Celebrating the flopped #DebatesKE is missing the big picture

Whether or not the Presidential Debates have any realistic effects on how voters finally vote have been up for debate, not here in Kenya that has held only one successful Presidential Debate and a flobbed Deputy Presidential debate, but in the US where Presidential Debates have become part and parcel of the presidential elections. The notion that the presidential debates have no effect on voters is however taking root in Kenya; with majority of Kenyans taking the view that the decision by both Deputy President William Ruto and NASA’s Deputy Presidential candidate Kalonzo Musyoka  to skip the flopped #DebatesKE was inconsequential.

The debate that was to be in two parts was the greatest embarrassment the Kenyan media has experienced in the country’s broadcast history. Other than the failure by five deputy presidential candidates to appear for the first part of the debate that was to feature the fringe candidates, the two leading deputy presidential candidates totally and completely failed to show their faces, forcing Debates Kenya Limited to declare the second pat of the debate a no show.

The no show declaration was received with mixed reactions by Kenyans on social media, with some celebrating the outcome whereas others expressing deep disappointments. One of the people who shared a reaction to the debate is Kennedy Kachwanya, Chairman of Bloggers Association of Kenya. In a tweet, Mr. Kachwanya attributed the embarrassment experienced by the media to the inability of the media to influence Kenyans anymore.

A deeper explanation to this reaction would be offered by Ferdinand Omondi, a journalist at BBC World Service and former Senior Reporter with Standard Media Group. Through a lengthy Facebook update, Mr. Omondi was of the opinion that the open biases and corruption were the reasons the politicians lost respect for the media. He explained:

Many questions have been asked on the integrity of media houses in covering politics. How fair they are on all candidates. How money changes hands before securing interviews and so on. Journalists showing open bias for some candidates. If media can’t be unequivocally independent and assertive, such scenarios will recur. Politicians should be kneeling at the feet of media, not the other way round. Immediately after the snub, all bulletins dutifully covered the rallies of Jubilee and NASA, step by step, as if nothing had happened. The ‘donkeys’ were still fighting for space. If I treat you like trash but you still give me undivided attention, why would I change my attitude?

Most of those who hold to the opinion that the media had orchestrated their own embarrassment also contend that Kenya had nothing to lose after #DebatesKE flopped that badly. Some of those who belong to this group reasoned that Kenyans who want to judge the politicians ideologically ought to get hold of the already released manifestos and read them or attend political rallies to listen to the politicians. Others believe that Kenyans are incapable of following debates to thereafter derive meaningful information that would help them make better political decisions. Then there are those who explained that the debate was nothing but a forum for the media houses to make a kill from a political entertainment event.

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Turning the coin we find disappointed Kenyans. Kenyans who had set aside their valuable (or idle) time to listen to what the deputy presidential candidates had to say in as far as governing Kenya for next five years is concerned. These Kenyans probably just wanted to get some entertainment, or watch their preferred candidate thrash the opponent with facts or trash. Or they simply wanted to virtually attend the debate with a keen ear to listen to policies and policy plans, get answers on how the politicians intend to implement what they have promised in the manifestos and political rallies, and genuinely compare competing ideologies on how this country can be government for the better.

No matter the intentions of the debate organisers or of the viewers who had set their valuable/idle time aside, the importance of a presidential or deputy presidential debates cannot be wished away, not in an aspiring democracy like Kenya. Let me use four reasons to explain why debates are important.

Firstly, I consider the debates as part of civic education that every citizen is required to receive to enable him/her make informed decision in socio-economic issues – and there is no any single most important socio-economic decision as deciding on who to elect in a political office. It is has been said that the debate would hardly change a Kenyan political decision today, but we have to come to the realization that Kenyans will not remain the same forever.

Secondly, for Kenyans to be able to use informative platforms such as #DebatesKE for political decision making in the future, then such a platform must be started today (where today means 2013) and nurtured to maturity. We cannot however start and nurture them when the stakeholders belittle the importance of the said debates.

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Thirdly, there are Kenyans who have made up their minds on who to vote for, but they still need explicit explanations on how the candidates they intend to vote for will deliver the promises they have made and continue to make in the political rallies.

For example, I may want to vote for Raila based on his promise to deliver free universal secondary education, halt the ballooning debt, revamp smallholder farming, allocate 45% of the previous year’s budget to the counties, reduce tax, and still be able to grow the economy by double digits, but I would really like him pressed hard by both his opponent and interviewer on how he will balance all these, some of which seem to be pulling away from each other. Once I get his answers to these questions, I would like to use those answers against him when he or his running mate decides to run for office in 2022.

Lastly, the presidential and deputy presidential debates demystify these public offices. In societies like America where the President is questioned by the media on several occasions, the presidency appears approachable. Here we have a president who is hardly available to answer burning questions in the minds of Kenyans year in year out. From Kenyatta’s through to Kibaki’s regimes, we have viewed the presidency as some sort of a lordship office, where the occupants are not only above the law but also out of reach in as far as public scrutiny is concerned. It is through the presidential debates that we as citizens have that one unique privilege to watch the president respond to some of the tough questions that have been bothering us for a half a decade.

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The media under the umbrella of Debates Media Limited may have organised #DebatesKE in order to make a kill worth millions, but so does anyone who sells unga, or mobile data, or build first class Two Rivers malls for our own amusement. The road that drove US to superpower was paved by selfish individuals who wanted to make money at all costs, but that road finally gave the world the definition of freedom and liberty.

The media could be biased in the programming and the interviews they conduct, but that doesn’t mean the the 90 minutes of a #DebatesKE time wouldn’t have influenced a few individuals anywhere in the country to make a decision for a better life. The media could have gone to bed with statehouse, but the 90 minutes could have offered Kalonzo Musyoka to portray Jubilee as a leadership that has done nothing other than buy journalists and media houses, and at the same time threaten the freedom of the very media. Kalonzo, alone at the podium, could have shown that the media is hellbent at protecting Jubilee and at the same time attempting to block Raila Odinga from ascending to statehouse yet it is Raila who has fought teeth and nail to give them the very freedom they enjoy today.

Always, the bigger picture is the Kenya for tomorrow, whether politically or economically. That Kenya for tomorrow can only be born today. If we miscarry any process that is intended to make Kenya better, I wonder how anyone would expect Kenya to grow to actually become better. And as for who lost more in the flopped #DebatesKE, I contend it is Kenya, NASA, Jubilee and the Media in that order.

Odipo Riaga
Managing Editor at KachTech Media
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