As Ghana prepared to hold its presidential debate in October 2012, a writer with the African Review concluded that “holding live debates in Africa only currently makes for good television only; the continent is still a long way from issue-based politics”. This assertion instigated many rhetoric questions for me;what is issue based politics? if Africa presidential debates were not issue-based, what then were the candidates discussing during the two hours session?. I was thus persuaded to follow the Kenyan presidential debate last week (broadcasted On TV and online), to see if what this writer had said made any sense. To my delight, the Kenyan presidential debate did not only cover very substantive social, economic and military issues (jobs, youth unemployment, human rights, Kenya–Uganda border crisis, piracy, ethnicity and race) it also showed the progress made by the continent in the democratization of the electoral process.
As the primary means through which people express their preferences and choose their representatives, elections are a powerful democratic governance tool of voice, accountability and, ultimately, economic development. Elections feeds into the governance process which then provides economic and social policies that are responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and that aim at eradicating poverty and expanding the choices that all people have in their lives.
If inclusiveness and participation are fundamental ingredients for effective elections and democracy, then presidential and even local/ representative debates during election provide an avenue for these two ingredients to be added into the process of governance. In the Kenyan presidential debate of last week, the citizen had a chance to ask questions to the different presidential candidates through social media. Young voters embraced the new found medium of participation and engaged in the process as advocates or critics of the different policy visions advanced by the candidates. While this may not be life changing, a retrospective reflection of the political and electoral process that dominated the continent two decades ago, reinforced the reality of today’s changing Africa (two decade ago, citizens of most Africa countries could easily determined the outcome of the elections before people actually cast their votes- today, they get to engaged with the candidates directly, challenged thier propositions and share their opinion throughout the process). This is a recognizable mile stone that can easily be undermine with useless comparison to the so called issue-based politics in America ( btw: are America presidential debates really based on issues?– did any body watched the last Republican primaries?)
The other glaring progress noticed was the presence of a female candidate on stage during the presidential debate. Though this would have been considered a taboo two decades ago, the Kenyan presidential debate and the strength of the arguments advanced by the lone female candidates elucidates a changing reality in the continent. That a female candidate was able stand toe to toe on live TV with other male politicians is an indication of what Africa’s tomorrow will look like and an inspiration to all the intelligent sisters who dare to dream in countries with some form of societal oppression and prejudice. Beyond the debate, this shows that there will come a time in africa when no special measures will be required to address deep-seated gender inequalities and provide traditionally excluded communities access to political power and the institutions that serve them. Though the continent now boasts of a number of female presidents, no one is blind to the challenges faced by women and the girl child in Africa.
Elections are usually the only means by which power is pursued and attained, and resources accessed in many African countries. They become, in the absence of a broader democratic system, a winner-takes-all proposition. As a result, those perceived as being exclusive and flawed – can trigger violent conflict or call into question the legitimacy of the entire political system. I’m not naïve to think that presidential debates alone will usher in a new era or transparent politics. This is not the case in most developed and developing countries. However, whether the presidential debates are issue based or not is irrelevant considering the broader role it plays in fostering inclusiveness and participation and hence democratization in the countries that adopts this model. As my old friend would say, “if presidential debates are mandated in all African countries, most dictators will not be able to stay in power that long because they will run out of ideas to justify perpetual renewal of their mandate”. With that, I concur that presidential debates should in deed be a norm in Africa’s presidential electoral systems.