Uhuru's efforts helping to boost President Ruto's international standing

Chief of Staff of Ethiopian Armed Forces Field Marshall Birhanu Jula, former president Uhuru Kenyatta, AU envoy and former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo in Nairobi, November 7, 2022. [AP Photo]

The place of former presidents in society is a big challenge in democratic states. Unless one is inherently uncivil, sitting presidents usually treat their predecessors with civility. In Kenya, President Daniel arap Moi and Uhuru Kenyatta lost the election in 2002 to Mwai Kibaki and both were civil.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga initially had problems being civil to William Ruto after he won this year's election. But to his credit, Mr Kenyatta eventually adjusted to the reality of the loss and showed maturity during Dr Ruto's inauguration. By doing so, Uhuru shifted the burden of civility to Ruto's side.  

Dr Ruto's team appears unready for the shift in the burden of civility. It likes making Kibaki’s economic performance its gauge while ignoring Kibaki administration's civility. Kibaki wanted respect for Moi and silenced those who thought of vengeance or heaping of blame on the retired president. President Ruto’s people, in contrast, appear mesmerised by electoral victory and are unable to follow Kibaki’s example of civility.

Clear display of absence of civil consciousness made Ruto's inaugural day one of avoidable blunders. Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua’s misplaced utterances turned Uhuru, appearing composed and mature, into a perceived victim of a possible vendetta.

Since he continued long after the inauguration, Mr Rigathi's claims that he spoke the ‘truth’ simply exposed his incapacity to realise the reputational damage that words could inflict on an incoming administration or on his aspirations to replace Uhuru as the presumed leader of the Mountain. He thus had not learned to avoid Uhuru’s errors with regard to public perceptions. Visiting presidents quickly pointed out that airing internal political squabbles in their presence was misplaced.  

Dr Ruto, in contrast, probably took note of the international reprimand and struck a positive note by indicating willingness to turn Uhuru into a regional peace emissary. Inviting Uhuru to become his peace emissary in Ethiopia, and Uhuru's acceptance of the assignment, opened reconciliation paths between the two men. Uhuru joined Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo in the Ethiopian-Tigray conflict mediation talks. Obasanjo had trust challenges arising from his previous handling of Liberia’s Charles Taylor's matter in which he seemingly reneged on a national commitment.

In contrast, Uhuru understood the Ethiopian-Tigray conflict terrain and diplomatic huddles and seemingly enjoyed the trust of both sides. His input, therefore, led to the cessation of hostility agreement, a settlement before a resolution could be attained.

A symbiotic relationship is developing between Ruto and Uhuru. As president, Uhuru’s foreign policy was quite successful, and Ruto knows it. For Uhuru, working for Ruto showed he had accepted his double loss; his candidate lost and his influence in the Mountain waned. Besides, the opportunity to continue hobnobbing with world leaders, as a peacemaker, has its thrills since he enjoys the trappings of power and influence. Ruto, having initially mishandled Western Sahara and drawing wrath over GMO policy reversal, needed to improve his international image in order to be taken seriously.

Uhuru was the ticket. Making Uhuru his peace emissary benefited Ruto in two ways. First was the opportunity to keep the former president occupied outside the country rather than stay idle, brooding over his double loss. Second, was to exploit Uhuru’s international reputation in order to improve his (Ruto's) image. Uhuru’s Ethiopia success was therefore an indirect plus for Ruto’s foreign policy venture. As a result, Ruto was quick to send Uhuru to the Great Lakes to see whether Uhuru's magic works again.

The Uhuru-Ruto relationship has lessons for future presidents and ex-presidents. First, there is a need to respect former presidents. Second, aspiring leaders should avoid displaying civil immaturity. Third, there is productive life after the presidency.