Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the frontrunner in the presidential election next month, taunted his rival Uhuru Kenyatta in a debate on Monday, asking how he would be able to rule from The Hague, where Kenyatta goes on trial shortly on charges of crimes against humanity.
The presidential television debate — the first ever held in the country — failed to produce a clear winner, but gave an early taste of what is expected to be a highly charged contest to run east Africa’s economic powerhouse.
Former Kenyan finance minister Kenyatta has been summoned to appear at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague a month after the election to face charges he helped direct ethnic clashes that erupted after a disputed 2007 vote.
If Kenyatta wins this election, his first presidential trip could be to appear in the dock in the Netherlands, alongside his running mate, William Ruto, who has also been charged over the violence. Both deny wrongdoing.
“It will pose serious challenges to run a government by Skype from The Hague. It is not practical,” said Odinga, who has a narrow lead over Kenyatta according to polls.
During the debate between all eight presidential candidates, Kenyatta played down the challenge posed by the global court.
“If Kenyans choose to elect me, it means they have confidence in my ability to address the ICC issue and lead the country. I will be able to clear my name at ICC and at the same time implement my manifesto,” Kenyatta said.
The March 4 poll will be the first under a new constitution and the first since the 2007 violence that killed more than 1,200 people.
All sides have promised there will not be a repeat of the ethnic tensions that fueled the bloodshed.
“I don’t think there was any clear loser,” said Kenyan politician Abdikadir Mohamed, an analyst at the debate.
Lawyer Paul Muite, one of the lower-ranked candidates by most polls, said Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga, the two rivals in the 2007 vote, should face charges at the ICC.
Martha Karua, the only female candidate, accused politicians of leading “poor” Kenyans to fight in the last vote.
“Politicians do not fight. They shake hands and laugh, as you have seen us doing here. They should not be allowed to call on Kenyans to rise against each other,” the lawyer and former minister said.
The debate was widely followed on Twitter.
“I think if anything it made my decision clearer. It gave me a chance to confirm about what I believed about the candidates,” college student Angela Kamuyu said.
However, interest in the debate flagged as candidates resorted to well-worn rhetoric on how they would tackle insecurity, government corruption and a tattered health and education system.