Kenya awaits vote results in Tuesday's election which saw close race for William Ruto and Raila Odinga View More

Will Kenya’s Odinga skip the debate?


NAIROBI, Kenya | Kenya was gearing up for a presidential debate on Tuesday, but one candidate had indicated he wouldn’t show up, raising mixed reactions from supporters and enemies.

Raila Odinga, the former Prime Minister, and a frontrunner in the presidential polls, according to local opinion polls, had said he would skip the debate because it amounts to “fighting with a pig.” Prof Makau Mutua, the head of the campaigns for the Azimio La Umoja One Kenya coalition, argued the main opponent, William Ruto, is too corrupt to share a platform with Odinga. He charged that Odinga would be elsewhere at a town hall to answer questions “directly from Kenyans.”

“Our main opponent has proven for his career that he will say and do anything in his ungovernable greed for power,” Makau Mutua said, arguing his candidate will not participate.

The idea of skipping debates is not new, however. Since 2013, when Kenyan media houses collaborated to launch presidential debates, controversy has always emerged. In 2013, Paul Muite, a lawyer, had to obtain a court order to be included in the discussion. He was a last-minute contender in the race, and media houses had decided only to invite those with a better rating. The High Court ruled it would violate the constitutional rights of candidates to sell their ideas to voters.

In 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta, then seeking to defend his seat, skipped the second debate. His handlers then argued the media was biased, and he chose instead to speak to Kenyans at a town hall. The paradox is that those who supported Uhuru’s skipping then, including his deputy, Dr. Ruto, are now criticizing Odinga’s decision to skip.                      

There was still a chance for Odinga to show up, given that his running mate Martha Karua showed up last week during a debate among running mates. It is Ruto’s running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, who was expected to skip, given the criticism of the media by his coalition, Kenya Kwanza.                                                                                                    

Yet the debate and positions attached to it also reflect the dynamics in Kenya elections and politics. Mr. Odinga has sustained leadership of his party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), since 2005. He used the party to run for the presidency in 2007, leading to a disputed result against Mwai Kibaki. Violence ensued, and more than 1200 people were killed. Peace returned only after a power-sharing deal with Kibaki with Odinga serving as President.

Odinga would run two more times but with different coalitions each time. All these coalitions fronted the same politicians, however, changing alliances as conditions permitted. In 2013, Odinga ran for the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD). Some of his opponents included Ms. Karua, who ran for the presidency. In 2017, Odinga ran for the National Super Alliance (NASA). His opponent was Uhuru Kenyatta, now backing Odinga to succeed him. His backers then, including Senator Moses Wetangula, a former Minority Leader in the Senate, and Musalia Mudavadi, a former Vice President, are now backing Odinga’s opponent Ruto. Another former Vice President, Kalonzo Musyoka, who opposed Kenyatta twice as running mate to Odinga, is now supporting Odinga in the Azimio coalition, incidentally chaired by Kenyatta.

There is insufficient proof to show presidential debates can sway voters in a country heavily influenced by tribal politics. But Odinga’s skipping could surely raise online banter. Ruto’s keyboard warrior has already labeled him a coward. But some of Odinga’s people lamented the possibility of Ruto having to debate himself in one and a half hours.

The structure of the debate is such that there are two phases. Phase one includes candidates who have tallied poorly in opinion polls. George Wajackoya, an immigration lawyer, and David Mwaure, a cleric, will go first. Wajackoya’s popularity rose 6 percent, mainly by selling controversial pledges such as legalizing bhang and farming snakes.

Prof.Wajackoya was threatened to pull out if candidates were separated. Mr. Ruto, meanwhile, has accused Mr. Odinga of avoiding the spotlight as he could not defend his plan for the country, as well as the fact that he is now endorsed by a man he opposed for a decade.

“Let my competitor come for the debate so that he can tell Kenyans why he thwarted government programs with his handshake,” Ruto claimed at a rally. He was referring to his reconciliation with Kenyatta in 2018, locally known as a handshake.

“Our competitors have no plans, schedules, or ideas to take Kenya forward. This is the reason why they have run away from the debate.”


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