A Diaspora Perspective:
The Kenya Presidential Debates initiative was formed in January of 2011, with a competent team of diaspora professionals coming together to ensure that Kenya holds its first presidential debates. This is now confirmed to become a reality. We celebrate!
The presidential debates agenda was rooted in a diaspora-driven 10-year journey aimed at elevating issues above personality politics. In 2002, the Kenyan Community Abroad started the first structured effort to hold presidential elections, winning decent sponsorship from a Washington DC grant-maker. After much pursuit, the candidates reneged in the final hour, but the seed had been planted.
In 2007, KCA was at it again. Once again, the presidential candidates were not ready for such a leap, and in hindsight, the diaspora was still learning the ropes on making presidential debates happen. A group of diaspora Kenyans in Washington DC partnered with KCA to hold a mock presidential debate at the National Republican Club. Diaspora representatives stood in for their candidates. With every election, a measure of success was won, especially in continuously renewing the agenda and ensuring it stayed in people’s minds.
The diaspora was also informed by the splinter efforts that cropped up from different diaspora organizations wishing to hold presidential debates. Next time, we determined, we would approach the debates as Kenyans united by a common purpose.
In 2011, through the initiative of this author, KCA brought under its administrative sponsorship the Kenya Debates Initiative. For the first time, the taskforce for this initiative was structured around an independent group of professionals who dedicated themselves fully to realizing this goal. A two-pronged vision was planted. The first was the immediate goal to hold Kenya’s first presidential debates in the coming elections; the second was to plant the seed for a Kenya Debates Institute that would ensure the smooth, non-partisan, non-corporate and independent running of presidential debates.
A group of diaspora organizations under the Kenya Diaspora Alliance, pledged their support to the debates team. We had taken a great leap to achieving a united front since 2007. An online page was set up to accept input from the diaspora. Social media and a newsletter were used as outreach tools. We meant to ensure the idea was firmly planted and understood. Issue-based politics is key to Kenya’s future.
Over the course of 2011, the Kenya Debates team in Washington, DC met every other week. We also met with the US Commission on Presidential Debates, National Democratic Institute, Woodrow Wilson Africa Program, National Cohesion and Integration Commission, International Commission of Jurists-Kenya, the Kenya Embassy, and other organizations. We aimed to learn all we could from those who have run presidential debates for decades, and forge alliances with strategic organizations. We put together a comprehensive blueprint that spelt out debates structures and guidelines. We established communication with Kenya’s presidential aspirants, proposing possible debates in the diaspora, and major debates in Kenya.
We sought the partnership of media houses in Kenya for the broadcast of the debates. We presented the proposal in boardrooms and offices in Nairobi. It was clear from our initial communication that neither the Kenyan media houses nor the strategic organizations we approached had any prior plans to produce presidential debates. This, they admitted. As a matter of fact, we faced a lot of push-back, skepticism and “face-reality-it-won’t-happen.” We kept pushing an idea we believed its time had come. Luckily, we had done major groundwork and the blueprint we presented to Royal Media made the idea exciting, possible and implementable.
However, they quietly took the proposal and proceeded to implement it without the diaspora (for such is the stuff of corporate cut-throat commandeering of great ideas). We insisted on the inclusion of the diaspora in three ways: one, have a moderator from the diaspora; two, financial sponsorship from the diaspora; three, include a diaspora representative in the implementation deliberations. The launch of the presidential debates happened in Kenya without any agreement or acknowledgment to the diaspora team. I suppose that oftentimes the diaspora seems so far away that they are altogether relegated to irrelevance, no matter their contribution.
The media houses remain potentially great partners for the diaspora, and while we all celebrate the launch of the debates, we hope that we develop better parameters of project partnership and implementation.
The diaspora team has also explored the possibility of a presidential debate in the diaspora for the Kenyan voters abroad. This idea has been met with a great measure of resistance and unease. However, the Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua teams have shown exemplary foresight and support for the idea. It will be a few years before the idea of a country holding a presidential debate where a large part of its diaspora resides becomes a non-issue. Kenya’s sovereignty is not threatened, nor is its image diminished by its presidential aspirants facing each other in debate before an audience of its diaspora citizens. Kenya’s sovereignty and image is threatened by poor leadership, greed, insecurity, and ethnic hatred. For the moment, we will continue to pursue better moderated singular-candidate townhall meetings abroad.
Acknowledgement and gratitude goes to all individuals and organizations in the diaspora who have in the past 10 years made the presidential debates an agenda worth structuring, packaging, lobbying for and pursuing relentlessly. My personal gratitude goes to the Kenya Debates team in Washington, DC (see team at http://kenyadebates.com/contacts), with whom I have spent the past two years laying a foundation for the debates. Together, we have planted the idea of a Kenya Debates Institute which I believe will one day become a reality.
It must be understood that pivotal as media houses are in the production of presidential debates, the management of presidential debates belongs to an independent, non-partisan, non-corporate institution dedicated to the pursuit of ideas, the elevation of political discourse, and the translation of the best issue platforms into public policy. The corporate media should only come in as production partners.
Mkawasi Mcharo Hall
Kenya Debates, Washington, DC
Board of Trustees, Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA)
The author is a current member of the KCA Board of Trustees, and also heads the Kenya Debates initiative in Washington, DC.