Kenyan presidential election debates; more about form than substance
Posted Tuesday, March 5 2013 at 02:00
That is the current predicament. Many of us are impressed by the politician who ‘speaks well.’ We do not bother to scrutinize ‘what’ he speaks well about. We simply say ‘hear him’ or ‘you are talking!’ Then we end up complaining that we have been short changed. The truth is that most times the politicians say nothing in those many words and end up delivering nothing.
Prior to yesterday’s election, something new happened on the Kenyan political scene. On two occasions, all the eight presidential candidates stood in front of the cameras and debated before the public; American style. Because of the violence that was sparked off by the election of 2007, and the economic disruptions it had on the East African region, this time round, all eyes were on Kenya.
The debates became a major talking point, especially in Uganda where attempts at similar functions have failed before, because some candidates chose to stay away. To the naked eye, the debates were something good. The candidates were well dressed and humble. They spoke eloquently, confidently and passionately about the Kenya they would like to deliver should they be voted to the highest office of the land.
The media was definitely impressed judging from the headlines like ‘Fireworks at debate,’ while citizens through the social media took serious interest giving their own assessment on who won or lost the debates.
The cause of the excitement is that, one of the things most Africans yearn for is a credible election. Many live and die without witnessing one as voters. These sorts of gestures (open debates) lend gravitas to our elections and we see ourselves moving into the league of the ‘enviable’ polls of the developed countries.
Granted, this presumably is just the beginning. What should be of greatest concern to us is not just the debate, but what is debated and how it is debated. This is where the debates came wanting.
African politicians and Kenyan politicians in particular, have been great beneficiaries of a lack of serious criticism by the electorate on what they intend to do. The reason is that we are used to a politician simply making high sounding and generalised statements which are not backed by facts and figures. For instance it is common for politicians to claim that the youth are the ‘future leaders of tomorrow’ (sic) so ‘my government will focus on them by investing in education and youth employment!’
There is the ubiquitous ‘we shall spend a lot on vocational training so that our children create their own jobs and are not merely job seekers.’ ‘We shall ensure justice for all and procure markets for agricultural products so that the majority involved in this sector are gainfully employed and gain from their sweat.’
These statements sound nice but you have to ask, about the size of the country’s budget. The politician should state a figure (s)he intends for the activity. If it is to increase the number of judges, give us the figures we should work around when we are trying to hold you accountable. If it is to increase markets, tell us about the current volumes that are being sold and by how much your measures will increase them and a time frame too in number of months and years. Give us estimates of the amount in monetary terms that you expect from your measures.
That way we have credible and universal parameters on which to judge a candidate and separate him/her from a mere demagogue who speaks to our emotions and excitement. That is the current predicament. Many of us are impressed by the politician who ‘speaks well.’ We do not bother to scrutinize ‘what’ he speaks well about. We simply say ‘hear him’ or ‘you are talking!’ Then we end up complaining that we have been short changed. The truth is that most times the politicians say nothing in those many words and end up delivering nothing.
That is what worries me about the presidential debates which are likely to become the norm of the region. If we the electorate are not in the habit of questioning and being critical of the high sounding statements of politicians which we take on face value without the accompanying fact and figures, liars will slip through the net.
This was the case which makes the Kenyan presidential debates seem like glorified political rallies. Short on substance, facts and figures but well-endowed with form and all the nice things that excite the emotions of the viewers and listeners.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.