Kenya: William Ruto’s bold run for presidency

By Son Gatitu

Posted on Tuesday, 6 July 2021 13:59
Kenya's Vice President William Ruto addressing the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters in New York city in 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

It takes chutzpah to launch a presidential campaign against the wishes of the country’s oldest and best funded dynasties – the Kenyattas and the Odinga clan. But that is precisely what Deputy President William Ruto is doing.

It is an inside job. Ruto has been an ally of both President Uhuru Kenyatta and erstwhile opposition leader Raila Odinga, lending his brand of aggressive and energetic politics to support their presidential ambitions in the past. But not anymore.

As Ruto stakes out his claim to the presidency – with his populist campaign promoting the ‘hustler nation’ – he believes he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the dynasties, and how to take them on and win.

Ruto’s message is that as a ‘self-made’ man who didn’t benefit from the privileges of the Kenyatta and Odinga dynasties, he empathises with the struggles of the average Kenyan. With that, he’s opened a class war dimension to the coming elections.

Whether Kenya, where the main political schisms are about ethnic and regional identity not class and inherited wealth, is ready for this is another matter. There are also questions about the sources of Ruto’s own substantial wealth, questions that could make him vulnerable to state-backed investigations.

Barely on talking terms

All that will play out over the next few months. There’s still a lot of shadowboxing in this messy race ahead of elections due in August 2022. Ruto is President Kenyatta’s deputy and both are members of the ruling Jubilee Party; but the two are barely on talking terms.

When a president is leaving, people want to associate with someone who looks like they can get it. There are people in government and outside who believe this thing (hustler movement) is getting it.

In the second half of his second presidential term, Kenyatta is looking for a reliable successor. Ruto, who at one time seemed like the perfect fit, no longer fits the bill. Instead, Uhuru Kenyatta has gravitated towards the chief of the long-time rival dynasty, Raila. The two, who went head to head in the rancorous elections of 2013 and 2017, are now allies.

Their fathers dominated Kenyan politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Uhuru and Raila are plotting an electoral pact for 2022, according to Raphael Tuju – the secretary general of the Jubilee Party and Kenyatta’s advisor. But Ruto is also doing plenty of his own plotting. Although still nominally in the Jubilee Party, he is building up a rival: the United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

In the current weird, rhetorical flourishes in which Ruto and the Kenyatta-Odinga duo avoid directly addressing or naming each other, accusations of bad faith and corruption fly around. “They [meaning Kenyatta and his allies] have destroyed the national party called Jubilee,” said Ruto, “they now want us to go start our own ethnic parties….”

“We tell them the ‘hustler nation’ of Kenya cannot fit in any ethnic or regional party. We will have a national party that every Kenyan will fit,” Ruto said last month, during a tour of West Pokot, a western county in the Rift Valley region where he enjoys mass following.

“They think once they get into a coalition of the two parties, we the ‘hustler nation’ will not have a party for the future. I tell them, we are alert, we have a hustler’s party called UDA,” he said. It was the first time Ruto was linking himself with the UDA party that was relaunched late last year.

“Distance himself from mistakes”

Politicians allied to the deputy president have been drumming up support for the UDA which sponsored candidates for parliamentary and regional assemblies by-elections, winning at least one seat in Kenyatta’s political backyard of the Mount Kenya region.

Analysts differ on what a Uhuru-Raila coalition would mean for Ruto’s presidential bid. Javas Bigambo, a lawyer at Interthoughts Consulting in Nairobi, warns that “Ruto must be strategic in his political messaging if he has to beat the Raila-Uhuru arsenal.”

Ruto has to capitalise on the resentment Uhuru is facing in Mt. Kenya.

That means, says Bigambo, that Ruto should distance himself from mistakes that occurred Kenyatta’s second term, but also be keen to avoid direct confrontation with his boss.

“He has to expose the departure of Uhuru’s second term from the constitutional principles of governance secured by Article 10(2) of the Constitution, and link that to the [government’s] contempt [for] court orders [that] will weaken our democratic fabric and lead to the collapse of the governance pillar of the nation-state”.

During his second term, President Kenyatta has been lambasted for ignoring several court orders against his administration. The latest one involves two court orders issued by the high court in February 2020 after he refused to appoint 41 nominated judges.

In January, retired Chief Justice David Maraga told CitizenTV that “… in other countries the president would have been impeached for that because he swore to uphold the constitution. If you have failed on a constitutional duty placed upon you, the recourse for the president would be impeachment.”

Ruto has however consistently distanced himself from the administration’s run-ins with the law. He insists that he has always succeeded in any role assigned to him by the president, suggesting that Kenyatta recently reduced his role to undermine him politically. Since his fall out out with the president, Ruto has been building a coalition around himself.

Beating the Kenyatta-Raila alliance

Raila is yet to declare whether he will run for the presidency in 2022, but his deal with his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party and Kenyatta’s Jubilee suggests that this is the plan. “If we succeed in coming up with an alliance then we should have one presidential candidate for Jubilee and ODM,” said Tuju.

Ruto argues that such an alliance would be ethnic-based and divisive. “I promise the nation, that I intend to build with the whole of my ability a national political party that will bring Kenyans and communities together,” he told KTN News last month.

Herman Manyora, a political analyst in Nairobi, believes that beating the Kenyatta-Raila alliance will be a herculean task for Ruto. “You have the combination of the most powerful political figure of Raila Odinga and the state. It [is] very difficult to beat an alliance of political power and state infrastructure.

He said: “If Kenyatta backs [Raila] Odinga’s bid for presidency, it will be a blessing,”  to the extent that it comes with the perceptible influence and good will of the state, including resources, what street parlance refers to as ‘Deep State’”.

On the downside, Raila could be blamed for Kenyatta’s record of defying court orders and the Constitution. “Whatever Uhuru’s administration is hated for, its ills and follies during his second term,” says Bigambo, “… will be the consequential curse, through the supposition that Raila favoured all the ills.”

Ruto has turned his official residence, located in the upmarket Karen suburb of Nairobi, into a meet-the-people centre. He calls it “the hustlers mansion”. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in March 2020, with subsequent lockdowns and restrictions on public gatherings, it is at the ‘the hustlers mansion’ that Ruto explains his agenda to would-be voters.

It is this political force and strategy that Manyora sees as attractive to Kenyans. “Ruto appears to have captured some kind of a revolution that defies normal paradigms. The ‘hustler nation’ narrative, if sustained, is the only way he can ascend to power.”

Up for grabs to the highest bidder

In past months and years, Ruto has made several inroads into President Kenyatta’s backyard – the Mt. Kenya region: he has managed to convince several elected leaders, who were the bailiwick of the Kenyatta family, to back him. So passionate are some of these politicians, that they openly differ with President Kenyatta.

Alice Wahome, a member of parliament from Murang’a County, says the Jubilee-ODM alliance is a fatal error: “The ODM and Jubilee secretary generals have the unfortunate positions of midwifing the death of Jubilee and ODM and they have been very active at it.”

She argues that the Jubilee party is weakening fast, having lost several elected leaders to Ruto’s new party. “UDA is causing a lot of shivers because we are on the ground recruiting (members).”

None of the elected leaders has resigned from the Jubilee party, but they work clandestinely for Ruto’s UDA. There will be a reckoning next February, six months before the election, when many elected leaders – especially MPs – may likely quit Jubilee for UDA. Kenyan politicians refer to this as the opening of the ‘transfer window’.

Ruto’s team figures that they will win over at least 100 members of parliament to the UDA. Such a rebellion against President Kenyatta would undercut Odinga’s prospects as the Mount Kenya region has long voted against the latter. In 2007, they preferred Mwai Kibaki; and in 2013, they voted for Kenyatta, who was again propelled to power in 2017.

So far, no presidential contender from Kenyatta’s Mount Kenya backyard has emerged for the 2022 elections. The region is divided between the Kikuyu – the country’s largest ethnic group – in the west and other smaller groups to the East of the mountain.  Politicians from the east say they are tired of being used by their counterparts in the west as ‘vote gatherers’.

The region appears to be up for grabs to the highest bidder; and Kenyatta’s backing for Odinga, in Mount Kenya, may not be enough to propel the opposition leader to the presidency. “Ruto has to capitalise on the resentment Uhuru is facing in Mt. Kenya,” says Bigambo, “… and warm up to the people there by speaking to their interests, to demonstrate that he can be trusted more than Raila.”

Ruto has to build up his support in Mount Kenya and other regions outside his base in the Rift Valley. At the same time he has to persuade voters that despite his being the deputy president, he bears no responsibility for the country’s growing public debt, rising  unemployment and galloping corruption.

According to Bigambo, “Ruto must build a strong and formidable coalition that ropes in Central, Coast, North Eastern, Upper Eastern, parts of Western Kenya and make sure that he can command and take half of the votes in Nairobi [for] a possible win of the presidency.”

An unassailable campaign?

Both Ruto and the Kenyatta-Raila alliance will have to woo other key political formations in the race, such as the National Super Alliance (NASA) that was formed in 2017. At the time, Raila was its presidential candidate and he had the backing of two former vice presidents: Kalonzo Musyoka – of the Wiper Party – and Musalia Mudavadi – of the Amani National Congress (ANC) – together with Moses Wetangula – of Ford Kenya.

In recent months, Kalonzo, Mudavadi and Wetangula have launched the One Kenya Alliance, roping in Gideon Moi – the party leader of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Moi, a son of the late former president Daniel Moi, is Ruto’s most serious rival when it comes to gathering votes in the Rift Valley.

The One Kenya Alliance grouping could mount a serious challenge to both Ruto and the Kenyatta-Odinga camps, if they agree on a common presidential candidate. But if they decided to run individual presidential campaigns, this is likely to boost Ruto’s plans, enormously. On the other hand, if Odinga can persuade them to back his project again, then Ruto would be in trouble.

Manyora believes that the growing sentiments – within and outside government – that his campaign is unassailable, will spur Ruto on. “When a president is leaving, people want to associate with someone who looks like they can get it. There are people in government and outside who believe this thing (hustler movement) is getting it.”

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