, NAIROBI, Feb 11 – 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.
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.
The violence shattered Kenya’s image as a beacon of stability in east Africa, when what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic violence that killed some 1,200 people and displaced 600,000 others.
“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 be in court 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 Honourable 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 Musalia Mudavadi, the deputy prime minister, 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.