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‘Don’t be vague, go to The Hague’

14 February 2013

MRG’s Head of Programmes is in Nairobi helping to set up our new Somalia Gender Project. Along with what seems like the rest of the country’s electorate, she tuned into the first televised presidential debate ahead of Kenya’s hotly anticipated March 4 elections.

Kenya had its first televised presidential debate this evening and the whole country seemed to be watching; for over 3 hours…

An impromptu gathering of voters discusses the elections while shielding from the afternoon sun
An impromptu gathering of voters discusses the elections while shielding from the afternoon sun

It was an impressively organised event. All candidates got equal chances to speak, the moderators did a very competent job of maintaining the pace and flow, and they even managed a discussion about the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments (Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto will face trial in The Hague in April for planning and funding the 2008 post-election violence) without any outbursts.

Kenyatta insisted he wasn’t going to change his mind about running for office. He said he was confident that if he won, the case would not ‘interrupt the business of government’. Raila Odinga asked wittily that he didn’t understand exactly how a country could be run by Skype from The Hague. He added that there had been such chaotic discussions leading up to the indictment that finally someone had thrown their hands in the air and said, ‘Don’t be vague, go to The Hague.’

Ironically, just as Kenyatta was getting heat for being indicted, Odinga was also getting the heat for NOT being indicted. Many seem to believe that he too was responsible directly, in some measure, for the deaths that resulted in the post-election violence. Neither of them rose to the occasion brilliantly, but Odinga seems to have come off a little better, going by Facebook postings, media sound bites, and the reactions in the bar I was sitting in.

Many foreign diplomats in Kenya are saying that if Kenyatta wins, it will affect the country’s relationship with the international community. Britain has echoed Obama’s statement that it’s not about who wins, but the process. However, in a slightly self-contradictory manner, the British envoy to Kenya said that it is the policy of Britain and other European countries not to have contact with ICC indictees. Kenyan officials have formally written to the EU to seek clarification of what exactly this means.

Some Kenyan NGOs have expressed fears about Kenyatta and Ruto contesting the elections. They argue that the country will be leaderless if the two have to head off to The Hague in April to face trial. There is a fear that the president may then defy the ICC, which will bring a whole different set of consequences.

There were many references in the debate by all candidates to the new constitution and the importance of implementing it fully and immediately. They all spoke of the need to make Kenya a country for all its citizens. Though there was some time spent on discussing the question of ethnicity and politics, this seemed mostly about ethnic voting patterns. All candidates said citizens should not vote by ethnicity of candidates, but their campaigns appear to be highly ethnicised. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to in Nairobi has said they will vote according to ethnicity.

The loudspeakers on this campaign van blare political messages to the streets
The loudspeakers on this campaign van blare political messages to the streets

The debate on ethnicity turned for a moment to the question of inequality. One candidate, Martha Karua, addressed this but not in a very positive way. Her position was that there were poor in every community and that there were no structural or systemic connections between ethnicity and marginalisation. Karua is the only woman candidate and while many women I spoke to said she would be good for the country, they said they’d nevertheless vote for someone from their own community; partly because they felt Karua has no chance of winning, but also because they said that was what was ‘expected’ of them.

The issue of corruption came up in the debate but apart from the predictable platitudes on how it should be rooted out, nothing substantive emerged. People on the street were, in conversation with me, comparing candidates for their levels of corruption to decide whom to vote for if they were undecided. One was 50% corrupt, but the other was only 25% corrupt. One had grabbed a lot of land to make his millions, the other had grabbed only a little land and made fewer millions. So the one with less corruption and land-grabbing would get their vote (usually if they were of the right ethnicity).

Sadly, very little direct reference was made to minorities or indigenous peoples in the debate. Resource-based conflicts were mentioned a few times, and one candidate seemed interested in giving pastoralists better access to water and grazing land – that was as close as it got to the issues MRG is working on in Kenya.

There will be a second debate in 2 weeks, perhaps minority issues and land rights will feature more in that. MRG will be following the situation closely. In the meantime why not check out our most recent publication on the upcoming elections: Taking diversity seriously: minorities and political participation in Kenya.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.