As a rule of thumb, leaders with ambition need formidable allies

The coronavirus has temporarily come to the rescue of the Deputy President. It looks like the pandemic has postponed at least one problem; the impeachment process. Coincidentally, the two-week period that James Orengo promised is the same as the incubation of the coronavirus virus. If we didn’t know better, we would think that coronavirus was organised!

But like all contagions that have preceded it, the coronavirus too shall pass. And once again, life will go on, public gatherings will be reinstated, the shadowy people of ‘the system’ will gather again to scheme, and the ‘BBI reggae’ will resume.  

Going by the events of this week, the removal of the Deputy President from office is a question of when, not if. So how did William Ruto, the most charismatic, shrewd politician find himself in this tight spot?  

For the most part, Ruto has himself to blame for his predicament. Let me explain using the game of chess. On a chess board, as in political life, the king is a relatively weak piece on its own. His power lies in those who surround him. The king is surrounded by bishops, knights and rooks. These formidable pieces protect him and come to his defense through-out the game.


A king cannot be defeated when he is shielded by them, but if they fall, he becomes a lonely and isolated king. His defeat is guaranteed. That is William Ruto. But I want to argue that Ruto never had a political queen, neither did he have bishops, knights and rooks. Ruto has always surrounded himself with pawns. And that is why it has been so easy to dismantle him.

When crafting his political formation, he seems to have overlooked the fact that to survive, you need formidable allies around you. In short, to beat the system you need to strategically create your own ‘system.’ The configurations that surround Ruto presently are his own political creations and not allies drawn from pre-existing powers. This is what makes them pawns.

When crafting his political strategy in 2013, Ruto seems to have overlooked the power matrix. Rather than investing with the elite, Ruto has invested with the masses. But power theory suggests that the masses are for the most part inconsequential. The ground could be with him, but the elite may not. And yet it is the elite with the true power to either make him president, or curtail his ambitions. In his hour of need, the decisions of those with him may not count.

Someone once said that if democracy ever changed anything, it would never be allowed to happen. The Russian version of democratic skepticism is even cruder: it is not the people who vote that count, it is those who count the votes.

Power in a corporation does not really rest with the shareholders. It rests with the executive committee headed by the CEO and the board of directors. Power, in a political party does not rest with party members, it rests with the owners of the party.

Power, in a country does not lie with citizens, at large. It resides within the narrow, corps of essentials; a small group of powerful people, who have the money and legal authority to overthrow the incumbent.

Borrowing from Bruce Mesquita and Alastair Smith in the ‘Dictator’s Handbook,’ for any leader, the political landscape can be broken down into three groups of people, let’s use Ruto’s current foe, Raila Odinga to demonstrate this landscape. First, are the ‘Interchangables’- this is the general populace with Raila’s six million or so voters. Second are the ‘Influentials’, the group that actually chooses the leader. These are 3,000 or so ODM party members who occasionally convene the National Delegates Conference to elect or select their party leader.

Finally; the ‘Essentials,’ the people with the power to overthrow the leader. This is the clique that surrounds Railaa consisting of power brokers, key advisers and rich capitalists. In other words, ‘The Establishment’.

And because Raila is not just an individual, but a corporate entity, he has to regularly account to his critical shareholders- the ‘Essentials.’

When the Deputy President accuses to ‘The System’ of fighting it, he does it ‘covetingly,’ with grudging admiration. He secretly covets it. It is his exclusion from this shadowy system, that is making his dream for the presidency unattainable.

Hypothetically, if ‘The System’ sent Ruto a complimentary ‘System membership card,’ he would accept it in a heartbeat. But seeing that this will never happen, it falls on Ruto to create his own system. He must find his political queen, and turn his pawns into bishops, knights and rooks. Unfortunately, this requires time. His chess pieces as they stand are not 2022 ready. The can’t match up against ‘The System.’

- The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]

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