Presidential hopefuls clash in final Kenyan debate
It was a night of high drama featuring unprecedented verbal sparring as Kenya’s presidential candidates faced off Monday night in a final debate before the March 4 election.
At an elite Nairobi high school resembling a faux English castle, complete with a fake drawbridge over a fake moat, Kenya’s presidential candidates sparred Monday night in a final debate before the March 4 poll.
The eight presidential hopefuls included Kenya’s richest man, who could not – or would not – be pinned down on the extent of his family’s massive land holdings.
Across the Kenyan capital, life ground to a standstill as residents crowded around TV sets in sprawling urban slums and modest homes where access to municipal water is a luxury.
Somewhat fittingly, the debate focused on income disparities, corruption and land ownership – contentious issues that have bedeviled this East African nation since independence.
With just a week to go to the polls, the candidates confronted each other on corruption scandals dating back to the 1990s – when some of the seasoned presidential hopefuls held positions in various ministries – as millions sat glued to TV sets, riveted by a drama rarely seen in Kenyan political life.
On February 11, when Kenya held its first presidential debate, it was considered a historic milestone as the candidates were grilled on thorny issues such as tribalism, which underpinned the deadly violence following the disastrous 2007 poll.
One of the main candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta, currently faces crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged role in the post-electoral violence, which killed more than a 1,000 people and displaced around 600,000 more.
Kenyatta’s on-again, off-again ‘brinksmanship’
The drama around the final debate began days earlier, when the Kenyatta campaign announced that he would not be participating because their candidate had been “unfairly treated” in the first debate, which was dominated by Kenyatta’s ability to run the country while facing a trial at The Hague.
But with just hours to go before the second debate kicked off, Kenyatta, the smooth-talking deputy prime minister, made a last-minute reversal and decided to participate after all.
Sitting in a packed Nairobi pub watching Kenyatta tackle some tough questions Monday night, David Opondee, an artist, said he had no doubt a peace prayer rally held the previous day had helped bring the candidates together.
The rally, held by Kenya’s self-styled “prophet” – David Owuor – at a downtown Nairobi park, saw Kenyatta and his arch rival, Raila Odinga, pumping hands and offering peace pledges to ensure Kenya would not slide into the sort of post-electoral violence that followed the 2007 poll.
“The prophet did bring them together,” said Opondee. “I think the rally made a difference. These guys have not shared a podium outside of the debates. It has made a difference to the tone of the debate.”
Seasoned Horn of Africa analyst Abdullahi Halakhe, however, believed Kenyatta’s on-again, off-again switch was a smart campaign move.
“I think team Uhuru’s suggestion that he was withdrawing because of the moderator’s partiality in the first debate was ingenious,” said Halakhe. “Personally, I didn’t believe he was going to withdraw – it was pure brinksmanship, and a chance to catch his opponents off-guard. That was more than three hours of free airtime that any candidate would die for, so it was foolhardy for them to suggest they would withdraw.”
‘Did you expect a thief to tell you, “I’ve stolen”?’
But if Kenyatta’s campaign had criticized the grilling at the first debate, the final face-off was even tougher, with the moderators occasionally cutting in to remind candidates they had not answered the question while staying mostly out of the way, giving the archrivals even chances to attack each other.
Prime Minister Odinga was grilled for his government’s failure to effectively tackle a host of economic issues and crackdown on a long list of corruption scandals. But it was the emotive issue of land ownership that set off sparks in the second-half of the debate, when the moderator asked Kenyatta if it was true that his family “owned half of Kenya”.
Dubbed “the richest man in Kenya,” the son of founding father Jomo Kenyatta was placed on the Forbes list of 40 richest Africans due to his family’s extensive landholdings.
The roots of Kenya’s endemic land problem dates back to the colonial era when Europeans settlers acquired vast tracts of the nation’s best lands. After independence, the country’s founding father failed to effectively address the issue when his policy of “willing-seller, willing-buyer” saw massive landholdings move into the hands of the country’s elites, many of them from Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe.
Half a century later, Kenyatta’s son was being grilled live on primetime television over what has become the thorniest issue confronting the country.
When repeatedly asked how much land the family owns, Kenyatta demurred, maintaining that every hectare of the family properties was acquired on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis. He continued to avert the question until he finally conceded that in the southern town of Taveta alone, the family owns 30,000 acres, of which 4,000 acres were donated to squatters.
At which point, Mohammed Dida, an outsider candidate who has found a soft spot – if not votes – with many Kenyans for his unwittingly hilarious analogies, coined a homespun adage that characteristically cut to the bone.
“Thank you for your sincerity, pertaining [to] your questions on integrity and leadership," Dida told his fellow presidential aspirants. "But did you expect a thief to tell you ‘I’ve stolen’?”
Despite the heated arguing, there was little sign of Kenyatta’s – or even Odinga’s – supporters being swayed by the debate.
Odinga and Kenyatta are running neck-and-neck in the opinion polls just days ahead of the election, with Kenyatta having gained a knife-edge over the past week.
At Nairobi’s packed Buffet Park pub, most of the patrons who entered the premises Monday evening with a candidate preference left the pub shortly before midnight with their preference unchanged.
“The debates haven’t changed my opinion,” said Nancy Opondee, a marketing executive, as her husband, David, smiled into his beer. “This has been a good debate. It was much tougher than the first one. But no, I haven’t changed my mind.”
Her husband, sporting an orange “Raila Odinga” baseball cap, agreed. “No, I have not changed my opinion, of course not, because I think it’s a time for a change in Kenya,” said Opondee, echoing an Odinga campaign slogan lifted from US President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.