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William Ruto, Kenya’s Rift Valley challenger

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi
Posted on Wednesday, 29 June 2011 13:21

William Ruto is negotiating Kenya’s political minefield to make a run at the presidency. Many hurdles lie ahead – not least the threat of prosecution at The Hague. Yet he tells The Africa Reporthe is certain he will prevail

A few weeks after the National Rainbow Coalition had ended the 40-year rule of the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), William Samoei arap Ruto, a former cabinet minister in Daniel arap Moi’s last government, was at Nairobi’s Phoenix Theatre watching Death and the Maiden by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman. The play explores the aftermath of a brutal dictatorship and the parallels with Kenya after 24 years of Moi’s autocratic rule were clear.

As the curtain went up, Ruto stood up to speak. Next to him sat Julius Sunkuli, a former security minister linked to the murder of Father John Kaiser, an American Catholic priest. In the audience were dissidents who had been tortured by Moi’s thugs in the underground chambers at Nyayo House, minutes away from the theatre.

Addressing the audience, Ruto conceded he had been part of the Moi government and was aware of the crimes. “But you can go to the records,” he insisted as the crowd started to jeer. “I was never part of the government that committed those crimes. Those things happened before my time. I challenge anyone to prove otherwise.”

For Ruto, MP for Eldoret North and facing a future without Moi’s patronage, there would be many more tests of nerve: a decade of court cases and corruption allegations dating back to the time of his activism in the Youth for Kanu organisation.

Almost a decade ago and little known outside his Rift Valley constituency, Ruto set about challenging former president Moi for the leadership of the Kalenjin community.

In 2007, aged barely 40, Ruto announced his candidature for the presidency. In the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party primaries that followed, he emerged third behind Musalia Mudavadi and Raila Odinga.

Having abandoned the wolves of KANU, Ruto was running with the pack of leftist reformers and rehabilitated ex-KANU activists who gathered in Raila Odinga’s ODM to drive Mwai Kibaki from office in the December 2007 elections. As post-election violence exploded in Nairobi and the Rift Valley, rights activists accused Ruto of either complicity or, at best, failing to rein in the thugs.??

More than three years after an internationally brokered settlement snatched Kenya from the brink of war, Ruto sits in his office in central Nairobi digesting the recent past. A presidential election looms next year, for which he has emphatically declared his candidature. But there is no clear path to it.

On 1 September, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will rule on whether there is sufficient evidence to indict him of crimes against humanity. He was named as one of the six key perpetrators of the post-election violence, and is being investigated for murder, forcible transfer of population and persecution. Should those charges hold, Ruto will face a 30-year prison term.

“My disagreement with the prime minister is on issues of principle,” he told The Africa Report in an exclusive interview in early June.

The chill in their relationship began soon after the grand coalition was formed, when Ruto opposed Odinga’s position on a range of issues, notably the eviction of Kalenjin settlers in the Mau forest, Kenya’s biggest forest complex and its main water tower.

The breakdown between Ruto and the prime minister precipitated a rebellion within the ODM, which enjoys a parliamentary majority. Ruto has since openly announced that he will run for the presidency on a United Democratic Movement ticket, a party which itself is beset by a leadership contest pitting its chairman, (retired) Major-General John Koech, an Odinga ally, against Ruto’s supporters.

However, his more immediate headache – ICC matters aside – is the difficulty of cobbling together a nationwide coalition that could lead a charge against Odinga’s own 2012 candidature. Over the past two years, he has resumed relations with Uhuru Kenyatta, President Kibaki’s putative successor for the Kikuyu leadership and an ally from their days as KANU young turks under former president Moi. Kenyatta is also among those facing possible ICC charges.

While the post-election troubles of 2008 may have divided them, the two are seen as the most credible force to challenge Odinga for the presidency. Together with Vice President Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, they recently formed the so-called G7 alliance.?

LESSONS FROM THE PAST Many of Ruto’s Kalenjin supporters are likely to be uneasy about how his relationship with Kenyatta is received. The post-election violence pitted the Kalenjin against the Kikuyu. Thousands of those evicted are yet to be resettled, a pointer to the difficulties of real reconciliation between the two communities.

“I don’t think Kenyans will return to violence. We have learned our lessons,” he confidently asserts, but admits that many of the issues that led to the violence have not yet been resolved. It is these issues that dominate his agenda, a gritty mix of economic regeneration through hard work, youth empowerment and abiding faith in Kenyans.

“The security of this country will be determined by how we deal with the question of rural poverty,” he says. “Part of the problem of the 2007-2008 violence is that the aspirations of people were shattered. There was a belief that the ODM represented a new Kenya – a Kenya that brought all communities together. When that was shattered, there was a feeling of betrayal.”?

This led to the violence, he says: “Many of the Kenyans who participated in the violence were young people who saw within ODM an end to discrimination, an end of hopelessness.” ?

Now he cautions that unless there is an end to empty political rhetoric and a real investment in jobs for the country’s youth, there could be a recurrence of the violence seen three years ago.

While running the agriculture ministry, Ruto was voted the most hardworking minister in government. “In my brief stint in the cabinet, I have seen what focus, commitment and determination can achieve. I saw the challenges that face our nation: the challenge of poverty, unemployment and hunger and the challenge of turning Kenya into a middle-income country. But these are challenges we can overcome. I am persuaded of this. I have a lot of faith in this country. We have the necessary resources to make this country the jewel of Africa if we get the correct leadership,” he says.

Unfazed by the ICC case, where he proclaims innocence, Ruto is looking beyond his legal defence at The Hague. With a mix of conservative politics, solidly grounded in an agrarian work ethic and opposed to the liberal ideas embedded in Kenya’s new constitution, Ruto is convinced that he is the man of the future.

This article was first published in the July 2011 edition of The Africa Report.

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