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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.