Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Kenya 2013: Debates

Three colleagues in the Peace Studies dept. at the University of Bradford who research the Kenyan political situation and other regional, post-conflict governments shared some of their reactions to the first Kenyan presidential debate held 13 February 2013. ( a second debate was broadcast 25 Feb.)

While their analysis concentrates on the politics and conflict, I become distracted by the influence of the converged media environment.  As I listen to their comments I am unable to separate events, strategies, trends and the medium through which we came to know and about them and through which we bounce our opinions back. With the potential for violence, we wait, conducted by the tempo dictated, not so much by the events themselves, but by their streaming coverage alongside online chats.

After the debate, my reactions were:  But what does this mean?  What changed?  This was the first televised debate, so something must be different?  It must matter, right?  I couldn't suppress my need to seek out novelty, my American attraction to innovation, a bloodhound intent on a path toward the future. [interesting piece on the philosophical implications of ethnocentrism by Adam Etinson]

In adopting this interview approach with my colleagues, my questions took me in direction, while they went in another with their answers.  Zooming out, concentrating on long-term impact and trends was paradoxically myopic.  I was falling into the trap I have warned others in my field about-- failing to simply observe and describe the situation in front of us before heading off to analyze and predict.  And while this pace of analysis may seem painful to my American colleagues, without insight or prognostication, there is tremendous value in slowing down, listening and sharpening our power of observation.

Observations: First of all, the Kenyans I spoke with reported feeling tremendously proud of their country during the debate.  (Remembering the last US presidential debate debacle, not something I could relate to).   The eight candidates were articulate, appropriately somber, and generally on point throughout the long evening.  The moderators asked tough questions and were not afraid to jump in to enforce rules or point out when a candidate failed to address the issue at hand.

Having the candidates all lined up squaring off on questions together did not seem to sway viewers.  Everyone watching and listening was already very partisan and the debate performance secured their convictions.  And the top candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, are far ahead of the rest of the field despite Kenyatta facing charges at the ICC.  The competitive spirit, akin to a football match, was noticeable in twitter commentary, and my colleagues confirmed that candidates' support fell along ethnic lines.  In fact, one of the first  and longest lines of questions pursued by the moderators tried to get at the heart of how candidates would tackle the problem called 'ethnicity' which had developed beyond allegiance-forming during the 2007 elections and sparked violent clashes.  Determined to avoid a repetition of those events, the candidates had all been using the language of peace and harmony throughout their campaign speeches, and in particular, in front of this national audience.

Both my colleagues and the twitter stream I followed during the debate (mostly from pockets of elite Nairobites or diaspora)  framed their comments around specific candidates, around individuals not parties.  This feature of many new democracies across Africa, Latin and South America is well-documented.  Everything succeeds or fails with the man.  The man is the party.  I asked about why party platforms haven't been promoting unity across ethnic lines, especially as a measure of healing or as a next step in strengthening democratic systems.  What I learned is that identities pulled you toward your candidate, who developed a party name for the purpose of elections.  And there's a whole paper to be written about the careful language of identity the candidates chose.  Words about occupation, family, goals.... Once a party was established, it wrote a manifesto or platform.  The issues were secondary to feelings of personal identification/identity.  I still wondered what this meant for Kenya as a nation when it came to addressing issues like healthcare, eduction, funding priorities, etc.  And I wasn't alone.  (the second debate covered some of these domestic issues)

Charged events of recent days have threatened the optimism that Kenya as a democratic nation was inching up to the election having made just enough structural change to select a leader and focus on governing rather than the international scrutiny.  In a move that undermined a bedrock of government, the court, the Chief Justice made a statement that his life had been threatened.  Monitoring the social media coverage from abroad, my colleagues were concerned about the intense return to ethnically based name and blame. There is tremendous pressure for the second debate as an opportunity for the candidates to call for calm.  One colleague was very aware of the increase in media presence from the last election, but to me it seemed that the increase had also given an urgency to atmosphere.  The tempo was up, and was gaining momentum.  People were more excited, more engaged, anticipating, anxious, angry, everything was amplified by the converged media environment.  No conclusions or predictions at this stage, only the observation that sustained engagement with this type of media deluge usually leads to burnout... but I just can't look away.

Stay tuned to Kenya 2013.