Can Kenya’s Catholic Bishops end the cold war between Kenyatta and Ruto?

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 13:39

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto leave after delivering a statement to members of media at State House in Nairobi, Kenya September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

After years of a political cold war between Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, the clergy is now offering to reconcile the two to prevent further violence between supporters. Is it too little too late?

In 2014, Kenyatta appointed Ruto as acting president after the International Criminal Court (ICC) ordered him to attend a status conference on his crimes-against-humanity case in The Hague.

The two had won the fiercely-contested presidential election a year earlier, despite facing trial at the ICC for their alleged role in the post-election violence that engulfed the country in 2007, leaving 1,300 people dead and 600,000 homeless.

Kenyatta had asked the court to allow him to attend the conference virtually or be represented by his lawyers, but the court rejected the request maintaining that he must appear in person – a decision that irked him and his supporters.

“Let it not be said that I am attending the status conference as the president of Kenya. So, to all those who are concerned that my personal attendance of the status conference compromises the sovereignty of our people or sets a precedence for the attendance of presidents before the court be assured this is not the case,” the president told parliament before signing an executive order appointing Ruto as acting president  for 48-hours, while he was away in the Netherlands.

In a show of trust in his deputy, the president handed over the instruments of power, including the presidential limousine, to his deputy before leaving the country.

Upon his return, the president showered his deputy with praise, saying the respect of Kenya had remained intact while he was away. “I had no fear because I know we work closely with my brother (Ruto). Why fear your colleague? We have to learn to trust one another,” the president told a crowd that turned out to welcome him back home.

Fast forward to 2021, the bonhomie that existed between the two is long gone. They no longer appear in public wearing similar-colour bespoke suits, exchanging niceties or giving each other high-fives.

Deteriorating relationship

Instead, they accuse each other of being responsible for the deteriorating relationship and the ills bedeviling the government.

In an interview with senior editors last month, Kenyatta dared his deputy to resign instead of  fighting the government from within. “I have an agenda that I was elected on. The honourable thing to do if you are not happy with it is to step aside and allow those who want to move on to do so and take the agenda to the people,” he said.

He accused his deputy of double-speak, saying “on one hand you want to praise the government, yet on the other side of your mouth you are talking another language.”

However, in a swift reply, Ruto accused his boss of fighting him and maintained that he would not resign. “I am a man on a mission. I have no space to retreat nor the luxury to surrender,” he said.

Violent confrontations

The fallout has already cascaded down the grassroots, with supporters of the country’s most powerful men not seeing eye to eye, especially in the central region. Violent confrontations between rival groups have led to destruction of property, injuries and even death.

Fearing that the violence may spread during the election period, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) has offered to reconcile the president and his estranged deputy.

There are conmen who came between us because they advised the president to sideline the deputy president.”

“As church leaders, we are ready to step in and mediate a working arrangement – between the two leaders – that our country badly needs as provided by the Constitution,” Archbishop Philip Anyolo said during a press conference in Nairobi on 15 September.

His colleague, Archbishop Martin Kivuva, warned that if the open disagreement between the president and his deputy influences their supporters, the trickle-down effect will be dire.

In response to the bishops’ concerns, Ruto says he is ready to reconcile with his boss without any preconditions. “I am ready after the Bishops talked of reconciliation. I am in it without conditions. There are conmen who came between us because they advised the president to sideline the deputy president.”

Respect for deputy president

Despite Ruto’s positive words, the reconciliation process will not be easy, going by the remarks of his lieutenants and those of the president. Both camps have already issued demands that ought to be met if the reconciliation process is to succeed.

Ruto’s allies want the president to first order his cabinet secretaries to stop disrespecting the deputy president, who is part of the presidency as per the constitution. They are also demanding that Kenyatta should stop meddling in the 2022 succession politics and instead let the people decide who will be Kenya’s fifth president.

Other conditions are that:

  • Ruto be given back his responsibilities;
  • The government stops using the justice system to intimidate the deputy president’s followers.

MP for Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, one of Ruto’s staunchest allies, says he does not understand what the mediation is all about since it is the deputy president who has been wronged.

“I have never heard the deputy president talking ill of the president, but there has been a concerted effort by this regime through cabinet secretaries and other government functionaries to humiliate the deputy president. This must stop,” Nyoro says.

The president’s allies, on the other hand, read mischief in the whole affair. They accuse both the church and the deputy president of dishonesty.

Nyeri Town MP Wambugu Ngunjiri claims that religious leaders have partly contributed to the heightened political tension and bad blood between the president and his deputy.

“The church, generally, has been the play[ing] field where this hatred has been brewed by providing the platforms and forums where Ruto has mobilised his allies to insult and undermine Uhuru, his boss,” says Wambugu, an ally of the president.

No political wish-list

For reconciliation to be a success, the president’s supporters are demanding that Ruto should come to the negotiating table without any political wish-list and stop ‘inciting’ Mount Kenya residents against the president.

They also want the deputy president to respect and accept the 9 March 2018 handshake between Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, shakes hands with opposition leader Raila Odinga, after announcing an agreement to work together on 9 March 2018 (AP Photo/Brian Inganga, File)

The president’s allies insist that Ruto should also stop lying to the public that the reconciliation between Kenyatta and Raila – the president’s former political rival – stalled the government’s development agenda.

“Ruto first needs to accept that he wronged his boss. He should then get off his high horse and publicly apologise to Uhuru [Kenyatta], sincerely and genuinely; not these cheeky statements he makes,” Wambugu says.

National Assembly Majority Whip, Emmanuel Wangwe, echoes this sentiment saying Ruto should publicly reveal what went wrong between him and his boss. “Reconciliation is biblical; it is the sinner who says what wrongs he has committed. Let the deputy president tell Kenyans what went wrong,” says Wangwe.

Waste of time

However, political analysts are skeptical about the reconciliation offer, especially since it comes at a time when Kenya is preparing for a general election.

In an opinion piece published in the Daily Nation newspaper on September 18, Tom Mshindi – a veteran journalist – pours cold water on the efforts to reconcile the two leaders.

He says attempts to stitch “this ruptured relationship” will be tough since they are coming almost four years too late.

[…] the public does not want to be burdened with further hypocrisy of people that clearly have no time for one another, pretending to be a team.”

“Rather than worry about making friends out of the top two, our bishops should be vigilant monitoring hate speech and potentially-divisive politicking,” says Mshindi.

The reconciliation, he argues, is a waste of time, since Kenyatta has become a lame-duck president who is destined to vacate office in less than a year’s time.

“After all that has happened, the public does not want to be burdened with further hypocrisy of people (the presidency, ministers and other government worthies) that clearly have no time for one another, pretending to be a team.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options