by Ben Ochieng, Peter Mutai and Chris Mgidu
NAIROBI, Feb. 12 (Xinhua) -- Kenya was Monday evening turned into a ghost nation as millions of citizens deserted offices and streets to watch and listen to the first ever live presidential debate in this country.
The debate broadcast on 42 local radio and television stations, as well as YouTube saw several workers in major cities and towns across the East African nation rush home to watch the debate ahead of the March 4 General Election.
The roads and streets started filling up in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa with vehicular and human traffic one hour before the official close of business of the day during which time workers head home in a moment known locally as the "rush hour."
"I cannot afford to watch this significant moment unfolding in the history of our country and right before my eyes," said Joseph Aswani, an accountant while waiting for his means of transport at a bus stop.
"I am one of those voters who was still undecided and wanted to use the occasion to decide on whom my presidential candidate would be," he told Xinhua on Monday evening.
The debate, an initiative of Kenyan media organizations, took to task eight presidential candidates who spelt out the policies that will guide their leadership after the March 4.
The event, which was held in Nairobi, pitted all the eight presidential aspirants who are vying to be Kenya's fourth occupier of State House.
They are CORD presidential bearer and Prime Minister Raila Odinga; Deputy Prime Ministers Uhuru Kenyatta (Jubilee Alliance) and Musalia Mudavadi (Amani Alliance) respectively; former lawmakers Martha Karua (Narc Kenya) and Peter Kenneth (Eagle Alliance).
Others are lawyer Paul Muite (Safia), retired school teacher Abduba Dida (Alliance of Real Change) and former Permanent Secretary James Ole Kiyiapi (Restoration and Build Kenya).
The 68-year-old Odinga and 51-year-old Kenyatta are seen as the favorites in the poll which will be held for the first time under the new constitution and a raft of institutional changes.
"The debate offered us an opportunity to gauge our leaders because they were discussing issues rather than rhetoric that has characters their political campaigns. The policies that advanced during the debate is what mattered a lot," Roselyn Ngesa, a Kisumu resident told Xinhua on Tuesday.
Those who could not make it home in time to catch the debate from the comfort of their sitting rooms flocked entertainment joints to catch the unfolding drama on large flat screens.
Some of the TV stations with offices in town erected medium- sized screens outside their offices to enable those office workers leaving their offices late to watch the show that began at 19:30 p. m. (1630 GMT).
The watchmen who had reported for night duties were not left behind and could be spotted with small transmitter radios glued to their ears as they caught the action live.
"The debate provided a welcome moment to keep us busy for the earlier part of the night. Though I could not watch it on TV owing to the nature of my work, I never the less followed it contentedly, " said Enos Wafula, a guard at an electronics shop along one of Nairobi's busier streets.
Up to 40 million people are believed to have followed the debate which is deemed to be the biggest media event in Kenya's history.
In the first Presidential Debate, Odinga promised a free, quality education for every single child, where "free education must be really free."
The PM said he will make sure there are no hidden costs to getting an education. His policy is in line with his credo that we must educate tomorrow's workforce today.
"We are talking about an inclusive government; a Kenya for all. We must start here by offering equal opportunity for each and every child born in our country," he said.
"Free education must be really free. Free must be truly free. Meaning that uniforms will not have to be provided by parents.. Writing materials, text books and so on all will be provided by the government."
He said if elected, his government would want to see a higher rate of transition from primary to secondary education.
"But there is also a disparity between girls and boys.. we want to address the issue of girl child education in this country. There is a shortage of teachers.. We must hire more teachers to reduce teacher-children ratios."
The PM also pledged his commitment to delivering free healthcare for every Kenyan, greater access to modern hospitals and clinics throughout the country and to reintroduce national health insurance to Parliament.
"Medicare is a fundamental right of our people and we are going to do this by introducing a comprehensive national health insurance scheme," he said.
"We are going to deal with the issue of accessibility and affordability and bringing facilities closer to the people.. it is not right that the few who have the money who can afford to pay get better services."
The event, which caused 120 million U.S. dollars to stage went beyond the projected two hours to three and half hours and saw the lag bearers field questions from two moderators on the issues of governance, social services and security.
However, it is the matter of the International Criminal Court (ICC) case surrounding Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto of crimes against humanity that stole the day.
All the candidates were in unison that it amounted to an act of impunity for Kenyatta to be running for the presidency while the ICC matter was hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
"Unless the duo want to use the presidency to side-step going to The Hague, the two have a moral responsibility to step aside and wait for their case to be heard and determined," reasoned Dida.
However, Kenyatta responded that under the Kenyan laws, he was presumed innocent until proved guilty and that it was the Kenyan voter who will determine whether or not he would be president.
"If people elect me, they have confidence that I can still handle my problems and still discharge my duties as president. The job that I seek is going to be given by the people of Kenya," said Kenyatta who is facing trial at the world court for allegedly involving in the violence case after the 2007 election.
Odinga said his efforts to establish a local tribunal to try suspects involved in the country's post election violence were thwarted by some of his opponents, who preferred The Hague process than the local tribunal.
"Every Kenyan knows how I stood on this matter. Me and President Kibaki spent eight hours in Parliament trying to convince our colleagues to have a local tribunal," he said, reminding Kenyans that Kenyatta cannot run the country remotely using Skype while on trial at the ICC.
"I know it will present serious challenges to run our country by Skype from The Hague," said Odinga.
"The two (Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto) who are now in The Hague shot down the proposal to have a local tribunal. Kenya is a sovereign country and a sovereign nation. We need to do what we think is right. The people of Kenya should make an informed choice free from interference," Odinga said.
Mudavadi, in an apparent reference to sentiments expressed recently by U.S. Under-Secretary of State in Charge of Africa, Johnnie Carson, who warned Kenyans against electing president those with criminal cases, seemed to support Washington's stand when he observed that Kenya was not an island and must respect the views of its friends in the community of nations.
The issue of tribalism was also touched with all the candidates once again being in unanimity that ethnicity is real in the country, but each being of divergent views as to the root cause of it.
The second debate will be on Feb. 25 on the same venue where the candidates will deliberate on issues revolving around the economy, land, devolution and foreign policy.