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1 February, 2012

The Diaspora and the Presidential Debates Agenda

In 2007, leading up Mkawasi Mcharo Hall to the general elections, Kenyans abroad, through the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA), were busy pursuing the presidential debates agenda, just as they had done in 2002. The presidential debates have for years been one of the Diaspora's key projects, relentlessly pursued to help elevate politics to an issue-based level and yield exemplary leadership for Kenya. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons established organizations like the (KCA) were formed.

Following the elections violence and turmoil, the diaspora took up roles as peacemakers, caucusing within communities, through diaspora radios and online blogging, all in an effort to quell the rage that was as intense in the Diaspora as it was in Kenya. Some even organized peace delegations to Kenya and collectively sent relief funds. However divided and combative the Diaspora might have felt against each other, they were cushioned by the rule of law and safe democratic spaces abroad.

Yet that did not stop a few from doing serious damage with words; they took to their keyboards and pounded out ethnic vitriol, personal insults, blatant lies, some calling for the funding of violence. Words can kill or get you killed. Words can also give life. Unfortunately, it is the words that kill that received the most airtime; they got to define the whole. The Diaspora has been unfairly characterized as having played a despicable role with regard to the 2007 elections; its peacemaking role completely disregarded; its relentless efforts in implementing presidential debates all forgotten.

In order to move forward stronger and more united, we, the Diaspora, must take collective responsibility for those few who dishonored the role of the Diaspora, but most important, it's imperative to trumpet the efforts that have over the years defined our better selves. We owe it to Kenya to lend leadership in the areas we have been blessed to gain wider perspectives on. One of those areas is the establishment of vibrant and productive spaces that can hold divergent opinion and allow for vigorous debate. It's upon great and radical ideas, fiercely debated, that great nations are founded.

The KCA's efforts in implementing presidential debates have had their own derivative successes. In 2002, KCA morphed the derailed debates campaign into the very successful lobbying for dual citizenship. In 2007, Kenya's political space had still not matured enough for candidates to yield to debating issues.

Washington, DC Kenyans teamed up with KCA to produce The Kenya Diaspora National Debate, a successful endeavor with diasporans standing in for the presidential candidates. It was staged at the National Republican Club in Washington, DC.

The Diaspora, through its various non-profit associations formed to nurture democratic freedoms in Kenya, has, by virtue of their collective efforts towards this singular pursuit, become custodian of the presidential debates agenda. Custodianship should not be confused for egoistic ownership of an idea; it simply means accepting the work, responsibility and sacrifice for things greater than self.

In 2011, Washington DC Kenyans assembled a competitive and professional Presidential Debates production team under the auspices of the KCA. This team has been reaching out to other Diaspora groups working on the same agenda. These include the Kenya Diaspora Advisory Councils of New England and Atlanta. We have also been in partnership talks with the Kenyan Diaspora in London.

A lot of groundwork has been laid, with the various groups' representatives shuttling back-and-forth to Kenya to establish necessary partnerships. A lot still remains to be done. One thing is clear; this is not an agenda cut out for competing efforts and our work must be merged to ensure success. The candidates and the voters must see our unity of thought and absolute professionalism to trust the process. Working as a united force is one thing we can very well exemplify as the Diaspora.

It is also important for media houses we have approached to honor the place and role of the Diaspora. Any attempts at boardroom wheelings-and-dealings that would use the presidential debates agenda purely for corporate gains or political favors is bound to deal a devastating blow to the goal of laying a foundation for Kenya's healthy and issue-based politics. Presidential debates must never be seen as a product for sale. As custodians of the agenda, we in the Diaspora will do everything in our power to ensure the debates are honorably executed, without partisan interference.

Finally, it has been argued by some that presidential debates are a foreign importation that Kenya does not need. Not so. Debates encapsulate the desire of the human spirit, no matter where one comes from, to chart out the best course that will lead to fair treatment, fair share of resources and fair opportunity. The process of debates and deliberations among elders, incorporating the community at large, has been the untrumpeted culture of many African communities. Cultural form changes with times, and it is upon us to be creative and innovative in laying a foundation for a Kenya Debates Institute that will reflect the spirit and identity of Kenya. This, indeed, is our super‑objective.

Kenya Presidential Debates

~ Mkawasi Mcharo Hall
Project Director, Kenya Presidential Debates ~

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