A leading candidate insisted Monday during Kenya's first presidential debate that the crimes against humanity charges he faces at the International Criminal Court won't hinder his ability to run the country.
The charges against Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto relate to violence that killed more than 1,000 people after the last elections in 2007. Kenya's next presidential election is set for March; Kenyatta's and Ruto's cases will start in April and could last years.
During the live, widely aired debate, moderators — as well as other candidates — raised questions about Kenyatta's ability to be president if dogged by the ICC case. An audience of about 200 people also participated in questioning the candidates. Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the top contender for the presidency, according to opinion polls, said the country cannot be governed remotely. It will pose serious challenges to run a government on Skype from The Hague, Odinga quipped.
But Kenyatta insisted that he will be able to manage the task. "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.
The violence after the last election 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 was brokered that allowed Odinga to become prime minister in a coalition government. 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. Both have defense teams to represent them at the ICC. And despite supporting rival camps during the 2007 vote, the pair are now on the same ticket.
Monday's debate covered a range of 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, education and health care. All eight presidential candidates promised to concede if they lost the elections and to use the judiciary to resolve any issues that arise.
Kenyan media outlets worked together to organize the debate, which officials said was broadcast live on all television and radio stations. The debate was also widely followed and commented upon on social media sites such as Twitter.
A second debate is set for Feb. 25.