited Zimbabwe in November. Such a tragedy that people have such (realistic) expectations, and what it implies for the prospects for building democratic institutions.

Why South Africa’s upcoming local elections matter

In just nine days, South Africans will return to the polls to vote for several thousand local councilors throughout the country. At first blush, this might seem a singularly mundane event. But consider a few facts: First off, South Africa is one of the continent’s few relatively stable democracies, having had a series of free and fair elections and two presidential turnovers since 1994. Every election sets something of a bar for what democracy might be in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa. While Nigeria’s recent election was considered a fair one, it was also marred by episodes of post-election violence. And while there are no reports of violence in South Africa, increased police presence in certain areas is a response to perceived voter intimidation.

Second, the responsibility for “service delivery,” which includes vital outputs like water, electricity, sanitation, and community development more generally have been delegated to local governments. While the country is among the wealthier middle-income countries, huge inequalities persist, and large swaths of the country continue to be marred by truly unpleasant living conditions. If the poor are going to use their vote and the democratic process to improve the environment in which they live, surely the best near-term prospects are through local government.

Third, and I don’t want to over-state this, the political future of the country could pivot a bit on the fate of these elections. In particular, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is giving the ruling African National Congress (ANC) a run for its money in a few key areas including in the economic powerhouse province, Gauteng. The big question is whether voters will be able to actually remove poorly performing ANC councilors or, as is too often the case in post-liberation countries, the idiom of liberation begins to overshadow the mandate to govern well, and people are stuck with lousy, self-serving leaders. Polls are showing that at least in a few places, voters are inclined for some change. And if they act on this, the next question will be to what extent the ANC will take that message as a prompt for reform or political revenge.

Elections are scheduled for May 18. A guide is available from the Mail and Guardian

Post-election violence in Nigeria

The Punch:: BREAKING NEWS: Fresh post-election violence claims lives in Northern states.

I was excited to read about the free and fair elections in Nigeria — West Africa certainly needs a bit of good news after the debacle in Ivory Coast… and more importantly, Nigeria’s own tumultuous history of rigged and illegitimate elections. News of  rioting and violence in the North took some gloss off, however. So far, it seems regionally confined, and hopefully broader consensus about the legitimacy of the elections will serve as a constraint on violent impulses even among those who did not support Goodluck Jonathan for president. With a series of elections scheduled to take place around the continent in the next year, potential spoilers don’t need another negative role model from Africa’s most populous country.