There is no doubt that Kenya’s first presidential debate, held at the beginning of this week in Nairobi, has generated unprecedented interest, not only in the land of Mwai Kibaki, but also regionally and far beyond.
This is attested by the wide media coverage of the event and the attention it has received from members of the public.
The second debate is scheduled for February 25th, 2013, and is also likely to be watched by millions of people worldwide, including those who for one reason or another missed the “appetizer” in the form of the first encounter. Will this development mark the beginning of the presidential debate practice in the East African region and other countries of Africa? Well, Mother Time will tell.
Before we can say much on Kenyan presidential debates, it is important to look at the question raised in some quarters on whether engaging presidential candidates in a debate at the climax of the election campaign is of any value in the electoral process. Some even go to the extent of claiming that as far as the African continent is concerned, the whole business of conducting presidential debates amounts to adoption of foreign practices!
It is true that the practice of subjecting contestants of highest office in the country to open debates is already a popular tradition in most developing countries with stabilized political systems, as well as in a few developing countries striving to improve social governance. It is probably this kind of experience which tempts some opinion leaders in our midst to consider the practice under discussion as foreign.
The above point of view however, is a strange one, when we take into consideration the fact that the very idea of electing leaders through the ballot, the electoral processes involved, and even the political systems which provide the rationale of the elections as we know them, can’t be claimed to be rooted in African traditions.
It follows therefore that the issue worth digesting is whether the debates are important or not, irrespective of whether they are our own creation or an imitation.
Even this question is not all that controversial. It is obvious that when such debates are well organized electorates get a special opportunity to gain more understand about the candidates on aspects like their ability to communicate, as well as their understanding of national and international challenges.
Well moderated presidential debates have the semblance of a job interview, the big difference being that in this case the events are witnessed by members of the public, thanks to the communication revolution which has turned the world into a small village. Interviewing candidates for key jobs is a common and useful practice today and there is no reason why an approach close to it should not be used when looking for the Chief Executive Officer of the country.
One may as well note at this juncture that there are historic reasons to explain why post independence leaders in Africa did not entertain the idea of subjecting presidential contestants to rigorous examination during election time. These leaders emerged as nationalists who fought for independence. Unfortunately, after getting to power most of them thought the “throne” was their right and were determined to maintain it either through a one party system of government or organizing sham elections, in cases where a multi-party political system was allowed to continue operating.
Then came the period of toppling autocratic governments on the continent and the military officers who took over also had no appetite for holding genuine presidential elections thereafter.
We also note that even after the political and economic liberalisation which started in the early 1990s, elections in general, and presidential elections in particular, have remained problematic, with incumbents using all sorts of tricks to retain power.
But now times have changed. Enlightened youths are gradually forming the biggest block of voters, and opposition parties are gaining more experience in coping with electoral challenges.
Electoral crimes are also attracting more international attention and new constitutions which address election challenges are being written. In short, there are clear signs showing that genuine elections in which presidential debates will have a role to play are on the way. Kenya is showing us a good example and there is no reason why other countries in the region should not follow this lead.
Henry Muhanika is a media consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org