How Ruto like Uhuru before him, is fast losing trust and power

When former President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the cabinet secretaries at the statehouse flanked by then Deputy President William Ruto. [File, Standard]

There are times when opportunity and hardships inspire brilliance to produce long-lasting work. In 1513, a Florentine courtier, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a little book, The Prince, on how to acquire and maintain power that has acquired the status of ‘gospel’ in Western political discourse.

It is part of classics that include Plato’s Republic elitism championing governance by philosophers, slave dealer John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government contradicting himself with his ‘natural rights’ argument that excluded Africans, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense calling for the overthrow of colonial governance, and Karl Marx’s Capital/Communist Manifesto stressing class warfare. Machiavelli dominates general thinking on power which, Henry Kissinger supposedly claimed was ‘great aphrodisiac’. It at least intensifies the rivalry between the inheritor and the grabber.

Occasionally, the inheritor and the grabber join forces to confront a mutual challenge after which they turn on each other. It happened with a short-lived collaboration in Kenya between Uhuru Kenyatta, the inheritor, and William Ruto, the grabber. Uhuru, born into power and privilege had a problem maintaining power. Ruto, the rural upstart penetrating the established power structure, has also had problems retaining power. The two attained power together but lost it separately, each by failing to know how to use power. They assumed arrogant postures, ignoring the advice from Confucius, roughly 2,500 years ago, not to push the ruled to points of desperation. They also ignored Machiavelli’s injunction to balance the lion and the fox, preferring to be ‘lions’ at the wrong times, believing they could bulldoze their way every time. In the process, they lost the trust of those who trusted them. 

Uhuru was the first to lose trust where it counted, in the Mountain. With power practically thrust to him, he was a reluctant president and did not know what to do with power. Kenyans had rescued him from The Hague by voting him president but he misunderstood his rescuers and instead acted as if he was their absolute ruler.  During the first term, when he and Ruto were still a team, they talked of ‘kula nyama’ while others watched, and ‘yangu kumi. na Ruto kumi’.

At the time, people in the Mountain grumbled about being neglected despite Uhuru being at the State House, and it hurt. With resources seemingly going to Ruto’s camp, Ruto calmed the grumbling Mountain by assuring people that Uhuru cared but he mostly wanted to be re-elected and then look after Mountain interests in the second term. While that explanation made political sense, it could not be repeated in the second term when Uhuru shifted his political focus to pampering Raila Odinga, in the name of ‘thayu’ or peace which translated to additional ignoring of, and even perceived victimisation of the Mountain. As people watched wanton destruction of businesses and night evictions, the desperate wailing of an evicted old woman, “Woooi, Uhuru Wiitu,” told it all.

Uhuru was no longer the man they had trusted and rescued from The Hague. He was a riddle to himself, a ‘prince’ with a sense of princely entitlements, repeatedly talking about his legacy. He also emitted such fear among the politicians in the Mountain, whether MPs or others that they dared not appear to have minds or power aspirations of their own. “Tageria”(you try), one politician once remarked about appearing to dream of power. Another politician declined good ideas just in case he might seem ‘Kuhuura’ (fighting) Uhuru. He was different, hobnobbing with those who insulted him with his mother and had wanted him accommodated at The Hague.

The riddle in him made Uhuru believe that he could always tell Mountain people what to do and so he told them to follow Raila whom he called ‘baba’. The Uhuru-affiliated Mount Kenya Foundation tycoons proceeded to attire Raila and Ida as ‘king and queen’ of the Mountain, which violated common sense. Since the time of Iregi, Mountain people had rejected the idea of ‘kings’ and attempts to impose one was insulted. With his seeming misunderstanding of the people he supposedly led, and his inability to explain his feud with his deputy while embracing Raila who had wanted him jailed, Uhuru lost power. He made people feel that he ignored their concerns and that he probably betrayed them. He has yet to recover from that imagery or come to terms with it.

The Uhuru-Ruto feud is one of deep political mystery with each side trying to outsmart the other. Both men, protégés of Daniel arap Moi, campaigned together in 2002 as dot.coms and lost to Mwai Kibaki. They were together in the 2005 Orange-Banana Referendum and thereafter helped to create ODM but they split in 2007 with Ruto sticking with Raila’s Pentagon while Uhuru affiliated himself with Kibaki’s winning PNU, and were re-united at The Hague accused of crimes against humanity which they used to catapult themselves to the presidency in 2013. He exploited Uhuru’s growing unpopularity in the Mountain and laissez-faire political attitude by being everywhere while Uhuru relaxed and enjoyed life. He repeatedly reminded people that he helped Uhuru win the presidency three times even when Uhuru was reluctant to be president.

In re-uniting, however, the two men seemingly cut financial and political deals whose ramifications would politically reverberate negatively because each interpreted the deal differently. Uhuru side, Raphael Tuju later asserted and has not been countered, gave Ruto Sh10 billion inducement to deputise Uhuru and probably stay ‘bought’. Ruto probably saw an opportunity to advance his financial and political ambitions but not to accept everything that Uhuru wanted. The two men’s feud, therefore, could be due to differences in expectations and interpreting the pre-2013 political and financial deals. As a result, Ruto appears to have cut a better deal than Uhuru and it showed in the feud that arose in their second term; Uhuru acquired a negative image. 

Uhuru’s negative imagery will not recover simply because Ruto, his Hague comrade and now president, is also blundering himself out of power. While Uhuru lost power by appearing unconcerned with concerns of the people, Ruto is losing because he seemingly goes out to destroy and create poverty. He wants, on one side, approval from the Conceptual West and to appear to play in the big international league even if it undermines the country and the region. He, at the same time, would like to be the unquestionable man in Kenya getting his way in every way.  With his team of hustler grandees flashing new wealth in the midst of growing general poverty that is partly IMF induced, he has lost public trust. The manmade crises are connected to incompetent people he appoints to key policy offices, knowing they are incompetent, and whose visible value is to increase national poverty. For instance, the continuing crises in health, education, floods disaster management, and agriculture can largely be attributed to policy incompetence at the top. He knows and tolerates it and the question is why does he do it?  

Ruto has subsequently developed two contradictory images, a positive one in Western capitals and a seemingly negative one in Kenya and Africa. He likes receiving praise from Western powers such as the United States and France and in the process appears to play ‘nyapara’ in Africa. He is quick to make comments on world events that sound acceptable to Washington but not necessarily in African capitals. Having seemingly caved into the IMF and World Bank to run Kenya, he ends up being popular in the West’s official circles but not at home.

Although Ruto is brilliant in calculative petty politics that won him the presidency against great odds, he loses direction and power. Instead of being nationally reconciliatory, he is retaliatory. He pays little attention to public grievances which increases distrust and defiance. He succeeds in cajoling MPs to pass unpopular laws and gives the impression of encouraging lawlessness by appearing to threaten the courts. Mambo ni Matatu, he threateningly reminded the public that he was given a sword whose work was not to slice cabbages. Loose-mouthed ‘hustler grandees’ made worrying statements about who should be in government.

Like Reluctant President Uhuru before him, Ruto is unable to balance the attributes of the ‘lion’ and the ‘fox’ and has lost trust. With the loss of trust is the loss of power.