NGUGI: Presidential candidates should hold public debates - Daily Nation

For Kenya’s sake, candidates for the presidency should hold public debates

Tuesday September 6 2011


Kenyan presidential candidates need to put their country in front of their egos and hold a series of debates that will bring their political platforms in front of the people.

We need a tradition of dialogue in politics if the violence of 2007-2008 that nearly tore the country apart is not to recur in 2012.

In 2008, the candidates from the warring parties were content to lead their constituents deeper into ethnic enclaves instead of embarking on a united national peace tour.

To both President Kibaki and Mr Raila Odinga, political ambitions were more important than the country they wanted to lead even if that country was going up in flames.

Had they embarked on a national tour as a political solution was being sought, they would have shown by example that it is possible to disagree vehemently but never at the expense of the lives of their followers, or the country’s well-being.

The sort of leadership where politicians are the country and the people their soldiers has to end.

With less than year to go before the next presidential elections, there should be a series of debates held in Kisumu, Nairobi and Mombasa in front of a representative live audience.

The debate questions should come from a panel composed of political activists, youth, women, business and religious leaders as well as workers’ and farmers’ unions.

Presidential debates are only as good as the candidates. In the 2007 US debates, whereas candidate Barack Obama was trying to be inclusive, Mr John McCain chose to be combative and divisive and an opportunity to talk across races and ethnicities and abate the rising tensions was lost.

In the same way that we can practise a better democracy than that of the West, we can have presidential debates that give the country space to talk with each other.

This is the situation. That two of the six or so declared candidates accused of crimes against humanity are serious contenders for the presidency is bad enough. That they are doing so with unquestioning support from their ethnicities is a recipe for disaster.

Should there be a need for a run-off between the top two contenders who don’t garner more than 50 per cent of the vote as the new Constitution demands, violence is guaranteed.

The measure was put in place in order to make sure that no one gets into office buoyed by ethnic power alone, but just like everything else in democracy, goodwill has to be the cornerstone. And goodwill is lacking in our political culture.

Presidential debates are not a cure for ethnic animosities and all that ails us. What we really need is a democracy with content. We need a democracy with the content of social and economic justice.

The point is not that the violence should not have broken out in the slums of Kenya, but that the slums should not exist at all.

The point is not that the poor should not have been killing each other for their rich politicians, but that the kind of obscene economic disparity that exists in Kenya should not.

In a way, we all, and I mean all of us, had a hand in the 2007-2008 violence. The media had for years stopped being the people’s watchdogs.

The religious leaders gave God ethnicity and they too played a divisive role. Civil organisations, instead of protecting the people, also dipped their hands into the politics of ethnicity.

And the intellectuals at home or abroad left the academic halls and retreated into respective ethnic fortresses from which they lobbed insults at each other. Kenyans abroad started raising money for their respective ethnic armies. And the youth took to arms.

By default, Kenyan media organisations should be at the forefront of organising the debates. Universities should also be involved.

This is work for all us, whether it’s in pressuring the unwilling candidates to take part, or in making sure that the right questions are asked.

The bottom line is this: Part of our atoning for the 2007-2008 violence is learning how to talk and disagree with each other.

Mr Ngugi is the author of ‘Nairobi Heat’.