Why 2022 election is a battle between Uhuru and Ruto

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) elbow-greets Deputy President William Ruto. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Deputy President William Ruto’s travel embarrassment on Monday is the latest battle of wits between him and his boss President Uhuru Kenyatta, which may persist until 2022 General Election.

In a crowded pool of presidential hopefuls, Ruto finds himself isolated, facing rivals who are hesitantly pulling apart amid the president’s clarion call for them to unite.

Since their fallout in the wake of the 2018 handshake between Uhuru and ODM leader Raila Odinga, the former has made it evident that he hopes his deputy does not succeed him. So much so that he has called on a fractured opposition – comprising the National Super Alliance (NASA) estranged partners Raila, Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula – to rekindle their bond that lasted two election cycles.

Observers have construed Uhuru’s call to the opposition to mean he could endorse one of them or Kanu chairman Gideon Moi for the presidency. Such a move would take the president’s proxy wars with Ruto to the next level.

Ruto has protested the endorsement that is yet to come, saying the president’s mandate does not include “patching up a disunited opposition”. On Twitter, he protested sarcastically: “ youth, no woman, no man of the 8M who woke up early and voted three times for UK/WSR merit support?”

Under ideal circumstances, the DP should have headed into the 2022 contest as an incumbent, enjoying perception of an almost-assured victory.

That changed when Ruto and Uhuru fell out and the DP’s rivals rushed to endear themselves to the president, hoping for his backing.

Raila was the first to fight for Uhuru’s eye, kicking up a storm in the ruling Jubilee coalition marriage, still basking in the glory of their re-election, to emerge with the famous handshake that would deliver the first body blow to its members. The ODM leader followed it with the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) constitutional amendment push.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) and DP William Ruto. December 12, 2020. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

His colleagues in moribund NASA would join in to support Raila’s venture with Uhuru, all of them seemingly huddling around the president, who has a score to settle with his deputy in the wake of two by-election losses to Ruto in his Mt Kenya turf.

That the BBI matter is in abeyance has not deterred them from sticking to the president’s side, as those seeking his nod view him as influential and able to alter the political landscape.

In the face of rivals still cagey about uniting, the DP faces an opponent lurking in the shadows – the president. This is because Uhuru has remained mum on his preferred choice.

But his allies have not been as subtle, dishing assurances of the president’s support to the opposition.

Raila has seemingly been the most preferred candidate among Uhuru’s Mt Kenya allies, earning the nod of a section of its leaders, including five governors, on his Murang’a visit last week. Jubilee Vice Chairperson David Murathe has been Raila’s consistent backer.

All those keen to block the DP’s ascension to power from Uhuru’s side have accused Ruto of undermining his boss. According to them, the DP can only atone for his transgression by losing the 2022 presidential race. And they have thrown everything at him – boxing him out of Jubilee and campaigning against him.

And while the president has not publicly endorsed the assault on Ruto, his silence has raised doubt over whether he may be the one working the chessboard.

Even as Uhuru keeps his cards close to his chest, political scientist Karuti Kanyinga believes the president has given all indications that he wants to shape his succession.

“Uhuru has decided to be very strong about who will succeed him. He once said he won’t hand over to ‘a thief’,” said Prof Kanyinga, a lecturer of political science at the University of Nairobi. “The 2022 race appears to be a battle between Uhuru and his deputy.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta and DP William Ruto. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

But Kanyinga contends that for the battle to take shape, the opposition has to unite, given that Uhuru would not want to engage in an exercise in futility by endorsing a weak side. “I don’t think the president would want to endorse anyone unless it is necessary,” he said.

Philip Nying’uro, who also teaches political science at the University of Nairobi, agrees that the president would not want to support anyone publicly, but disagrees that the race for the presidency is a supremacy contest between Uhuru and Ruto.

“Uhuru’s loss in 2002 was largely influenced by his endorsement by the late President Daniel arap Moi. President Mwai Kibaki learned the lesson before burning his fingers in 2013 and I think Uhuru is wise,” said Prof Nying’uro.

He contends that the only battle that can exist between the two would be a proxy war “if the president fronts a presidential candidate”.

He, however, warns that he would be careful not to do so. “As outgoing president, Uhuru knows even if he wins, he will not be supreme... no president wants to engage in a supremacy war with someone hoping to succeed him, much less his deputy,” he adds. “Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos fielded a proxy who later turned on him.”

Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata agrees that next year’s contest may be another proxy war between the president and his deputy, given that the two are the “only ones with resources needed to mount a campaign”.

“A majority of fringe candidates have been prodded by the bigwigs with a view of dropping out and endorsing them at a later stage. Few are guided by ideals and are ready to lose,” said Kang’ata.

But Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi disagrees, saying a supremacy contest between Uhuru and Ruto is far-fetched.