Of Ruto's enviable rise and his unfulfilled promise to hustlers


President William Ruto during the signing of Last Mile electricity connectivity contracts at, State House, Nairobi. [PCS]

President William Ruto now stands head and shoulders above the pile of all Kenyan politicians. He has cultivated a tough image as a peerless, fearless, efficient, enduring, long-term planner, and a consummate go-getter. He has baffled buddies and nemeses with his stratospheric rise to the most powerful political office in Kenya.

Kenyans first heard of Ruto during the heady days of the Youth for Kanu ‘92 that campaigned for the election of President Daniel arap Moi in 1992. Arguably, this platform initiated Ruto into the grim rugged skulduggery of Kenya’s political landscape. He demonstrated his mastery of this nomenclature in the elections of 1997 when he took the Eldoret North parliamentary seat from the veteran Reuben Chesire. He earned Moi’s respect and a Cabinet appointment in 2001.

Thereafter, Ruto has been bruised, battered and hardened by political and legal vicissitudes; Kanu’s defeat in 2002, the forced political marriage with the break-away faction of the National Rainbow Coalition in 2005, his indictment by the International Criminal Court following the conflagration of 2007 to early 2008, the loss of his Cabinet position in the coalition government after a spectacular fallout with then Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a string of court cases that threatened his reputation and the high voltage betrayal by President Uhuru Kenyatta.  

While preparing for the elections of 2022, Ruto, then deputy president, conceived and mounted a unique campaign, remarkably alien to Kenya’s fossilised ethnic politics. He coalesced his supporters under the singular banner of ‘hustlers’ – the ordinary mwananchi struggling to earn a legitimate living. He glorified the ordinary citizen’s daily efforts to survive and promised to improve their livelihood. This created a rare pan-Kenyan imagination that cut across diverse communities and identities under the organising principle of the ‘hustler nation’!

Looking back at his campaign, you get the feeling that Ruto compelled Kenya to imagine a post-ethnic renaissance by upsetting the traditionally volatile and fractious ethnic templates.

He created simple, relatable and appealing messages on how he was to improve the economic wellbeing of the ‘hustlers’ through his ‘bottom-up’ economic plan engraved in the symbolic wheelbarrow. To signal his commitment to this ideal, Ruto has indelibly emblazoned the hustlers’ wheelbarrow on his presidential standard.

During the campaign, Ruto carefully complemented the ‘hustler grassroots’ strategy with a multi-faceted ‘elite strategy’. He crafted a successful plan that held the Rift Valley as his solid base. Then, he sailed on the disaffection of the Mt Kenya voters with President Uhuru and Raila. Finally, he constructed a coalition of regional opinion leaders, who helped him to hive off considerable votes from Raila’s strongholds in Western Kenya, Nairobi, Coast and North Eastern.

Firmly settled in State House, President Ruto has quickly consolidated power and quietly cultivated rapprochement with Raila, his main rival, whom he is now fronting for the chairmanship of the African Union. Part of the President’s power consolidation strategy involves courting regions and leaders who were opposed to him.

But he is now saddled with a smouldering upheaval in the Mt Kenya region, partly due to the blight of his economic policies on the business community and in part, to the reported rift between him and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua.

The President is equally facing a raft of court cases against his excruciating tax measures under the new social health insurance scheme, the Affordable Housing Programme and the proposed motor vehicle circulation levy, among others. He appears to have the two houses of Parliament on short leash. And his decision to send police officers to Haiti has rattled the country, as has the lavish spending by his government.  

Will President Ruto move with speed to heal the festering wound that has replaced the promissory note he offered the hustlers? With material signs that he might be sliding towards a possible divorce from the Gikuyu, how will he insulate his much-vaunted post-ethnic renaissance from dying? And is President Ruto harbouring any plan to expand and deepen democracy in Kenya by shielding his presidency against the habitual odium of unsheathed and unkempt omnipotence?

Dr Mumia teaches at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]