To quit or not? Here are Ruto’s options

Deputy President William Ruto at Tendere in Kisii County on 1/2/2021. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Suppose you were Deputy President William Ruto. A bit of a stretch, I admit, but give me my counterfactual for the moment. Ignored, embarrassed, derided and abused, would you have resigned from your office? Or would you have remained silent, swallowed your doubts and, like a good soldier, fought a good fight?

One problem with the counterfactual is that it is very hard to know what Ruto is like, or what the world seems to like to him. It is even harder - indeed, perhaps incoherent - to suppose some indeterminate mix of you and Ruto that a question in the form of what “you” would do if “you” were “William Ruto” seems to demand.

For now, though, suppose that you were an idealised and radically simplified William Ruto – one who was fully aware of the criminal idiocy of holding onto and receiving emoluments from taxpayers for a job you simply can’t do and won’t do, and who simply wanted to do the right thing. Then, would you have resigned?

Classic studies of resignation lament the historic failure of Kenyan officials to resign in protest. Very few Kenyans have publicly resigned because of disagreements on policy or principle (like Amos Kimunya they would rather die than resign), and those who have were often treated unkindly by their contemporaries (Martha Karua and Danson Mungatana come to mind).

This experience is contrasted with that of the West, especially Europe, where public resignation is relatively common and where the political culture celebrates the ethical independence of public servants and state officers.

Authorities on the issue, Edward Weisband and Thomas Franck opine that this kind of autonomy makes for better government by checking group-think and restraining public power.

For Weisband and Franck, then, the answer to our question is obvious: Of course, William Ruto should resign.

He is perhaps the only person in this country with both the power and the inclination to stop the polarisation that is engulfing our many ‘nations’. He has a duty to use that power to serve the public good.

It is not the purpose of this piece to disagree with this conclusion. However, let us murky the waters a bit and complicate the conclusion. Indeed, the decision to resign or not is a complicated one and that words like “duty,” “ethics of public service,” and “sound public policy” do not capture all of the difficulty.

Instead, the best defence of public resignation conceptualises it as a radically free act – a rebellion against normal constraints, including the constraints of duty and ethics.

The most obvious way to complicate the resignation question is to see that Ruto’s choice is not binary.

He has a range of options, and the number of choices expands dramatically once one realises that he might be pursuing some of them in various permutations. Here are some of the possibilities located, more or less, along a continuum.

He can remain in office and simply go along with government policy on various issues without voicing doubts or dissent or he can remain in office and go along with the policy, but forcefully expressing his dissent during the policy formation and implementation processes.

He can also remain in office and go along with the policy but use his power to change it at the margins or he can remain in office and publicly go along with the policy while privately subverting it, perhaps by leaking damaging stories to the press or by mounting bureaucratic guerrilla warfare that makes its execution more difficult.

He can actually resign from office and offer innocuous (and untrue or only partially true) reasons for doing so. He could resign from office and accompany the resignation with a public attack on the administration.

What criteria should Ruto use to choose among these alternatives? Surely, a sensible analysis must at least begin with a concern for the consequences of his actions. Our hypothetical William Ruto needs to think through the likely outcome produced by each of the available options open to him.

It matters, for example, that Ruto’s resignation may be ineffectual and that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga and their acolytes may end up having a free hand to achieve their goals.

Protesting internally may make little sense if it is certain that the protest will be ignored, and going along quietly may make quite a bit of sense if doing so gives Ruto leverage to influence the outcome on other issues that might be more important.

Perhaps it is belabouring the obvious to say that Ruto and his handlers have had numerous opportunities to ponder the question posed and have made an informed decision to take the position that they have taken.

If this is correct, though, his real choice is different from the kinds of options we usually consider.

Typically, those options require us to think about costs and benefits or about moral obligations. To the extent that we conceptualise Ruto’s choice in that way, there is much to be said – much more than is usually said – for the decision he has had to make or will be making.

-Dr Wanjawa teaches in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Pwani University.