FOR a country in which politicians regularly mistake name-calling for debate, Kenya took a huge leap forward this week when it held its first presidential debate in nearly 50 years, providing a platform for the eight candidates who are running for president in the March 4 election.

The first of two debates dealt with Kenya’s most contentious issues — the tribalism and nepotism that have plagued its politics and undermined economic growth for decades, and the upcoming trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of leading candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, who have been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity linked to the violence that followed the 2007 poll.

All the candidates insisted they would not exploit their ethnic communities for political gain and committed to a campaign that would enhance national unity. They also committed to settling electoral disputes through the courts and not through the chaotic and often violent street protests of the past. This resonated in particular for another leading candidate — Prime Minister Raila Odinga, son of Kenyan liberation hero and former vice-president Oginga Odinga — who took to the streets in 2007 to stake his claim to the presidency he believed had been stolen at the ballot box by President Mwai Kibaki.

The ICC was the proverbial elephant in the room during the debate. With the trial set to begin in April, the question of how Mr Kenyatta, deputy prime minister and son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta, could expect to govern while defending himself in court at The Hague loomed large.

Mr Odinga, the main beneficiary if Mr Kenyatta withdraws from the race, weighed in with a cheeky answer: he would find it difficult to run the government by Skype. Mr Kenyatta countered by suggesting that electing him would equate to rejecting the ICC.

For the first time, the debate publicly addressed the issue of who was responsible for the 2007 violence, and asked whether the two men who contested that election — Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki — did enough to prevent it.

Critics have long argued that prosecuting some while sparing the two principals has damaged the ICC’s credibility and showed it has succumbed to pressure for a quick-fix political solution.

The candidates also debated a number of issues that would be of interest to South Africans, such as how to improve education, public health and policing. Kenya has experienced a spate of security problems linked to the election, with dozens of people killed in coastal districts and the Rift Valley, one of the main flash points of violence five years ago.

Kenya’s presidential debate was a great occasion simply because long-time foes were required to argue their cases in a civil and structured manner and allow Kenyans, 44-million of whom tuned in on radio and TV, to judge the candidates for themselves. It followed the excellent example provided by Ghana, which holds presidential debates regularly, and is an important step towards transparent government and encouraging citizens to hold politicians to account.

Zimbabwe has now called a referendum and election in a few months’ time, and there is mounting pressure on President Robert Mugabe to follow the lead of Ghana and Kenya and participate in a public debate with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and any other candidates for the presidency.

There is, however, no sign that either the African National Congress (ANC) or President Jacob Zuma have softened their stance when it comes to presidential debates. They should change their tune, and it is as much the task of civil society to demand that ANC leaders account directly to the public as it is that of opposition parties.