Why Kenya’s presidential debates will flop badly
Kenya’s much hyped idea of importing American-style town hall presidential debates to the local political process in order to raise the perfect president is by all means a brilliant initiative that will sadly amount to naught.
The Kenyan version of the debates faces monumental logistical nightmares right from the start since the number of political parties involved and their presidential candidates are to say the least unprecedented. There are no pre- existing structures to ensure the debate is conducted in the most professional way possible apart from the one that was hastily created by the originators of the idea- the major Kenyan media companies.
Eight television stations and 32 radio stations announced the venture for an unprecedented simultaneous broadcast of live debates to be aired on November 26, followed by the second on January 14, 2013 and the third and final one on February 11, 2013.
But I don’t believe the intended purpose of the debates will be realized, not even by a long shot. Presidential debates have had an arguably huge role to play in propelling candidates to the white house in the United States, but how exactly does this play out?
These structured events were designed for the undecided voters who do not lean either side of the political divide during the campaign period. This might best explain why after every debate session in the United States, the tilting advantage between the Democratic and Republican candidate is usually a few percentage points in favor of the best debater.
Consider the case of Kenya where tribe is the single largest unifying aspect during political contest. Undecided voters do not come into play. The country is ethnically polarized so much so that the political atmosphere will barely change on account these diversionary events in the name of debates. Creating a culture of ideological politics will take much more than a trifecta of debates to cause a stirring in that direction.
That is why I want to highlight the more practical media initiatives that have and are continuing to make a brilliant case for better inculcation of issue based politics as opposed to tribal based politics.
The first one is The Wazi Campaign which is a media campaign that has been running on the mainstream media for quite some time now. Its slogan is aptly put: “Kenya ni jina. Nchi ni wewe. ” This is perhaps the more home grown solution to the immediate problem in our politics; ethnic tolerance. Behind the three multicolored animated birds and their eggs is a more profound revelation that we rise together as a nation and fall divide as a nation. It is a very effective way of preaching peace and creating a spirit of communal cooperation.
The second initiative, which is a very powerful one, is the Uongozi initiative that has been put together by several stakeholders including Inuka Kenya and Posta Kenya. The Campaign is centered around a fourteen part political reality show which seeks to identify potential new and young political leaders through a virtual media election vehicle. The show hasn’t started as yet, but the initiators of the whole campaign have a good plot there.
Other initiatives like the Bunge la Mwananchi that has activities and constructive meetings in the grassroots is also a more practical way of slowly developing a healthy attitude among voters as regards electing good national and county leaders. TV programmes like the Classmates, which portrays the diversity in a multicultural setting in Kenya, preach towards ethnic tolerance, which is good in defusing the tribal tensions. Musicians who sing patriotic songs to unite Kenyans are also being powerful ambassadors and their efforts will always pay off.
Unfortunately, poverty still remains the second most compromising weapon for leaders who have no agenda for the country. Whoever will figure out how to convince the electorate that receiving T- Shirts, Lessos, money and other gifts in exchange for votes is political fraud will have addressed the other half of the problem.
But for presidential debates, it is a long shot, at least for now to expect anything more than good old fashioned entertainment as the outcome. At worst, the divisions could widen further because of the increased euphoria for the different candidates from their backgrounds.