NAIROBI, Kenya -- With a hotly contested, anxiously awaited presidential election only three weeks away, Kenya tried something new on Monday night: it held a debate.
Just after sunset, millions of Kenyans sat down in front of television sets or grabbed transistor radios to witness the first time presidential candidates faced off against one another in a public forum in Kenya's nearly 50 years as an independent nation.
Kenya may be one of the most developed and powerful countries in Africa, known for its safaris and historically close to the West, but its politics have been bedeviled by corruption, impunity and bitter ethnic rivalries, often exploding into widespread violence during contested elections.
Human rights groups, intellectuals and the Kenyan media are now doing all they can -- like setting up social media watchdogs and organizing presidential debates -- to make sure that this time history does not repeat itself.
The two front-runners are Raila Odinga, the prime minister, who says he was cheated out of winning last time in 2007, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding father. Mr. Kenyatta has been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity connected to the widespread bloodshed that convulsed Kenya after the last election.
The debate, held at a school in Nairobi and moderated by Kenyan journalists, started out with a hand grenade: why are politics in Kenya so ethnically charged, and what would the eight candidates -- seven men and one woman -- do about it?
"Ethnicity is a disease of the elite," Mr. Odinga said, adding that he stood for a "Kenya for all, not just for a few elite."
Mr. Kenyatta hit a similar note.
"Tribalism is a cancer that has afflicted this country for a very long time," he said. "It has been a source of conflict, a source of death."
The debate then turned to the equally thorny subject of the International Criminal Court and what it would mean if Mr. Kenyatta won the presidential race. Several Western countries have already threatened to distance themselves from Mr. Kenyatta, raising the prospect that Kenya, which depends on hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid, could be partly isolated if its next president faced war crimes charges in international court.
Mr. Kenyatta, a deputy prime minister and a confident public speaker, tried to smooth over those worries, reassuring voters that he was innocent and that he could juggle defending himself at The Hague while presiding over Kenya.
But Mr. Odinga shot back: "I know it's going to cause serious challenges to run the government by Skype from The Hague."
The audience laughed.
Public service advertisements during the debate urged Kenyans to come together this election cycle, driving the point home with beautiful shots of Kenya's savannas, mountaintops and azure coastline, accompanied by swelling orchestra music. One question in the second half of the debate was what the candidates would do to make sure this election was peaceful.
"Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in the world," said Peter Kenneth, a presidential hopeful respected for his independence but considered a long shot. "We must never try to destroy it."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.