Kenya election: First ever presidential debate hooks voters


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The Independent Online

In Britain, people cram into pubs and bars to watch important national events.

But in Kenya, the crowd is often outside peeping through the windows and doors.

With many people making between £1 and £3.50 per day - and with families to feed and school fees to pay every coin that is saved counts.

A trip to the bar comes with a needless extra cost for the drinks.

So with Kenya’s first ever presidential debate taking place last night the best place to soak up the atmosphere was outside a pub in Githurai, 10 kilometres east of Nairobi.

There an animated discussion was taking place about the events being aired on TV sets inside ahead of the March 4 general election.

Michael Githinji, a mechanic, says he has already made up his mind how he will vote despite the debate.

He will vote for the Jubilee Coalition which has Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as the flag-bearer and William Ruto as his running-mate – despite the fact that they are facing a war crimes trial.

“We have to show the world that his charges are politically instigated to help Raila Odinga (Kenya’s Prime Minister and Uhuru’s main challenger),” says Mr Mwangi, a Kikuyu.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) based at The Hague, Netherlands. They are charged with crimes against humanity committed during the 2008 post-election violence that left more than 1,000 people dead and 650,000 others homeless.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto have constantly protested their innocence dismissing the charges as political. They have pledged to cooperate with the ICC in order to clear their names.

Like Mr Kenyatta, Mr Odinga enjoys fanatical support in his Luo ethnic community. Some of his supporters are the poor who live in shacks in the sprawling Kibera slums in Nairobi.

Opinion polls show Mr Odinga leading Mr Kenyatta with a few percentage points in the run up to the election. However, each commands over 40 per cent of the votes.

Britain, United States and the European Union have warned of unspecified consequences should Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto ascend to power. Britain and EU cited an existing policy of making only essential contacts with ICC indictees.

But the suspects have dismissed these as threats aimed at influencing the outcome of the election in favour of “West’s stooge Mr Odinga”.

Interestingly, the ICC charges have transformed the suspects into ‘martyrs’ of sorts among their ethnic supporters. This could lead to a high voter turnout among their supporters out to ‘save their own’.

Joshua Kivuva, a political science lecturer at the University of Nairobi, argues that the indictment by the ICC charges made Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto popular.

“Before they were indicted, we did not see Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto as strong candidates. Now look at them,” said Dr Kivuva.

He opines that the sentiments by the Western diplomats were a slap on the face of the freedom fighters. “That is purely why I will vote for Mr Kenyatta,” said Dr Kivuva. “Fifty years after independence, we should not have this patronage.”

Prof Egara Kabaji, a political commentator in Kenya, says the voting patterns in Kenya are along tribal lines due to ignorance.

“Voter education is lacking,” he says. “Therefore, most voters will certainly vote against their best interests.”

Political kingpins in Kenya create a siege mentality among their supporters to whip marshal support, argues Prof Kabaji.

“The common belief among the supporters of Uhuru (Kikuyus) is that if one of their own is not in power then they are finished,” he says.

“The belief among Raila supporters (Luos) is that once he is in power, their problems are solved. The truth of the matter is the ordinary people from these two tribes suffer equally whether or not a person from their tribe is in power.”