Kenya's presidential bets hold first ever debate
NAIROBI, Kenya - Kenya's eight presidential candidates held the country's first ever face-to-face debate on Monday as tensions mount ahead of next month's election, five years after bloody violence erupted in the wake of the last vote.
While two main candidates -- Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga -- dominate the race for the March 4 election, all the hopefuls have potential influence, especially if voting goes to a second round run-off.
Kenyans crowded into bars and homes to watch the debate, broadcast live on television, radio as well as the Internet for Kenyans overseas.
The poll is the first since bloody post-election violence in 2007-8, when what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic violence that killed some 1,200 people and displaced 600,000 others.
The violence shattered Kenya's image as a beacon of stability in east Africa.
Kenyatta, the deputy prime minister and son of Kenya's founding president, faces trial along with his running mate William Ruto at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the 2007 poll.
"I will be able to handle the issue of clearing our names... while at the same time ensuring that the business of government continues," Kenyatta said in reply to a question about how he and Ruto will juggle court appearances and run the country if elected.
But his key challenger scoffed at the possibility of running Kenya from The Hague-based ICC.
"I know that it will pose serious challenges to run a government by Skype from The Hague," Odinga said. "I know that it is not practical."
Despite sometimes heated exchanges -- mostly over Kenyatta's future as he prepares for a potentially lengthy ICC trial -- the rivals stressed the importance of not repeating the violence of the last poll.
"Personally I have no differences with the Honorable Raila... but we may differ on how to handle some of the issues", Kenyatta said, looking at Odinga.
In return, Odinga called Kenyatta "my brother" and said they were "the best of friends".
Other candidates include deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi, Martha Karua, Peter Kenneth, and James Ole Kiyapi.
The debate was nearly stalled after two smaller candidates -- Paul Muite and Mohammed Abduba Dida -- were initially excluded from the meeting, with Muite obtaining a court injunction to ensure they were allowed to take part.
A second debate is due on February 25.
Candidates were given strict time limits to answer questions posed by the presenter, and rarely engaged directly with each other.
Issues covered included how the candidates would tackle Kenya's problem of ethnic division, with Kenyatta saying that "tribalism was a cancer".
Concerns are high over the risk of possible repeat violence.
Last week Human Rights Watch warned the risk of political violence is "perilously high", noting that the "underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place."
At least 484 people were killed and over 116,000 fled their homes due to ethnic violence last year, according to the United Nations.
Tensions have been stoked by the looming ICC trial for Kenyatta and Ruto set to begin on April 10, which could clash with a presidential run-off vote due within a month if -- as many expect -- no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round.
Ahead of the debate, Kenya's Foreign Minister Sam Ongeri summoned European Union envoys and accused them of what he claimed was an "orchestrated attempt ... to influence the way Kenyans conduct their forthcoming elections."
"The remarks made by EU envoys are clearly inflammatory and could have the effect of polarizing the country," Ongeri said in a statement after the meeting.
Local media recently quoted various EU ambassadors as saying they would avoid meeting with Kenyatta and Ruto, but the EU said they were following a policy of having only "essential contact with indicted ICC suspects."
EU ambassadors issued a joint statement after the meeting in which they "rejected any allegation of interfering in the elections process" adding that "it is for the Kenyan people to elect their leaders." - Rappler.com