Even though I’m committed to not attempting to “cover” the Kenyan presidential campaign remotely, yesterday’s debate was one of those big moments in various respects that begs some comment from anyone writing about Kenyan politics and governance.
As far as the election itself, I don’t expect a major impact from the debate or anything specific said. Most voters have made up their minds during the course of the two and a half years that the campaign has been the primary focus of Kenya’s pols. The biggest election variable I would expect would be turnout and neither of the two contenders who could actually win at the end of the day stumbled badly enough or scored enough points in this debate to have a dramatic effect.
Several things stand out for me, however. First is national pride. There is a sense of “joining the big leagues” and capturing an international stage as a modern democracy that Kenyans take pride in here. Sports has been the most similar national rallying point otherwise, and the London Olympics was a disappointment so it is good to see Kenyans have a point of positive recognition as Kenyans. Unfortunately, it comes so late in the campaign that the opportunity for this positive spirit to make a major difference in the preparation for voting and the more general groundwork for the election is limited. Tensions are already high because the realization is sinking in that the election is a big challenge and there will be some problems.
From talking to friends in Kenya and following things I do believe that there is some real value to the determination of many Kenyans to try to prevent the country from being perceived to make a negative spectacle of itself through violence and it makes sense to me to hope for some incremental benefit to this sort of positive pre-election publicity. Nonetheless, the overall amount of election-connected violence in the year before the vote was lower in 2007 in some respects, and people voted very peacefully and in large numbers. When violence occurred after the vote, the vast majority of Kenyans, especially those who actually voted, did not participate. So I don’t think you can measure the risk of violence by the overall sentiments of the population. Energy is much more wisely spent on preparation than prognostication.
A related point to me is that this debate simply shows the world the level of technological and economic development that exits in Nairobi, particularly in the media. The country was very much ready for this in 2007, and in some ways it seems more surprising that this didn’t happen in 2007 than that it did in 2013. More than anything it reflects, to me, the different dynamics of not having an incumbent seeking or planning to stay in office.
The second major impression for me was how the debate showed the disfunction of Kenya’s political parties at a national level. Without established major parties of some coherence other than as platforms for individuals, we end up with six candidates, then eight by court order at the last minute, and almost all the post-debate discussion centered on the contest for power among the individuals or the event of having the debate itself, rather than on anything of real substance about what one candidate believably could accomplish versus another. Congratulations are due more to Kenya’s media than to the political process or the candidates or parties it seems to me.
Some of the other things commented on widely were less significant to me, perhaps because my expectations of what could be possible in Kenya are higher. Martha Karua on stage was not a big moment in my book. She will rank significantly less of a factor in 2013 than Charity Ngilu did in 1997. Karua’s big moment in national leadership was her role as Kibaki’s lion(ess) facing off with Ruto at the Kenyatta International Conference Center December 28-30, 2007, and facing off with both the ODM side and Kofi Annan in the (generally unsuccessful) mediation afterwards prior to the February 28 post-election settlement signed by Kibaki and Raila. She is a strong capable female lawyer, but she doesn’t have an obvious constituency as a candidate for president of Kenya at this point and I don’t see her presence at the debate or her fortunes in this election as a proxy for the general status of women in politics in Kenya.
More striking is the idea of someone facing ICC trial for “crimes against humanity” this spring on stage on an equal footing and an understood stature as one of the two candidates who could become president. That to me is the greatest novelty of this debate.
[Update: See "What we learned from Kenya's first ever televised presidential debate" at Africa is a County, especially for a fun list of tweets from watching the debate in livestream.]