Television viewers in Kenya and beyond should be eagerly anticipating the presidential election candidates’ debate scheduled for Monday night.
A faceoff between President Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party and his main rival Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement should make for engrossing theatre. And before the main event should be an intriguing curtain-raiser in an opportunity for the other six presidential candidates who could not attain the 5 per cent threshold to participate in the main debate, to introduce themselves to the voters.
The six are Ekuru Aukot of Thirdway Alliance Kenya, Abduba Dida of the Alliance for Real Change, Cyrus Jirongo of the United Democratic Party and independents Joe Nyagah, Michael Wainaina and Japheth Kavinga.
The debate, however, comes amidst real concern that many of the candidates might spurn the opportunity to open themselves up to voter scrutiny on their records, suitability for leadership, moral and ethical standing, ideological grounding, economic and social policies, and development proposals.
In any democracy, candidates for political office would jump at the chance to explain themselves, respond to questions and allow voters to gauge them against their competitors.
But the big night approaches amidst indications that President Kenyatta intends to make good his threat to snub the event, and Mr Odinga signalling he will participate only if the president does.
Some second-tier candidates have also expressed unhappiness at being relegated to a curtain-raiser instead of taking the stage for the main event.
Indeed there was a damper on the first debate last week between candidates for deputy president, when both President Kenyatta’s running mate William Ruto and Mr Odinga’s running-mate Kalonzo Musyoka failed to turn up.
Before that, the debate for the second-tier candidates had been reduced to a one-man show starring Eliud Kariara, Mr Kavinga’s running-mate, after the other skipped the debate.
Whether the candidates turn up at Catholic University of East Africa or not, the issues they would be expected to address will still remain pertinent.
Many of those are issues already covered in their policy documents or ventilated on campaign rally platforms, and loosely fit in with the 10-point Nation Agenda formulated by the Nation Media Group.
A debate faceoff would have President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga pitch their competing visions for Kenya’s future and allow the other presidential candidates the opportunity to demonstrate that they too deserve to be taken seriously.
A big issue now is food security, and Kenyans would want to hear the candidates expound on the programmes they propose to ensure that Kenyans will never again suffer the ravages of famine and shortages of unga, maize meal and other basic foodstuff.
Poverty and youth unemployment are critical issues that all the candidates have been promising to address, but the debate where they are all on stage would open their competing solutions to scrutiny not possible at a campaign rally or at a forum organised by the candidate himself before an audience of party supporters and a friendly moderator.
All the party manifestoes offer mega infrastructure projects in roads, railways, airports, energy, piped water supply, irrigation, and so on, but are conspicuously silent on the costs, where the money will come from, and the viability. These are questions voters would like to have answered.
There is also the very real issue of State capture and corruption cartels. The campaigns all pledge serious crackdowns on corruption, but don’t bother to explain how a candidate who has failed to eradicate the vice or is closely associated with the lords of corruption will achieve anything if given a second chance, or the opportunity to put his plans into action.
The election campaigns have also seen the main candidates actively engage in ethnic mobilisation, hate speech, inciting communities against each other, threatening evictions and forced displacement..
At campaign rallies and through their social media and online propaganda onslaughts, President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, and their respective surrogates, are acting as if no lessons were learnt from the 2007-2008 post-election violence that nearly led the country into civil war and dismemberment.
There are real fears in the countdown to the polls that Kenya is headed for another Armageddon. That is why many might want to see the two main candidates together on stage explaining why they both seem so keen to lead the country down the path of violence, slaughter and destruction, instead of national healing and reconciliation.
The election is also coming with a worrying resurgence of terrorist attacks, particularly in the coastal and northeastern regions: banditry, cattle rustling, ethnic conflicts and violent land invasions in northern Kenya, and unchecked violent crime in urban areas. All the campaigns promise restoration of peace and security, but are scanty on the details that cry out for interrogation.
They also all concur on the need for accelerated economic growth, but offer few details in their proposals on how Kenyan will attain 10 per cent or more gross domestic product growth rate annually. The debate offers them all the chance to defend their competing proposals before a critical public.
And finally, there is no better measure of a person than in watching him answer questions and having the chance to assess, his poise, demeanour, mastery of subject and temperament.