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Eight hopefuls turn up election heat in first-ever American-style debate

(GIN) — Eight contenders for the Kenyan presidency took off the gloves and dazzled TV viewers with their knowledge on a wide range of issues — from tribalism, health and education — as the crucial national election on March 4 nears.

In the first-ever American-style TV debate, all condemned the ethnic feuding that tore the nation apart in 2007, leaving some 1,200 dead  more than 300,000 displaced. Land disputes continue to divide ethnic groups including Kikuyus, Luos, Embu and Meru.

“Tribalism is a cancer that has afflicted this country for a very long time,” said frontrunner Uhuru Kenyatta. “I personally believe that this problem is largely … a result of a battle for resources.” Rival Raila Odinga called tribalism “a disease of the elite.”

Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto are seeking the highest office despite facing charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for allegedly stoking the violence of 2007. Kenyatta claims, if elected, he will govern while fighting the charges but candidate Odinga questioned how he could run a government via Skype from The Hague. Their trials begin in April.

While the United States has refused to endorse any candidate, comments by Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson are being used by both sides against each other.  Calling the March 4 elections a “wonderful opportunity” to demonstrate the vitality of Kenya’s democracy, Carson cautioned that “choices have consequences.”

“Accountability for political violence, including that perpetrated during the 2007-08 electoral crisis, is an important part of building a peaceful and prosperous country,” he said.

But the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Dr. Christian Turner, went further saying Britain would not talk to any of the four Kenyans indicted by the ICC “unless it was essential.”

Kenyatta did not seem worried. “In actual fact, the negative impact is on the British. Kenyans are showing they are not keen on foreigners telling them what to do,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “If anything, his remarks helped us out.”

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