Ruto increasingly becoming an outsider in his own government

Deputy President William Ruto at Nyayo National Stadium, Nairobi. [Boniface Okendo/Standard]

Tuesday’s sacking of Mwangi Kiunjuri from the Cabinet sent the clearest message yet that President Uhuru Kenyatta is ready to isolate his deputy, William Ruto. He is also ready to defend his Central Kenya home turf from external political marauders. In effect, the dismissal was a direct body blow against the deputy president. Matters will probably only get worse, unless something gives away.

Constitutionally, Dr Ruto is the second in command in government. While the tenure of this government lasts, he is the automatic heir to the throne. In the event of tragic happenings that disable the president from ruling, he would take over and reign to the end of the tenure, according to Article 146 (2)a of the Constitution.

Yet Ruto is today a rank outsider and a veritable outlaw in Uhuru’s government. He is the kind of person who goes to sleep an underdog and wakes up the most powerful person in the land.

In spite of this, he is today the kind of person the political orderlies and retainers around the centre of power treat with contempt. Junior political operatives in Jubilee, like nominated MP Maina Kamanda, openly scoff at his presidential dreams in the presence of the president.

Silent listener

The president remains silent when his principal assistant is taunted and ridiculed by political subalterns. Only a few days ago, he was denied access to his official residence in Mombasa and had to make private arrangements about where to stay for the night.

His allies have also been humiliated and turned away from public functions, or denied the opportunity to speak. In one of the latest incidents, Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika was turned away at a presidential function in the county on Tuesday, because of her close association with the deputy president.

The area MP and, therefore, the host, was also turned away. President Kenyatta has succeeded in making his deputy the de facto leader of Opposition, much the same way his father, Jomo Kenyatta, turned Vice President Oginga Odinga into the government’s most fierce critic while he was still Kenyatta’s deputy.

Joint public appearances with the president are now very rare, as was the case between Odinga and Kenyatta towards the end of 1965 and the start of 1966, in the lead up to the final fallout. Except where the occasion would make it openly indecorous for both not to be present, each goes on with his own functions, usually angrily addressing the issues at hand. The sometimes not-too-repressed anger is against each other. The day cannot be far off when they could openly begin throwing direct verbal salvos at each other.

As they continue to size up each other for the final showdown, however, proxy wars will do. The president and his men have taken to flaying in hot political flames those who support Ruto. They are now moving from words to action. Mr Kiunjuri’s inglorious exit from the Cabinet is testament to how fluid political fortunes are, both for himself and for his friend the deputy president.

The fallen Cabinet Secretary joined the Jubilee Government in 2015. He was appointed following the resignation of Ann Waiguru as CS for Devolution and Planning. Ms Waiguru said at the time that she was leaving on health grounds. She, however, said further that she was available for “any other light duties” from the president.

Kiunjuri was hailed as an energetic, focused and loyal ally. Those in the President’s close circles believed that he would help to steer the increasingly damaged image of the Jubilee Government from the profile of a caucus of the corrupt. For, even as she proclaimed health issues, Waiguru had come under incessant pressure to resign.

There was public outcry over the massive heist in the National Youth Service, then under her watch. President Kenyatta’s multi-billion-shilling project for the youth was fingered as a conduit for disgorging colossal sums of public funds into private pockets. The hottest volleys came from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader, Raila Odinga.

As matters steadily got out of hand, the William Ruto-fronted United Republican Party (URP) in the Jubilee coalition joined the fray. They accused Waiguru of giving the government a bad name.

They advised her to “stop bickering and cat walking” and carry her own cross. Kipchumba Murkomen, now Majority Leader in the Senate, remarked that Waiguru ought to have been in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

Things have gone full circle. Positions have changed. Waiguru is back in favour, having been elected the governor of Kirinyaga County in 2017. She is now rated among the political giants in Central Kenya.

Her sights are cast, almost daringly so, on greater things. She has mended fences with the ODM leader and they are now often seen buoyantly together at partisan public political events. The meeting in Kisii last Friday was just the latest, with more on the cards.

While Waiguru earlier appeared to have mended fences with the Deputy President in the lead up to the 2017 elections, things have completely fallen apart, with the future in sight. It would seem that the pre-2017 patching up was only a special purpose exercise, whose main aim was to place Kirinyaga in Waiguru’s lap.

That safely tucked away, it is now time for fresh things. The March 2018 Handshake between President Kenyatta and Odinga, the ensuing Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) process, and the Kibra by-election, put together, provided just the right political mix for redefinition of friends and foes.

Blue-eyed girl

Waiguru is now the blue-eyed girl of the political establishment, with speculation that she could be Raila’s running mate for the presidency in 2022. This, however, is highly unlikely, given the push by the same camp to reinvent President Uhuru as Kenya’s national CEO in the yet-to-be created position of prime minister.

Much of the BBI debate revolves around a restructured Executive, with the president in the mix. It is a debate that has splintered, and eventually split Jubilee, down the middle, with individuals in either camp each thinking about themselves in future formations.

The split in Jubilee would appear to lend credence to the notion that the deputy president was also always a special purpose vehicle. His role was to deliver President Uhuru to State House. With President Uhuru’s two presidential terms now gazing into the end of time, a different set of political cards looks necessary.

The problem with people like Kiunjuri is that they seem unable to read the signs of the times. They have, therefore, remained solidly behind Ruto, because he was promised support for the 2022 race. They are blind to other signals that have been sent out.

Jubilee Party honcho David Murathe and Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli have repeatedly told Kenyans that President Uhuru is too young to retire in 2022. The president cannot, however, retire from the highest office in the land to a junior one.

Accordingly, the way forward is to give the national CEO’s office another guise. That is where the question of the prime minister in the BBI process comes in. The first and ultimate casualty must, invariably, be the deputy president.

The BBI process is itself increasingly shaping into another special purpose vehicle. Regardless of whatever other contents there may be in the November 2019 report, the most active ingredient is the architecture of the national Executive. It boils down to one word – power.

And, indeed, the motions that led to the BBI process were about a power struggle between President Uhuru and Raila in 2017.

The struggle culminated in a series of daunting happenings – the nullification of the August 8 presidential election, the Raila-led NASA boycott of the repeat October 26 election, the Raila declaration of a National Resistance Movement (NRM), the extra-legal swearing in of Raila as ‘the people’s president’, and the ‘deportation’ of the NRM self-styled general Miguna Miguna.

Warning shot

Whatever else BBI addresses, therefore, it always comes back to power and power games. The happenings in Cabinet, therefore, are at once the opening of a new battlefront and a warming shot to those who will not toe the president’s line.

It is instructive that Kiunjuri was considered such a hot favourite of the president’s that when he wanted to run for the position of governor of Laikipia in 2017, President Uhuru personally pleaded with the people of Laikipia to “allow him to skip the race” so that he would help the president in the Cabinet.

Would it seem that Kiunjuri was not given the right script after that? Was he probably expected to help the president to scuttle his deputy’s ambitions? If this was the case, Kiunjuri has backed the wrong tree.

And he is not alone. Together with MPs Alice Wahome (Kandara), Kimani Wambugu (Bahati), Moses Kuria (Gatundu South), Rigathi Gachagua (Mathira), Susan Kihika (Senate, Nakuru), Kanini Kega (Kieni), Ndindi Nyoro (Kiharu), Kimani Ichung’wah (Kikuyu), and a motley of others, they are backing the wrong horse.

Others are the discredited Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko and Kiambu’s Ferdinand ‘Babayao’ Waititu. These people don’t seem to know that in politics friendships are made for ad hoc purposes. Once the goal for which the friendship was crafted ends, you move on to find new friends – even from among your previous enemies – for the next purpose.

In President Uhuru’s next purpose, whatever it may be, he must call the shots in Central. The dismissal of Kiunjuri is a message to all pretenders to the throne in the region. The president is telling them that there is no power vacuum in the region. He is still the king and nobody will rout him.

Persistent political harassment, arrests and arraignments of Ruto’s Tangatanga leaning politicians from the region is the message.

They are being reminded of where the power sits.

Significantly, Kiunjuri’s dismissal is also a message to the deputy president himself. His boss is telling him that he purposes to scatter to the four winds the iron curtain around him. Whether he will succeed or not belongs to the future. Kiunjuri has left with a message to the president that he should prepare for the political fight of his life.

“Make no mistake,” Kiunjuri said in a paid-up message in the media, “I am not going anywhere.”

Cross and prickly

He promised to put his 25 years in politics to good use. It is certainly use that the deputy president will want to benefit from. Instructively, when the first Jubilee Cabinet was announced in 2013, the president was with his deputy. The mood then was chummy and convivial. The two were all smiles, clad in white shirts, grey trousers and red neckties.

The presidential mien that Kenyans saw this week was far from that. It was at once cross and prickly. The president was also sending a message to those remaining in the Cabinet that there is only one centre of power in government and that he sits there. They now have the choice to toe the line or to get fired.

This message must travel farther and wider beyond the Cabinet. The president has arrived at the point that Mr Murathe spoke of at the start of 2017 about the presidential mien. He told the country that during what was then only a possible second term, Kenyans would see a bolder and more ruthless Uhuru Kenyatta. What few knew was that the boldness and ruthlessness would be inward looking.

Tied up in this double-knot of boldness and ruthlessness is the question of trust. The president must reckon with this question. It has often been said that the people of Central Kenya will never support anybody else to ascend to power. It was ODM that in 2007 introduced the perspective that Central will always gang up against the rest of the country.

Yet the country today witnesses the region split along two lines, with one camp (Tangatanga) rallying behind Ruto – an outsider. The other camp rallies around Uhuru – an insider. Has the president betrayed his deputy? Can he be trusted as a political ally, or is he a backstabber?

Going forward to 2022, will the region thank Ruto for helping to deliver power to Uhuru, or will it join  Murathe and others in the thought that they don’t owe Ruto anything? If the region discards Ruto, can it vote for Raila or for some other outsider in 2022, or will it be Uhuru again – or some other insider from Central? These are the questions that observers will be asking over the next few months. Also key will be whether the president and his team, Kieleweke, can successfully paint the Central Kenya rebels as outcasts; a people out to betray the region by supporting an outsider.

The Swahili people say that when your neighbour is being shaved, you should get your head ready. As President Uhuru shaves his deputy, how much political capital should Raila invest in him and in Central? President Kenyatta has been emphatic that he is keen to unite Kenyan tribes through the BBI.

While his new found proximity with Raila is thawing relations between the two, it is not clear that they are carrying along the people from their two communities – the Luo and Kikuyu. The Jubilee rebellion suggests that they may not be taking along key constituents. They may need to review their tack. Beyond this, if national cohesion and integration is their genuine goal, then they have made some serious miscalculations.

For, while they have come together, the present manoeuvres are opening up new frontiers of hostility and feelings of exclusion elsewhere in the country. Where the newly emerged hostilities and suspicions will leave the country is anybody’s guess. It does look, however, like another strand of the BBI – a burning of bridges initiative. Kiunjuri is only the latest in this emerging BBI.