The high cost of defeat and why political bigwigs are doggedly fighting for win

Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga and Kenya Kwanza presidential candidate William Ruto at Windsor during their meeting with IEBC on July 29, 2022. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

As Kenya edges towards the 9 August General Election, barely a week away, the stakes in the game are epitomised by the trading of merciless bare knuckled blows between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, Dr William Ruto.

As testament to the must-win character of the competition for the highest office in the land, the two leaders have thrown all moderation to the wind. They are serving each other unbridled epithets and invective, with little regard to caution. It is a sign of the anxiety that rules both the President Uhuru-led Azimio-One Kenya coalition camp, and Ruto's Kenya Kwanza fraternity. It is a do-or-die affair. The losers will be reflecting for long about what hit them. Yet someone must lose.

While the Constitution bars President Uhuru from running for office after his two terms, he has made it obvious that ODM leader Raila Odinga is his candidate. He has lately canvassed for him at every opportunity, seizing the chance, also, to lambast his deputy and to lampoon him in searing invective. And Ruto gives back as good as he receives. In essence, the two leaders, more than once political bosom friends, have gone right back where they were in the lead up to the chaotic 2007 elections. The 2007 electoral cycle saw them end up before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, indicted for crimes against humanity. In the thick of a common tragedy, they patched up their differences and went on to win Kenya's two topmost Executive offices twice in 2013 and 2017. Then they fell out.

It will be a while before Kenyans get to know what spoilt the party for their two leaders who flaunted unprecedented political bromance in public. They spoke antiphonally, like political identical twins. They had the same pulse on everything. They taunted their adversaries with public displays of the political good life, literally flaunting meat gorging at Kenyatta Market, as their nemeses gnashed their teeth and shivered in the cold, drooling for a bite. Then came the March 2018 political handshake between Raila and Uhuru. Things since then have only deteriorated steadily. The Ruto-Uhuru proxy wars of four years ago are now an open fist fight, which one of them must lose and go on to live with the dire consequences.

Raw hostility

President Uhuru has invested his hopes in Raila. If the ODM leader should lose to Ruto, the blow will be so devastating that it could leave both Uhuru and Raila staggering for many months, perhaps even many years, to come. The competition between President Uhuru and Ruto has gone way past the crossroads of a normal political race. Theirs is now raw hostility. Its depth has been symbolised by the president's open refusal to shake hands with the deputy at national events.

The ugly public displays of hostility and humiliation must cut deep into the flesh of the snubbed Ruto. He probably dreams of the day when Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, should, through the very hand of President Uhuru, pass on to him Kenya's instruments of State sovereignty and power. Then only he could select which sins against him he should forgive and which ones he should bring to retribution. At a rally this week, Ruto was at pains to assure Uhuru that he has no such retributive plans. 'Although you have tormented me, I can assure you that I will not do the same to you. I will allow you to retire peacefully to your home in Ichaweri and I will protect you,' Ruto said possibly to minimise use of State instruments against his dreams in this year's presidential election.

But Ruto has not managed to hide his bitterness at what he has all but called betrayal. 'When you needed a true man to stand by you in your hour of need, I stood by you. We made you the president. Why do you torment us?' he quipped, 'Even if you don't want to support me, the same way I supported you, why don't you leave me alone to face this man (Raila)?'

Ruto must understand that Uhuru is concerned about what a hostile future president could do to him in his retirement. While their relationship has been bad, Ruto has enjoyed a measure of immunity and security by virtue of office. No serious retributive action could be commenced against him for any act of omission or commission (real or imagined) while he remained in office as the Deputy President. None could be commenced against Uhuru either. Yet, in retirement, Uhuru could find himself flung before the courts to answer to whatever charges future power wielders could spin against him. There is also a sense in which both Uhuru and Ruto could find themselves at Raila's mercy for both real and imagined offences during their first term in office.

It is a dicey and worrisome affair. Africa has witnessed the lonely pictures of former presidents, Marcias Ngwema (Equatorial Guinea) Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Jean-Bedel Bokassa (Central African Republic), and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), among others, marshalled before the courts, to answer to things they were said to have done while in office. It is a pathetic image they cut; away from the trappings of State privilege, authority and sycophants. It is a reality that Uhuru is familiar with, having tasted a piece of the pie before the ICC. It is also a reality that he would hope to keep at bay, through a Raila presidency. His rooting for Raila, who has been his new-found political love since 2018, accordingly, has a self-insurance element.

Trusted lieutenants

Conversely, Ruto knows the high price of defeat in next month's election. His adversaries bay openly for his political and economic blood. They have questioned the source of his riches and proclaimed how they will take it away. The hauling before the courts of his most trusted lieutenants, like his running mate , Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, are only inoculations against what could be coming, in the event that the election is lost.

The Kenyan presidential election is fashioned to be an extremely high stakes game. The winner takes everything, leaving the loser to wallow in turmoil. Nobody wants to find himself in that unenviable space. Besides, Kenyan presidential victories are triumphalist in nature. They are celebrated in style that is intended to achieve, and indeed often achieves, the goal of leaving the loser feeling devastated and humiliated. Uhuru, Ruto and Raila are all guarding against the humiliation of defeat.

Ruto and Uhuru also know that either of them is going to eat humble pie in the next few days. Between Ruto and Raila, someone is going to win the election, now eight days away. Conversely, someone is going to lose. If Raila loses, the humiliation will overfly him to settle squarely on Uhuru's head. This explains Uhuru's mounting restlessness and edginess. He has promised to do something in the next few days, to teach Ruto, together with all and sundry, that he is the president.

We can only imagine the big thing that Uhuru intends to do next week. But he has said it is set to be huge. Whatever it is, these huge things, President Uhuru will probably want to know that like Raila, Ruto is now an institution. Between the two of them, Ruto and Raila have the following of almost half of the adult voters in the country today. A blow at either goes beyond just the individual who has been struck. If the huge thing that the departing president does is perceived to be unjust, there can be no predicting where the ripple effect could end up. Big things that are done against them must take this into account, even when they are done by a sitting president.

Tied in the two knots in Azimio and Kenya Kwanza are the personal fates of cocktails of people in power and people waiting to get in power. Both camps have several subsets, being one set each, in Azimio, of President Uhuru's orphans. They include powerful Cabinet Secretaries like Dr Fred Matiang'i(Interior), Peter Munya(Agriculture), Joe Mucheru (ICT) and Eugene Wamalwa (Defence). Also in the wings is Interior Principal Secretary, Dr Karanja Kibicho.

There is also Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka and his hopefuls, and Raila's own men and women who long to get to the centre of power. There are also individual dreams in people like Governors Kivutha Kibwana (Makueni), Hassan Joho (Mombasa), Wycliffe Oparanya (Kakamega), James Ongwae (Kisii), and Charity Ngilu (Kitui). The retiring governors nurse personal dreams of flight into a glorious future on Raila's wings, most for sustained mod con existence.

Ruto has his own raft of sundry dreams that could be shattered should the election be lost. There are party leaders and senior politicians - Musalia Mudavadi (ANC) and a slew of people behind him, Moses Wetang'ula of Ford Kenya with his team, and Governors Amason Kingi (Kilifi), Salim Mvurya (Kwale), and Dr Alfred Mutua (Machakos).

There are cocktails of professionals and advisory teams that operate in the shadows, all waiting on both sides or their day in the sunshine. It is hence a very high stakes game in which only one of two horses can deliver the prize. The remaining one week of the campaign period is like to witness frenzied, and even outrageous campaign antics on both sides, with occasional hits somewhere below the belt.

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