William Samoei Ruto, 55, has been declared the winner of Kenya’s presidential election. He is the leader of the United Democratic Alliance party under the Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First) coalition. Ruto defeated his main rival in the election, Raila Odinga, 77, who was running under the rival Azimio la Umoja (Unity Declaration) coalition.
He becomes Kenya’s first sitting deputy president to succeed the incumbent following competitive elections and the first candidate to win the presidency at the first attempt.
The declaration of the results was temporarily disrupted amid chaotic scenes by the losing candidate’s supporters alleging irregularities. The situation was thrown into further disarray when four commissioners broke ranks, held a separate press conference, and denounced the results as “opaque”.
Ruto won the polls in spite of a sustained pushback by the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, his former ally who chose instead to back his former archrival and longtime opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Kenyatta and Ruto are former allies: Ruto campaigned for Kenyatta during his first presidential attempt in 2002, which he lost. Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the suspected masterminds of the mass atrocities that followed the disputed 2007 elections. They then teamed up to contest in 2013. They prevailed in 2017 as well, but not before the Supreme Court annulled the first round.
After their falling out, however, Ruto characterized Kenyatta and Odinga as the embodiments of dynastic politics and entitlement. The two are sons of Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first president and first vice president, respectively. In a way, Ruto prevailed against the state, powerful elites, the biased media, the intelligentsia, civil society, and jaundiced polling firms. His victory is historic and phenomenal.
As an outlier in Kenya’s political power matrix, which is dominated by a tiny clique related to familial and economic ties and adept at manipulating tribalism to capture the state, Ruto was elbowed out by the establishment. But he has somersaulted back by appealing directly to the masses, his original constituency.
Ruto versus the status quo
For almost six decades, political and economic power has been confined within a group around Kenya’s first two presidents—Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. Raila Odinga joined this group in the sunset years of Moi’s tenure and counted on it to propel him to power in the just concluded elections. The group has leverage over state agencies and the security apparatus. It exploits state power to advance commercial interests spread across the entire gamut of Kenya’s economy.
Kenyatta’s family, for instance, has vast business interests. The Mois are also fabulously wealthy. Ruto has accused these families of state capture — exploiting their control of the state to enrich themselves primitively.
Ruto is also certainly a man of means. According to his opponents in the government, he too has extensive business interests. It’s for this reason that Ruto has been accused of hypocrisy for championing the downtrodden, or ordinary Kenyans whom he refers to as “hustlers.”
Pivotal to Ruto’s campaign was his bottom-up economic model. Its pillars are the dispersal of economic and political opportunities, and dignifying the poor. It invokes equity, inclusivity, social justice, and fair play.
His “hustler nation” movement was buoyed by mass unemployment, poverty, inequalities, and state excesses such as extrajudicial executions and runaway corruption.
Ruto successfully reinvented himself as the agent of class consciousness, hitherto absent in Kenya’s political discourse and competition. By rebranding himself as the antithesis of the status quo and personification of the hopes of the poor, his messaging resonated with a cross-section of the marginalized.
As the victor, his work is cut out for him. He will have to overhaul Kenya’s socioeconomic and political edifices to assuage the restless and disenchanted populace. He has to provide leadership that will disabuse the Kenyan society of tribal consciousness and embed civic values and national identity. If he does not, he risks becoming a casualty of his success.
The making of a winner
Following disputed elections in 2017, Kenyatta and his close allies embarked on a campaign of vilification against Ruto. He was soon edged out of the government and remained as Kenyatta’s principal assistant in law only. Kenyatta transferred his official responsibilities as deputy president to a loyal cabinet minister in an attempt to whittle down the office and clip Ruto’s political wings.
The aim was to delegitimize and frustrate him into resigning, thus knocking him out of the succession race. Ruto exhibited resilience despite the frustrations.
In Kenya’s media, including social media, Ruto was the villain; the bogeyman. Through newspaper headlines, hashtags, prime-time news, and talk shows, he was cynically depicted as the skunk of Kenya’s politics solely associated with vices such as corruption, land grabs, impunity, unbridled ambition, and insolence, warlord politics, and ethnic cleansing. He exploited this sense of victimhood to his advantage.
These vices, however, pervade Kenya’s political landscape and the depiction was more information by partisanship than moral rectitude. His accusers are no better.
Ruto cut his political teeth under the mentorship of the long-serving autocrat Daniel Arap Moi in the early 1990s. Facing presidential opponents for the first time in 1992, Moi mobilized the youth vote with the help of young politicians, under an outfit known as Youth for KANU ‘92. Ruto was one of the youthful politicians who crafted the successful – but equally infamous – re-election strategy in 1992. This involved Moi sanctioning the printing of money used to bribe voters, among other things.
Ruto’s entry into parliament in 1997 was in defiance of his mentor. Moi, a fellow Kalenjin from the Rift Valley, had tried to prevail on Ruto not to run. Moi exited in 2002 and Ruto astutely won over the Kalenjin voting bloc and used it as a launching pad into national politics. Moi had wanted to bequeath it to his son, Gideon. Hence the fallout between Moi and Ruto.
The Kenyatta-Moi-Odinga axis, which Ruto has propped up in the past, turned against him, fearful that he would end their economic and political stranglehold. They perceived Ruto—relatively young, astute, ambitious, prescient, and gallant—as a threat to their dubious privileges. Now that Ruto has won the presidency, time will tell whether their fears were exaggerated.
In 2010, Ruto stood out from this coterie and mobilized against the passage of the current constitution. He later defended his stand on the grounds that he did not approve of some parts of the constitution – but embraced it once it was passed.
He faulted Kenyatta for violating the same constitution through blatant defiance of numerous court orders and weaponizing oversight bodies and state agencies against Ruto and his allies. Ruto also accused Kenyatta and Odinga of a conspiracy to illegally amend the constitution to consolidate their power, and entrench ethnicity through the Building Bridges Initiative. The attempt was quashed as unconstitutional by the high court, the appeals court, and finally the supreme court.
Despite his rhetoric, Ruto is a creature of Kenya’s political culture, notorious for a lack of scruples. Its elite are anglophile in outlook and disdainful of the poor. It is also mired in impunity and tribalism.
What is significant is that Ruto’s reframing of the political discourse into hustlers versus dynasties has accorded him traction, helped him win the presidency, and set the tempo of this election despite the outgoing government’s abysmal scorecard. He made the election about the rule of law, constitutionalism, equalization of economic opportunities for the poor and marginalized, and political competition based on cross-cutting social and economic interests.
This contrasted with Odinga, who publicly defined himself as the status quo candidate, an extension of Kenyatta’s tenure and therefore out to preserve the exclusive political and economic arrangement that dates to colonialism. It was a move that cost him the presidency on the fifth attempt.
The stakes are high for Kenyans. The Ruto victory has broken the back of the dynastic dominance of Kenya’s politics and economy. Peripheral actors will also rise as he reorganizes Kenya’s state and politics. As to whether Ruto will live up to his lofty promises and prise open the economy for the benefit of all, remains an open question.
Westen K Shilaho is a Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg