Inside the private school in Nairobi's upmarket Karen suburb, the small audience gathered to witness history in the making. The seven men and one woman on stage introduced themselves, the moderator settled into position and Kenya's first televised presidential debate began.
The debate was broadcast on eight television stations and 34 radio stations and streamed live on YouTube (Kenya is one of Africa's most wired countries), marking a huge change in a country where politics has traditionally been personality-based and driven by ethnic loyalties.
With fears growing that Kenya could see a repeat, or worse, of the chaos that erupted after President Mwai Kibaki was elected in 2007, when 1 200 people died in tribal violence, the candidates sought to reassure voters that this time would be different.
The moderator, Linus Kaikai, a veteran journalist, forced the candidates to face the toughest issues head-on, notably pushing the two frontrunners, Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, on perceptions that their campaigns were exploiting traditional tribal animosities.
The two men head Kenya's premier political dynasties, and their rivalry mirrors the relationship between their fathers: Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya's first president and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was vice-president until he fell out with his leader, resigned and founded an opposition party.
Kenyatta belongs to Kenya's dominant Kikuyu tribe and his running mate, former education minister William Ruto, is a Kalenjin. Odinga is a Luo, who have never held the presidency.
Both Kenyatta and Odinga rejected the claims that they were running ethnic campaigns. "Tribalism is a cancer that has afflicted this country for a very long time," Kenyatta said. "I personally believe that this problem is largely … as a result of a battle for resources," he said. Odinga described tribalism as "a disease of the elite".
Kaikai also asked Kenyatta, who delivered a smooth, articulate performance, how he could run the country while facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for his role in allegedly stoking the violence in 2007.
Kenyatta and Ruto, who is also facing trial at the ICC, have denied the charges of crimes against humanity. Kenyatta was quick to reassure the voters that he would be able to govern while fighting the charges. "The job I seek is going to be given by the people of Kenya … who full well know the personal issues that I am confronted with," he said, rejecting the idea that he was in breach of a constitutional clause on leaders' integrity.
He said he would "discharge my duties while still proceeding to clear my name". Odinga retorted that it would pose a challenge to run a government via Skype from The Hague.
The first round will be held on March 4 and if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote there will be a second-round run-off vote in April. Analysts say a tight vote could pose the biggest risk to peace. In 2007 the violence exploded after Odinga, who was standing against Kibaki, alleged the vote was rigged.
His supporters turned on Kalenjins and Kikuyus, who then retaliated. Some observers say that the sheer scale and cost of the violence last time means there will be no repeat, arguing that Kenyans realise the effect on the economy would be disastrous. However, more than 400 people have already been killed in 2012 and 2013 in political clashes.
If Kenyatta is elected Kenya will enter uncharted waters. He has promised to co-operate with the ICC but if he decides to end that co-operation, Kenya could face international sanctions. The ICC's role in delivering justice has become a major campaign issue, with Kenyatta's supporters often denouncing the trial as an example of foreign interference in Kenya's sovereign affairs.
Kenyatta's support has strengthened in recent months, suggesting that the ICC indictment may be working in his favour. A poll on January 25 by Ipsos Synovate showed Odinga and his Coalition for Reform and Democracy coalition in the lead with 46%. Kenyatta, who is running for the Jubilee coalition, came second with 40%. – Guardian News and Media 2013