Azimio la Umoja Kenyan flag bearer Raila Odinga’s vow not to take part in tonight’s presidential debate sparked bitter exchanges as his main rival, Vice President William Ruto, mocked him for the decision.
Barring a last-minute change of heart from Mr Odinga, Dr Ruto is set for a 90-minute monologue with moderators in a development reminiscent of the 2017 debate when President Kenyatta skipped the forum and let the ODM chief hog the spotlight.
It would be an anti-climax given that the clash between the two presidential candidates was the headline event a fortnight before the vote on August 9, and after the confrontation between their running mates, Mr. Rigathi Gachagua and Ms. Martha Karua la last week.
Mr Odinga’s campaign team insisted he would snub the debate, portraying Dr Ruto as unworthy of sharing a podium with their candidate.
However, the DP accused Mr Odinga of shunning the spotlight as he could not defend his plan for the country, while his closest allies suggested the ODM chief failed to measure up. the eloquence of their candidate.
Opinion is divided on the impact and motive of the snub, should it materialise, with some saying Mr Odinga would leap an opportunity to pressure Dr Ruto over his conduct in public office while the DP would miss the opportunity to question Mr Odinga’s effectiveness as opposition leader given his banter with President Kenyatta.
Yesterday Dr Ruto previewed the punch lines he would use against Mr Odinga.
“Let my competitor come for the debate so he can tell Kenyans why he thwarted government programs with his handshake,” he added, citing the collapse of the government’s big four Jubilee scheme.
“Our competitors have decided to avoid the debate as Mr. Odinga has no intention of explaining to Kenyans. The only plan that exists in this election is the Kenya Kwanza Alliance plan. Our competitors have no plans , agenda and ideas on how to move Kenya forward and that is why they have shunned the debate,” the DP said.
“I want to encourage my competitor, Mr. Odinga, please come to the debate; I’m waiting for you there because Kenyans want to know what your rhetoric means to them. Even if you don’t have a plan, please come and tell us your usual rhetoric,” he told a rally in Kesses, Uasin Gishu.
The debate organizers have confirmed that the debate will continue as scheduled, with the first tier featuring Kenya Roots Party candidate, Prof. George Wajackoyah, against his Agano counterpart, David Waihiga.
Without his opponent, analysts say Dr Ruto will have plenty of time to articulate Kenya Kwanza’s agenda to the detriment of Mr Odinga.
On the other hand, however, analysts say Mr Odinga’s absence will deprive Dr Ruto of the opportunity to press him over his relationship with the current administration, a situation that has left him on the defensive. to claims of being a “state project”.
The general secretary of the Azimio la Umoja coalition party, Junet Mohamed, reiterated yesterday that Mr Odinga would not take part in today’s debate. The coalition, he noted, would continue with its planned public engagement at Jericho Social Hall in Nairobi during the week.
“We are not attending the debate. We have already spoken on this. We will have our own forum with the Kenyans. We are planning and we will give you a date,” Mr Mohamed said.
He, however, was coy about the previous indication that the town hall forum would be scheduled to coincide with the debate.
Announcing the decision to skip the debate, Mr Odinga’s campaign spokesman, Prof Mutua, had accused Dr Ruto of “not caring about ethics, public morals or shame”.
Yesterday, Prof Mutua told the Nation that Azimio had yet to set a date for its public debate in Jericho, only saying ‘it will probably be this week’.
“We will do this according to Baba and Martha’s schedule. We want to work with the media to decide on the format and structure of the event,” he added.
He played down the effect of the debate, arguing that many Kenyans have already made up their minds on their best bet for the presidency.
Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen claimed Mr Odinga’s snub was informed by last week’s running mate debate in which “Rigathi Gachagua annihilated Martha Karua, the deputy draft”.
Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro added, “Honestly, Raila couldn’t beat Ruto in this debate, Kenyans know that.”
Professor Naituli Gitile of Multimedia University argued that Mr Odinga’s decision not to attend the debate comes against the backdrop of being branded a state project.
“Mr Odinga’s camaraderie with President Uhuru Kenyatta might be the reason why he is not keen on attending the debate,” Prof Gitile said.
By not participating in the debate, Prof Gitile said, Mr Odinga is missing an opportunity to tell Kenyans who Dr Ruto is.
“He understands Ruto. Ruto has been campaigning for almost six years illegally and Mr Odinga should have taken the opportunity to rebuke him and his inability to resign from the Jubilee administration if he was unhappy with it.
Political analyst Mr. Dismas Mokua argued that Kenyan elections make presidential debates a useful asset given the high number of undecided voters.
“Presidential debates are very useful in validating and invalidating positions in addition to shifting and influencing perceptions. Mr. Raila Odinga should consider attending the debate as it gives him a unique opportunity to present his final remarks to a captive audience around his priorities,” said Mr. Mokua.
*Written by Onyango K’Onyango & Justus Ochieng’