Kenya: US, UK embrace Ruto as Deputy President leads in polls

By Julian Pecquet, Patrick Smith
Posted on Friday, 11 March 2022 11:52, updated on Saturday, 12 March 2022 23:27

William Ruto speaking at Chatham House in London on 7 March 2022.
William Ruto speaking at Chatham House in London,

Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto is suddenly enjoying red carpet treatment abroad as foreign governments scramble to build a rapport with the presidential front-runner.

Frozen out of international travel and meetings with visiting dignitaries over the past couple of years by President Uhuru Kenyatta, it’s all change now for the deputy president. Now a leading contender in Kenya’s presidential race, Ruto met with top Africa policy officials in Washington and London in the past week and pledged to accept the results of the August election and abjure violence.

To even the scores, Ruto’s main rival, ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is due in London in the coming week after arranging meetings with top officials there.

Ruto’s tour followed recent polling  showing him drawing support from almost 39% of voters versus 27% for Odinga, who is backed by Kenyatta. Analysts warn that there is still a wide margin of error, given that 20% of those contacted said they were undecided, and a further 10% didn’t answer.

And the latest polls by the same company, TIFA, show Odinga as over ten points ahead of Ruto in Nairobi county, home to the capital and one of the country’s biggest voting blocks.

Ruto’s newfound popularity on the international stage was on full display last week during his visit to the United States, where the deputy president and his large entourage separately met with the top White House and State Department officials handling Africa, Dana Banks and Molly Phee.

From there he traveled to London, where he met Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford and had tea with Baron St John of Bletso and other members of the non-elected House of Lords.

We believe it is important to engage all of the major candidates to ensure we have an established relationship with the winner of the August election – whoever that may be.

Ruto also had a private meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby who tweeted: “Good to meet @WilliamRuto this afternoon, and looking  forward to meeting @RailaOdinga next week. Praying for peaceful, open, and credible elections on 9 August.”

“Kenya is and will remain a key strategic partner and plays an essential role in promoting our shared regional and global priorities,” a State Department spokesperson tells The Africa Report. “We believe it is important to engage all of the major candidates to ensure we have an established relationship with the winner of the August election – whoever that may be.”

Strategic partner

Ruto was invited to speak by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, both of which hosted him for in-depth discussions about bilateral relations and the state of democracy in Kenya.

The visit allowed him to present himself on the international stage. It also laid to rest doubts that Ruto could get a US visa after being charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in the post-election violence that killed over 1,200 people and drove 600,000 people from their homes in 2007-2008.

The ICC abandoned the case against Ruto and his co-defendant Joshua Sang, after judges ruled there was insufficient evidence to try them. The defendants asked the judges to acquit them outright but that was refused. ICC Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said the trial process had been tainted by “witness interference and political meddling.”

Ruto was evidently happy to be in Washington DC. “Yes, it was an American invitation. But I was also looking forward to it,” he told The Africa Report in an exclusive interview. “Because as much as they had things they wanted to know, I also had things I wanted to know from them.”

Kenya is a key African country for the US.  President Donald Trump elevated the relationship to a strategic partnership during President Kenyatta’s 2018 visit to the White House. Ruto said Kenya would remain a close US ally, sharing its condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, should he win the presidency.

“We are working with the US on stability and security, the fight against terrorism, the regional issues of refugees, and so we really have a relationship that requires engagement,” he said. “And I think it’s strategic for everybody to try and understand who you’re going to be dealing with.”

Free and fair elections

Another priority for the trip was to focus US officials on the Kenyan election. Ruto has denounced proposed changes to elections laws just months before the vote and claimed that his supporters have suffered violent attacks.

“I wanted to know from them how they are going to work with us, as their friends, in making sure that our elections are credible, free, fair, and peaceful,” Ruto told The Africa Report. That includes getting other candidates to accept the results, capacity-building election management, and sending polling observers.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee obliged.

“I welcomed the opportunity to meet with Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto this week to discuss the importance of free, fair, and peaceful elections in August,” Phee tweeted after meeting with Ruto on 3 March. “This is a message for all Kenyans.”

Afterwards, the State Department emphasised to The Africa Report that the US government “does not have a preferred candidate” and “will remain strictly neutral” in the election. When he visits Washington DC, Raila Odinga is expected to get the same treatment as Ruto.

“We continue to emphasise privately and publicly that it for the Kenyans to decide who will be the next president of their country,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Our only interest is in a free, fair, credible and peaceful election process.

“As a longtime partner, we will support Kenya’s efforts in this regard. We think that our engagements with the candidates, both in Washington and Nairobi, provide an opportunity to reiterate these messages and to make clear the importance of Kenya’s role as a democratic leader in the region and on the continent.”

Engaging the diaspora

Ruto also met with diaspora Kenyans from across the United States in Maryland, just outside Washington DC. He described them as an economic force to be reckoned with because of their remittances to Kenya as well as a political force. For the first time Kenyans in the US can vote in their home country’s elections.

“You cannot have a discussion about how to move Kenya forward without the diaspora,” Ruto says. “And since we are having a discussion about the economy, for the first time, as an election issue, the diaspora cannot be out of it, because there are huge stakeholders and contributors to the economy of Kenya.”

Ruto also discussed negotiations for a bilateral free trade deal launched under Trump but which have languished under President Joe Biden. He said his State Department interlocutors brought it up, which he took as a positive sign.

“The fact that … it came from them is, in my opinion, a demonstration that they have it in their in their scheme of things,” he said. “How high in the priority list? I can’t judge.”

He also travelled to Nebraska at the start of his trip, where he met with Governor Pete Ricketts and interacted with irrigation and agribusiness equipment companies while also promoting Kenyan coffee exports.

Ruffling feathers

The trip did not escape notice in Kenya, where the opposition sought to diminish the significance of Ruto’s engagements with US officials.

The media even had to fact-check a viral fake tweet purporting to be from President Biden.

“It has come to my attention that Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto is said to have had a closed-door meeting with me at White House,” the fake tweet reads. “I would like to put it clear that, I have not had any meetings with him. Ruto is in America as a tourist. White House is a public place.”

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