NAIROBI, Kenya — Three weeks before they go to the polls, millions of Kenyans watched and listened to the nation's first-ever presidential debate, with the two front-running candidates trading barbs over the looming trial of one of them in the International Criminal Court.
Morning talk shows in Nairobi on Tuesday were still buzzing about the previous night's debate — broadcast live on Kenya's TV and radio stations — among eight presidential candidates who stood behind sleek, futuristic podiums. Much of the focus was on the two front-runners: Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding father, faces crimes against humanity charges at the ICC.
The charges against Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto relate to violence that killed more than 1,000 people after the last elections in 2007. The violence was sparked by a dispute over who won the presidency — Odinga, then an opposition leader, or President Mwai Kibaki, who was seeking a second term. A peace deal allowed Odinga to become prime minister in a coalition government.
Kenyatta's trial is scheduled to start in April in The Hague, but he insisted during the debate that it won't hinder his ability to run the country if he's elected president on March 4. The ICC prosecutor says the trial may last for years.
"If the people of Kenya do decide to vote for me as their president, I will be able to handle the issue of clearing my name while ensuring the business of government continues and our manifesto and agenda for Kenya is implemented," Kenyatta said.
But Odinga said the country cannot be governed remotely, and quipped that running a government on Skype from The Hague would be tough to manage.
During the debate, moderators as well as other candidates asked questions. An audience of about 200 people also questioned the candidates. Local media reported that millions tuned in to the live broadcast.
Monday's debate covered a range of other issues, from the role tribal affiliation plays in the distribution of jobs and resources — and which is cited as a major cause of problems in Kenya — to corruption in government, to education and health care.
All eight presidential candidates promised to concede if they lose the elections and to use the judiciary to resolve any issues that arise.
A second debate is set for Feb. 25.
Kenyatta is charged with crimes against humanity for alleged involvement in the murder, forcible deportation, persecution and rape of supporters of Odinga after the 2007 vote. Ruto, a former education minister, faces charges of murder, forcible deportation and persecution of supporters of Kibaki.
Despite supporting rival camps during the 2007 vote, they are now on the same ticket.