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Kenyatta snubs debate

February 22, 2013

One of Kenya’s main presidential contenders, Uhuru Kenyatta, has opted out of a second presidential debate scheduled for February 25. He says his candidature was portrayed in a “bad light” during the first round.

Kenya's Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta arriving at a press conference on the day the International Criminal Court announced six prominent Kenyans, which included Kenyatta, who are said to be responsible for masterminding the country's 2007/08 post-election violence that left more than 1,200 dead. (Photo: EPA/DAI KUROKAWA)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As the March 4 election approaches, presidential aspirants are now hitting the campaign trail at full speed. Opinion polls show Prime Minister Raila Odinga has a slight lead over his rival Uhuru Kenyatta.

DW: Why is Uhuru Kenyatta snubbing the second debate?

Brian Wanyama: That can be attributed to various aspects. I tend to believe the issues that would be raised would include land which is a very sensitive issue and therefore he may not want to attend the debate because a number of issues on land might be raised and put him in an embarrassing situation. On the other hand, we have heard from his camp that apparently, in the first debate, the two moderators that we had that day tended to pin him down so much on the issue of integrity in relation to the ICC case but did not do the same on other contenders on the issue of integrity.

Is this reason good enough to justify his pulling out or is he afraid of something else?

My own take is that the two moderators we had on the first debate, that is Linus Kaikai and Julie Gichuru, are very capable people. Their take on the ICC issue in my view should, in fact, have bolstered Uhuru Kenyatta's level of acquiring votes. There was no way that the moderators could have avoided the issue because it's critical in terms of governance. Another reason why Uhuru Kenyatta might simply be giving a bye to this debate could be linked to the fact that, of late, the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto camp have witnessed improved ratings after opinion polls conducted by three reliable organizations. Thirdly, the Uhuru camp enjoys a high number of registered voters that come from Central Province which is Uhuru's political base, and the Rift Valley which is Ruto's political powerhouse. So their take is they would rather work to increase the number of votes rather than attend debates which, in their view, might just create an opportunity for Uhuru Kenyatta to be pinned down on various issues, especially the land issue.

Isn't he playing into the hands of his opponents by pulling out of this debate?

There are two ways to it. If the issues that he's avoiding are very complicated and he does not have real answers, I believe that it will be just good for him to give the debate a bye. But on the other hand, by boycotting he is creating fertile ground for the opponents to tear into him. And as a leader, a potential presidential contender, it shows that he is not ready to face hard issues head on, so indeed he might be playing into the hands of the opponents.

Kenyatta's family is said to own a large percentage of Kenya's arable land. How has Uhuru addressed this issue in his campaigns?

The issue of land in Uhuru's campaign has been an intriguing affair. I have listened to him doing campaigns around the country and he has come up with his own blueprint on how he intends to handle the land issue. For example, in Mombasa he has told people that his government would buy land and distribute it to the landless. But giving it a wider scope, it is indeed true that the Kenyatta family owns large tracts of land, yet we have a number of people in this country who are actually landless. In my view this debate would have given Uhuru the opportunity to come clean and state categorically what he intends to do about this land issue so that we reverse this scenario where one family, because of its accessibility to power, owns large chunks of land at the expense of other Kenyans. So in my view, the land issue in Uhuru's campaign still remains a very delicate matter.

Will Uhuru Kenyatta's decision to snub the debate make Kenyans less interested in watching it?

I think since it's the first time it's happening in this country, with or without Uhuru, I believe that Kenyans will watch. Most importantly I want to believe that Uhuru's publicity team will definitely watch because there would be some issues raised that they might want Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto to respond to. So my thinking is that the debate is likely to be once again watched by very many people.

Brian Singoro Wanyama is a Kenyan political analyst.

Interview: Asumpta Lattus