Ruto builds name abroad but trouble begins cooking at home

President William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua at ACK Church of Christ the King Pro-Cathedral in Nyahururu, Nyandarua County, for the consecration and enthronement of Rev. Major Samson Mburu Gachathi on June 23,2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

In normal circumstances, Kenyans would have been in transports of delight when President William Ruto was feted at the White House last month, the first honor for an East African Head of State.

But, in a polarized Kenya, that warm reception in Washington or the applause and standing ovation President Ruto has received during his international trips were not universally met with admiration.

Some opposition figures, who barely see anything good in Ruto, have reacted to his global-trotting with strictures or outright choler, a feeling that was mainly fueled by the tens of millions of shillings that were spent on those foreign trips at a time when majority of Kenyans are buckling under a litany of economic challenges.

That’s predictable. 

Ruto’s advent was a seismic change in many ways, politically, economically and diplomatically, and it was not out of the ordinary for Kenyans to react in different ways – largely along Kenya Kwanza and Azimio lines.

A once-disgruntled outsider turned insider, Ruto must have been anticipating censures from certain quarters: From his former boss, Uhuru Kenyatta (whom he humiliated by defeating his favored candidate), his main rival, Raila Odinga (whom he spoilt his wished-for ascendency to presidency) and followers of both Uhuru and Raila (who were expecting to reap the fruits of their candidate’s win).

Indeed, Ruto’s upset victory – later upheld by the Supreme Court that tossed out the opposition’s petition— has ruined many people’s dreams, with disaffected elites, mostly beneficiaries of the former administration, still unable to come to grips with the reality, a Kenya ruled by Ruto. 

Now at State House, Ruto's administration is shaping up as the most ambitious, determined and audacious one the country has ever had. It's unlike anything Kenyans have seen before, bringing into sharper focus the acumen and political smarts of the country’s one time second in command.

Already, Ruto is shaking up the country’s tax system, piquing early on the very cohort he courted during the elections.

Ruto argues that the Kenyan taxes are "way below those of our peers," whose taxes, he says, are "on average between 22 and 25 percent." 

“I am not going to preside over a bankrupt country,” he said last month. “I am not going to preside over a country that is in debt distress.”

Ruto’s hands-on, daring and ever-alert style is strikingly different from those of his predecessors, who were mostly more cautious and diplomatic at home and abroad.

Ruto's dozen foreign trips have laid bare his diplomatic skills and leadership style on the global stage, even though his star appears to be shining more brightly abroad than at home, where he’s grappling with the economic ills left behind by his predecessor. 

His outreach has, however, made Kenya the undisputed anchor nation in East Africa, overtaking others like Ethiopia that, for decades, retained that title. The U.S. has designated Kenya a non-NATO ally, the fourth country in Africa, and the first for East Africa. 

Ruto has also notched up a deal with two Gulf states that partly helped lower the price of fuel in the country and, in the process, staunched the hemorrhage of the country’s stock of the U.S. dollar. There were other crucial trade deals – some preferential -- with individual countries and blocs. The European Union trade deal, for instance, gives Kenyan traders duty-free, quota-free access to the 27-member nation grouping.

Across Africa, Ruto’s words have been inspiring fellow Africans and spicing up Pan-African conversations. He’s got a round of applause for speaking for Africans at international fora, even when his activism disquieted Western officials.

During his May speech at the Pan-African parliament in Johannesburg, South Africa, lawmakers gave him a standing ovation and a round of applause. 

“Who said that Africa can not be part of the solution, that when Africa is being discussed, it's only being discussed in the context of problems,” Ruto said amid applause.

His message to countries dealing with Africa: “We're coming with assets. Come with investment and technology (and) we meet halfway and everybody wins.”

“We want to be at the table because we're told the risk of not being at the table is that you could be in the menu,” he said.

Ruto’s gallivanting around the world can hardly be dismissed as the pursuit of a man who’s footloose and fancy-free.

The peregrine leader has been inveighing against international financial institutions, which Africans accuse of having archaic governance system that is hindering their progress.

His open disagreement with France's Emmanuel Macron in Paris on how IMF and World Bank should be reformed was a scene for the books. 

"What you're saying is good, but it's not what we're saying," he told Macron, looking him in the eyes and waging his left hand’s pointer finger toward his host. “We want another organization of equals.”

President William Ruto and US President Joe Biden at White House. [PCS]

During Ruto’s visit to the U.S., President Biden promised to "prioritize technological partnership" between his country and Kenya. Biden repeated the words “We need you to help us” several times, as President Ruto sat next to him.

"We need your help to seize this moment," Biden said. "We need you to help us find opportunities to bring the public and private sectors together. We need you to help us strengthen our supply chains….We need you to keep investing in our universities and democracies."

The "new era of technology cooperation between Kenya and America” includes investments in key fields of cyber security, artificial intellect and semiconductors, according to Biden.

A highflier, Ruto had – and most likely still has -- many reasons to be on the move in his first term.

After the 2022 elections, President Ruto -- tormented by the opposition’s persistent push to delegitimize him, first through the courts, then on street protests -- needed to travel a lot to cement his legitimacy on the international stage.

A man once dragged before the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in the 2007-8 post-election violence, Ruto must have felt the urge to present himself to the world as a respected statesman, something he so far did adroitly. 

After the August elections, there were ferocious efforts by both Kenya Kwanza and Azimio to win over the international community, with each camp trying to get support for its bid to delegitimize the other.

Ruto won that contest hands down, with the world, most prominently the U.S., recognizing his victory, a position that angered the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who railed at foreign diplomats, specifically U.S. Ambassador Meg Whitman, whom he referred to as a “rogue ambassador" and told to: “Keep your mouth shut while you are here.”

Of course, international engagements are certain to take a toll on the president’s day-to-day business inside the country, and Kenyans are right to vent their spleen on the president’s back-to-back trips abroad. Ruto has so far been outside the country for almost three months in the aggregate, visited dozens of foreign cities and blew gobs of badly needed shillings.

Yet, one can hardly say the itinerant leader has embarrassed the country, while he was away or Kenya was sold out to foreign countries, while he was signing international deals.  

Kenya is an ailing and heavily indebted country that there is nothing else for it, but to try to do what’s possible both at home and abroad to resolve its economic ills.

Ruto may have an eye for entering into international agreements and a nose for fame, but he, too, has another eye for the second term, and anything he will do in his first term would most likely be geared toward securing a second term. 

Ruto is in a class of his own, a distinction that is only adding to the bitterness his adversaries feel as the man they once wanted to defeat is strengthening his rule at home and raising his stature abroad.