Nairobi, Kenya – As a full moon cut through the warm night sky, the streets of Nairobi began to empty. A non-partisan billboard banner with an orange jump-suited model and the phrase “Vote for peace” loomed overhead as Kenyans packed into cafes, bars and neighbors’ houses to watch the final showdown between the presidential candidates.
But as the would-be leaders made the walk from the waiting room to the debate auditorium in the swanky Brookehouse International School, the stage was set for a new chapter to be written in the history of Kenyan politics.
The first debate, held on February 11, attracted as many as 15 million viewers, according to TV monitoring agencies – an impressive feat for a country of 14.3 million registered voters.
“The debates are bringing a sense of scrutiny to our political discourse, that people will get answers from people who are standing for office,” Kenya Debt Relief Network political analyst Kiama Kaara told Al Jazeera.
“For the future, this sets the precedent that those taking the podium will be held accountable. This is important for our civic discourse as well as our political discourse.”
The dawn of TV debates in this country has attracted great support from voters, with 93 percent of those polled by IPSOS Synovate saying they were “beneficial to Kenya”.
The same poll revealed that 24 percent of respondents would change their vote based on how candidates performed in the debate, underscoring the importance of the televised event. According to analysts, just eight percent of Kenya’s electorate had not made up their minds before last night’s final debate. But with mere tenths of a single percentage point separating frontrunners Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga , if either were to convert the country’s undecideds, the election could have been sewn up in front of the cameras.
In the event, neither made a knockout blow. Both were grilled by persistent moderators over controversial past scandals.
Prime Minister Odinga fought back against accusations he sheltered officials suspected of illicit distributions from a national hospital insurance fund.
“There has still been no concrete evidence provided to show there has been any kind of wrongdoing in the ministry financially,” he said. “There’s just been wild allegations and claims.”
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who is facing trial next month at the International Criminal Court accused of crimes against humanity following the horrific violence surrounding the 2007-08 election, was hit hard on the issue of land reform.
Historically, British colonists favoured some tribal groups over others, displacing groups from their land and awarding it to other tribes. The economic disparities and marginalisation caused by this has led to ethnic tensions between Kenyan communities continuing, and many believe the issues were never solved after the country’s independence.
Kenyatta’s family business is a major landowner, and he refused to answer several direct questions to reveal how much land he owned.
“I own land, my family owns land as well,” he responded cryptically. “We did not acquire any of it illegally.”
Kenyatta, as moderator Joe Ageyo put it, “owns half of Kenya” through his family business. After prodding from another presidential hopeful Martha Karua , he eventually admitted to owning 30,000 acres of land in Taita-Taveta.
“I am keen for my honorable sister [Karua] to take me to this land I am alleged to own [illegally], so I can start doing something about it,” he said.
Kenyatta found an unlikely ally in arch-rival Odinga, who said, with the slightest hint of sarcasm, that the family’s massive land-ownership was not the fault of the TNA candidate. “I feel sorry for my brother,” he said. “Uhuru Kenyatta was an innocent inheritor. He did not commit the ‘original sin’. Kenyans should sympathise with him.”
Meanwhile, the Amani coalition’s Musalia Mudavadi came under fire for his alleged role in a land deal involving a Nairobi cemetery, while leftist leader Paul Muite was attacked over the Goldenberg Bank scandal which reportedly defrauded the government out of billions of dollars in the 1990s.
“There is not an iota of truth [to bribery allegations],” Muite defiantly responded.
The quote of the evening, however, belonged to rank outsider Mohammed Abduba Dida .
Commenting on candidates’ responses to questions on integrity, he asked: “Did you expect a thief to tell you: ‘I’ve stolen’?”
In the spotlight
Following the debate, the campaigns were keen to stress their candidates’ performances.
“I think Martha was honest with Kenyans,” Mark Bichachi, a senior strategist for the Karua campaign, told Al Jazeera. “We hope the Kenyan people will choose a leader they can trust. Martha Karua has always stood for what is right, for social justice, for the Kenyan people, for the past 20 years.”
But Eliud Owalo, chief campaign manager for the Odinga campaign, struggled to seem enthusiastic, and spoke in understated, modest tones. “It went pretty well. I thought the performance of our candidate was pretty good,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Raila has shown that he’s the right choice for the people of Kenya, and now we wait for the people to turn out and vote on Monday.”
But what was arguably more important than who said what last night was the manner in which candidates’ histories and policies were held in the spotlight – and what that means for the future of politics in Kenya.
Could the debates be brought closer to the people, or is Kenyan political discourse destined to follow the glitzy, style-driven narrative of US politics?
“I would like to see the debates use a mechanism which is more participatory, allowing people to rate by text message, or to ask questions over the internet,” said the Debt Relief Network’s Kaara. “While not everyone in this country is connected, the middle class has access to this technology, and we will help shape the debate in the future.
“The conversation needs to be removed from its elite confines. It is really elitist driven.”
In a country where voting has traditionally been based on kinship and tribal loyalties, these debates are the first time that voters are making their decisions based on candidates’ policies, according to political analyst Dismas Makua.
“I think that these debates are not so important this year,” he told Al Jazeera. “By now, everyone has made up their mind who they are going to vote for…
“But in the future, in 2018, these debates are going to change everything.”
Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell