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Kenya's First-Ever Presidential Debate Became a Significant Social Media Event

BY Sara Jerving | Wednesday, February 13 2013

Screenshot of debate organizers' Facebook page

Kenya held its first-ever presidential debate this Monday. Millions of people gathered around television and radio sets, in homes, restaurants and pubs to listen and watch as the candidates answered questions submitted by ordinary citizens via social media platforms, SMS and email. The debate was the top trending reported event that evening on Twitter, surpassing even news about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Kenyans go to the polls on March 4 to elect a new president — the fourth since this east African nation won its independence in 1963. Many anticipate there will be a runoff election in mid-April.

Editors from two local media houses, Nation Media Group and Royal Media Services, launched the idea for the debate in August 2012. Late last year, the media groups created Facebook and Twitter pages for the event, via which citizens could nominate potential moderators and submit questions they wanted the candidates to answer. The steering committee eventually chose two moderators from those who had been suggested via social media.

Kenya's Standard Digital news site reported that the committee was composed of representatives from various media outlets, and that they had "...compiled more than 5,000 questions directed to the six candidates through SMS, email, Facebook, Twitter and others." (Two additional candidates were added to the debate after this report was published, for a total of eight). A team of researchers was assigned to categorize and "tighten" questions, which were in turn posed to the candidates by the moderators.

The debate led with the question: “What do you intend to do, and how different will you be from the predecessors of the president we are seeking to elect, given that Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki all made [tribal affiliation] the base of their governments?”

Another round of questions gathered by the same means will be asked in the second debate on February 25. If there is a runoff election there will be a third debate, but the questions have not yet been chosen.

The previous election in late 2007 saw widespread violence when both the losing candidate and election observers alleged the results had been skewed by vote rigging. Over 1,200 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced in what became Kenya’s most severe national crisis. The violence ended after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan brokered a coalition government between the parties of the re-elected incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, and losing candidate Railia Odinga. But many fear it could break out again when the results of the upcoming election are announced.  

As techPresident reported last week, Kenyan NGOs and government agencies have launched a concerted effort to stave off potential violence with online initiatives and grassroots organizing. The goal is to improve transparency, minimize online hate speech and provide a means for ordinary citizens to report violent incidents via a dedicated digital platform.

This week’s presidential debate aired some of the most pressing issues facing the healing nation, with the organizers using social media platforms to create a lively forum for discussion.

The event opened with a discussion of tribalism, which Linus KaiKai, one of the moderators and managing editor of Nation Broadcasting Division, characterized as the “elephant in the room.” In Kenya it is received wisdom that the majority of the public votes along tribal lines rather than on issues affecting the country as a whole. This sensitive topic has been at the heart of the nation’s leadership struggle since independence. All of the candidates denounced this mindset during the debate.

Martha Karua, the only female candidate, told the audience “no tribe puts food on your table.”  The moderators asked about the newly ratified constitution, which is one of the most progressive on the continent, with each candidate assuring the audience that it would be implemented in its entirety.  The interlocutors also posed questions about national security, asking the presidential hopefuls how they would handle the dispute over Migingo Island in Lake Victoria. Both Kenya and Uganda claim ownership of the island. The public education system was another hot button topic. One candidate, Peter Kenneth, pointed out that a lack of funding for secondary schools was the cause of declining enrollment figures. The moderators asked the candidates to comment on the healthcare system, which is inaccessible to many Kenyans. 

Uhuru Kenyatta, one of the lead candidates, was questioned extensively on his pending International Criminal Court trial, where he will stand accused of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in perpetrating violence during the 2007-8 crisis.

The media outlets hosting the debate initially promoted it with the Twitter hashtag #KenyaDebate2013. But in response to complaints in the online community that the hashtag was too long, said Larry Madowo, technology editor with the Nation Media Group, they changed it to #KEdebate13.

Meanwhile, Twitter users had already created their own hashtag — #Debate254. The ‘254’ represents Kenya’s international country code. Both hashtags were used during the debate, but Kenyan media outlets only broadcast tweets tagged with #KEdebate13. Eight television stations and 34 radio stations in Kenya broadcast the three-and-a-half hour debate, while YouTube provided coverage via livestreaming. Politicians also commented following the debate via their own Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The entire debate was streamed live on YouTube; it can be viewed here in its entirety.

Kenyans used Twitter to follow and comment on their country's first presidential debate

“I was totally amazed by the online attention the debate received,” said KaiKai. “I was able to read some of the comments on social media later that evening and saw people had written ‘we are watching the debate on Twitter.’ It’s come to the point where there are so many updates by media organizations and others, minute-by-minute, that people can actually follow the debate on Twitter without tuning into the broadcast.”

Besides serious commentary, the debate inspired many Internet memes and parody accounts, said Madowo. Much of the comic relief came at the expense of candidate Mohammed Abduba Dida, who, among other notable statements, suggested that the government should adopt a preventive care policy that encourages people to eat only when they feel hungry.

"I do not know who brought these eating schedules with lunch and dinner. When you are hungry you do not fill up your belly with food; you need a third of food, a third of water then the other third is breathing space," Dida said.  Prominent photojournalist Boniface Mwangi (@bonifacemwangi) tweeted: “Dida has a commoner’s touch and I'm happy he is part of this debate #KEDebate13.”

One of the Internet memes inspired by presidential candidate Mohammed Dida

Presidential hopeful Raila Odinga also inspired an Internet meme when he took a jab at his opponent Kenyatta. Odinga suggested that if Kenyatta were to win he would have to run the government via Skype from his ICC trial at The Hague.

Previous attempts to hold presidential debates failed due to the recalcitrance of the political leaders. Kibaki refused to attend in 2007 and had health issues in 2002. His predecessor President Daniel Arap Moi also refused to make an appearance at debates, said KaiKai. Monday’s event cost some $1.1 million (USD).

Zack Mukewa (@UrbaneKenyan), a 29-year old economist from Nairobi, said the debate did not prompt him to rethink his vote. But it did represent an important step in making Kenya more democratic and transparent.

“For a country that has gone through a single party state, a struggle to a multiparty state and a democratic process that gives citizens almost no chance to evaluate leaders on issues, this was a big deal,” he said. Mukewa is an avid user of Twitter, where he comments on issues like economics, geopolitics and governance for his some 4,400 followers.

Regina Opondo, a program director for the Constitution and Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), agreed that this initial debate was important for Kenya in moving politics away from the candidates’ personalities and tribal affiliation to issue-based decision-making. CRECO has been monitoring incidents of violence around the country since June of last year, identifying high and low risk areas that might see violence this election cycle.

But these debates should have come earlier in the campaign cycle, Opondo said. And the candidates should have published their party platforms earlier, too. The candidates only recently released their “campaign manifestos.” With less than one month to elections, voters had not been given sufficient time to study the manifestos in order to formulate meaningful questions going into the debate, she argued.

Tom Wolf, a research analyst at the polling company Ipsos Synovate, which has provided polls on the upcoming elections, anticipates the debate could potentially swing voters to those considered minor candidates. Wolf mentioned Martha Karua as someone who performed strongly at the debate. Opondo also commented on Karua’s strong performance.

“Because the polls are suggesting that the race will lead to a runoff anyways, a strong performance might encourage some Kenyans to change their vote just because they feel like they already know the outcome of the March election,” Wolf said. Odinga and Kenyatta are ahead in the polls, with some on social media complaining that these two candidates dominated the debate.

Overall, the debate came across as fair and balanced.  The moderators were self confident and followed up on the candidate’s responses, which cut through some of the well-rehearsed rhetoric. Sometimes the candidates themselves helped keep the debate honest. Mohammed Abduba Dida, a teacher himself, accused his fellow candidates of hypocrisy for opining on the underfunded public education system while their own children were enrolled in private schools.

“People with kids in private schools want to make the public schools better! How? You can talk about children when you have them. How many of you have children in public schools?” he asked. The issue of Mgingo Island received far too much time given its irrelevance to average Kenyans. The controversy over the island has not been a major news story since 2009.

In the next debate, according to KaiKai, the candidates will be asked to address a new set of issues affecting the lives of Kenyans. These include high unemployment rates;  plans for exploiting the nation’s natural resources, including recently discovered oil reserves in the northwest part of the country; and questions of foreign policy, including Kenya's ongoing military conflict with Somalia.

While the response to the performance of the candidates was mixed, there seems to be a consensus that this debate was a pivotal moment in the nation’s developing democracy. The debates will hopefully build a culture where politicians expect to be held accountable, KaiKai said.

“This initial debate is so rich in symbolism. It represents a big step in promoting open government and a mature democracy,” he said. “And, of course, the online audience is the biggest new audience to which we [news organizations] now have to cater.”

Sara Jerving is an American freelance journalist based in Nairobi. Follower her on Twitter @sarajerving.

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