Will TV debates bring Kenya peace?

Election debates in Kenya may help prevent the horrors of the last election.

It’s easy to be blasé about election debates in the UK. Our experience of them is limited to the short-lived, incongruous Clegg-mania of 2010. There is always excitement about American presidential debates – but when they start, boredom soon takes over. It can be hard to argue there’s much point to it all.

Kenyans may disagree.

On Monday night, Kenya hosted its first ever presidential debate. On a stage reminiscent of that seen in American debates – the joke was that it had been borrowed from the last Kenyan to win a presidential election, Barack Obama – eight candidates sparred over three and a half hours.

The hope is that political candidates debating each other will help prevent a repeat of the 2007 election’s violence, when 1500 people were killed and arguably only the intervention of Kofi Annan prevented a full-blown civil war. 

The notion might seem a ridiculous one, considering the webs of violence involved in 2007. Yet, helped by a strong and independent moderator, the debate forced the candidates to address some pertinent issues that they would have rather neglected – like the alleged role of several of them as puppet-masters orchestrating the violence for their own gain. Most memorably, Uhuru Kenyatta, deputy Prime Minister and leading Presidential candidate, was asked how he could govern "and at the same time attend trial as a crimes against humanity suspect" at the International Criminal Court. Kenyatta's trial for his alleged role in the 2007/08 violence is scheduled to begin in April, a month after the election. 

And Kenyans were certainly watching Kenyatta's response: an estimated 300,000 tweets were sent about the debate. What did it all mean? Charles Onyango-Obbo, the Executive Editor of Nation Media Group in Kenya, said it “promoted the notion that debate and public defence of ones’ positions and record are a basis on which election outcomes are decided - not just money and ethnic herding.” He also argued that the civil attitudes of candidates to one another, especially between the two front-runners, “might have gone a small way to reduce the possibility of violence” in the election.

Ultimately, focusing the electorate’s minds on policy issues may encourage people to cast their votes based on stronger reasons than simple ethnic divides. According to one poll, 34 per cent of the electorate said they had changed their mind after watching the debate: an encouraging sign that it could contribute to undermining ethnic polarisation in Kenyan politics.

The experiences of Ghana shows how emerging democracies can benefit from holding debates. Its last two elections were extremely tense – in 2008, the winning margin was only 40,000 votes – yet mercifully free of violence. The presidential debates held “were useful in promoting an issues-based politicking and electioneering campaign and minimising the unnecessary whipping up of ethnic sentiments”, according to Dr Ransford Gyampo, a Political Science lecturer at the University of Ghana. Just as debates have helped Ghana’s democracy to mature, so they could have a similar effect in Kenya and elsewhere.

There remains much for Kenyans to be fearful about ahead of polling day on March 4th. Over 400 people have already been killed in politically related violence since the start of 2012. And Ivory Coast’s first presidential debate in 2010 didn't prevent over 1000 people being killed after the disputed election.

Yet the introduction of a presidential debate this year may be a tentative sign that Kenya is moving towards a less destructive form of politics. David Cameron is certainly not alone in his dislike for election debates. But, for all their flaws, they can be powerful tools for democratic empowerment. The world needs more TV debates.

The eight candidates in Kenya's first presidential debate. Photo: Getty

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496