The Nation, 24 November 2002, Issues Candidates Cannot Afford to Ignore

Nairobi - No surprise, really, that not a single one of the presidential candidates bothered to respond to the little quiz on this page last week.

The surprise, of course, would have been if any of them had responded. The inescapable conclusion being that none of them really values my single vote.

They might also have thought, with some justification, that I was being rather forward in trying to subject them to a public grilling. What insolence, what impertinence, of a mere hack who thinks he can treat prospective presidents with such disrespect!

A president can afford to dismiss with all the haughtiness available scruffy little fellows badgering him with all kinds of impossible demands.

A presidential candidate may turn up his nose, but would still have to put on a plastic smile and pay, or pretend to pay, keen attention. This one vote might make the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!

Checklist not outrageous

The checklist that might have won my vote was not too outrageous. It dealt with some of the basic things many Kenyans would expect a presidential contender to address. So it might not be wrong to presume that more than one measly vote was at stake.

In any case, we are approaching a situation where some of those little things can be picked up and turned into major campaign issues. We all want to know whether the person begging for our vote is a decent and likeable person. We want to know that he is not a thief or/and a liar and that he will not tolerate thieves and liars hovering around him.

We all want some reassurance that the person we are voting for is reasonably stable in his personal and public life, that he is not a hopeless philanderer or saddled down by drink and debt.

And we all want a president whom we know cares about this country and the concerns of its citizens, and is willing and able to make a halfway decent effort in rescuing us from the decay of the Nyayo years.

In this day and age, concentrating on raising campaign funds, entering tribal and party pacts and making vague promises at political rallies is not enough. We want to connect with our candidates, and expect they will at least make an effort to look us straight in the eye.

If they will not respond to an inconsequential individual, perhaps they might care to respond to large groups which want to hear about their policies and programmes of some very serious issues.

Aids is one. Forest conservation is another.

Some may have been puzzled that the political rallies in Nairobi last week after the Big Three got presidential candidates presented their nomination papers were all adorned with Aids-awareness messages. No, it was not that the presidential candidates had suddenly realised that Aids can be a campaign issue.

It was a group of activists who are trying to pressure the candidates to take up their concerns.

And to that end the Kenya Coalition on Access to Essential Medicines - a HIV/Aids advocacy group concerned principally with pressing for availability of effective and inexpensive drugs - has invited all the candidates to participate in a pubic debate scheduled for November 27.

All the candidates have placed the economy top of the agenda. None of them, says the group, has so far, except in passing, addressed the issue of Aids and its debilitating effect on all aspects of national life - including the economy.

Now the group wants all of them together, to practically compete on which of them would have the best policy on a once-taboo subject, a condition that President Moi in 1999 was moved to declare a national disaster, but then did little about afterwards.

They would be seated together, in front of an audience, and behind microphones and TV cameras. The debate, if it ever happens, will be broadcast on TV a few days later as part of the World Aids Day celebrations.

Knowing our candidates, and their morbid fear of being in a situation where they will not so easily get away with glib generalisations, it is unlikely that any of them will agree to participate.

But wait a minute. If our HIV/Aids prevalence rates are to be believed, up to 1.5 million of our registered voters are HIV positive. If issues of HIV-Aids, for this group, are more important than party, tribe, money (not necessarily in that order) or whatever else informs our national politics, we are talking about a large and very captive voting bloc. Those are the sort of numbers no candidate can afford to ignore.

HIV-Aids not the only one

And HIV-Aids is not the only special-interest group working to be heard. The Kanu government, even more the redoubtable Prof Wangari Maathai (I do pray she is made minister for environment if Narc wins), has worked overtime to make all of us environmentally conscious. The wanton "grabbing" of all green space and the reckless and deliberate destruction of forests under the name of development is a national scandal as outrageous, and infinitely more destructive, than the Goldenberg saga.

Million of Kenyans today are acutely aware just how destructive such policies have been.

They, too, would like to hear from their presidential candidates. Earlier this month the Kenya Forests Working Group wrote to the three main presidential candidates inviting them to take part in a media debate. They will be expected to outline their policies on issues of forest conservation.

So, Messrs Kenyatta, Kibaki and Nyachae, and even Mr Ng'ethe and Mr Orengo, you have some important dates to slot in your extremely crowded calendars. There are a few issues millions of voters, not just one misguided hack, would like to discuss with you.

And still on the issue of presidential candidates, has anyone noticed how the Big Three have started to go overboard in trying to project some presidential airs? They are all surrounding themselves with arrogant and overbearing aides, bully-boy musclemen and a surplus of sycophants.

At this rate, all who had hopes that we would evolve into a less imperial presidency had better think again. One can see a situation where whoever gets to State House will want to out-do President Moi in all his excesses - a longer stretch limo, bigger motorcade, more luxurious VIP jet, tighter security, more generous unaudited "allowances", et al.