William Ruto | From chicken seller to President

Kenya’s new ruler has to first overcome the legal challenges to his election

Updated - August 21, 2022 07:10 pm IST

Published - August 21, 2022 12:42 am IST

Illustration: SREEJITH R. KUMAR

Illustration: SREEJITH R. KUMAR

In the 2007 Kenyan Presidential election, William Ruto had supported the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, against the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki. Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta and a former political ally of Mr. Ruto, had backed Kibaki, who was from his own ethnic group Kikuyu. Kibaki was declared winner, but Mr. Odinga refused to concede, which led to large-scale violence.

Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto, whose Kalenjin ethnic group, the third biggest in Kenya, had backed Mr. Odinga, stood in opposing camps during the clashes in which some 1,200 people were killed. Both Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto were accused of crimes against humanity and cases filed against them in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. But in the next election, in 2013, Mr. Ruto joined hands with Mr. Kenyatta as his running mate against Mr. Odinga, who lost again.

Cut to the present. In the run-up to the August 9 presidential election, the outgoing President Kenyatta was campaigning across the country for the opposition leader Mr. Odinga against his Vice-President Ruto. When the results were announced, Mr. Ruto secured a narrow victory against Mr. Odinga. That’s Kenyan politics for the beginners.

Mr. Ruto’s rise to the top office in Kenya has never been easy. As a teenager, he used to sell chickens and nuts to truckers in the highways of Kenya’s Rift Valley. He went to school barefoot and tended cows and helped till field on a family plot for farming. Now a wealthy businessman whose fortunes multiplied when he was in government, Mr. Ruto, 55, recalled his humble childhood during campaigns recently.

Joining politics

His entry into politics coincided with Kenya’s transition to multiparty democracy. In 1992, the year Kenya saw the first multiparty elections, Mr. Ruto joined the then dominant KANU party, led by President Daniel arap Moi. Moi, who succeeded Jomo Kenyatta in 1978 and went on to become the longest serving President of the country, picked his old comrade’s son Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor. Mr. Ruto’s job was to work for Mr. Kenyatta’s victory in the 2002 elections. But Mr. Kenyatta lost the election to Kibaki. Subsequently, Mr. Ruto would fall out with Mr. Kenyatta and leave KANU.

What brought them together in 2013 were the ICC cases. Mr. Kenyatta was elected President and Mr. Ruto became his deputy. They denied any role in the 2007-08 violence and blasted the court for its interference in Kenya. The cases collapsed in 2016 as witnesses either recanted or disappeared. After their re-election in 2017, the President and Vice-President fell out again. Mr. Ruto continued as Vice-President even when he said he and President Kenyatta looked at politics differently, while the President’s supporters accused him of insubordination.

During this year’s election campaign, many had cast doubt on Mr. Ruto’s prospects as President Kenyatta, whose Kikuyu is the largest ethnic group in the country, had publicly disowned him. But Mr. Ruto, the undisputed leader of the Kalenjins, reached out to other ethnicities, including the Kikuyus. He ran a Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First) campaign, focusing on the youth and promising economic growth and job opportunities. He called himself a champion of Kenya’s “hustler nation”.

Election results show that he managed to bury his controversial past that saw allegations of both corruption and violence, and strike a chord with the voters across the ethnic barriers. According to the Election Commission chair, Mr. Ruto polled 50.49% of votes, against Mr. Odinga’s 48.85%.

But the road ahead is going to be bumpy for this former chicken seller from the Rift Valley. His first challenge is to consolidate his authority in the face of political challenges and social divisions. While the chief election commissioner declared him winner, a majority of Election Commission members refused to sign off the results. Supporters of Mr. Odinga say the counting was hacked. Mr. Odinga has refused to accept the results and has vowed to challenge it using every legal means. The crisis has obviously revived the dark memories of the 2007 clashes. And even if Mr. Ruto overcomes the political challenges and forms a stable government, a taller task before him is to walk the talk on economic growth and employment.

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