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Why William Ruto's first year in office adds to Raila, Azimio's woes

Opinion
 President William Ruto shares a light moment with Azimio leader Raila Odinga during Kipkeino Classic at Moi Sports Center Kasarani. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

September 13, is the day Raila Odinga, the opposition supremo, would have wished had never come. For a year, he did nearly everything – court petitions, rallies, issuing ultimatums and bloody demonstrations – to head it off.

It is a gloomy day for the scion of Jaramogi, as it is the first anniversary of the high muck-a-muck of the hustler folks.

More ominously, the man Raila wanted to defeat, but instead beat him, is on course to rule Kenya for the coming four years – and that could well expedite his exit from elective politics.

That is not what Raila had hoped or vied for in 2022. He had a yen for the presidency (and an anniversary like today) to crown his decades-old political career. 

In theory, Raila had everything – the support of an incumbent president and government machinery for the August presidential election.

The loss dealt Raila enormous psychological and political blows. It dented his supporters’ motivation to stand with him for another contest for the top seat. Many, dismayed by his fifth failure, are now genuinely asking if they had wasted their votes for the man they love.

But, what many ordinary Kenyans don’t appreciate is that Raila didn’t stand a good chance of clinching the State House.

The August vote, largely a contest over the country’s future, favoured William Ruto, who successfully portrayed himself as a victim of the Establishment and whose message of 'Hustlers versus Dynasties’ electrified the electorate.

There was also an international angle to Ruto’s win.

A regional anchor state, Kenya, last year received unprecedented attention from the world’s major powers — both reigning and rising — that wanted their ally to emerge the winner. 

Many Kenyans, preoccupied with what promises President Ruto has so far fulfilled or not, miss how Ruto’s ascent reoriented the country’s geopolitics, a first since Kenya's independence in 1963. Under Ruto’s rule, Kenya is now closer to Washington than to London, the former coloniser that once considered Kenya closest ally in East Africa.

In 2022, Raila failed to decipher that Ruto and his team were as hungry for power as the West – particularly the US and the EU -- was sighing for a new face it could depend on for its long-term economic and ideological war with China and Russia after a decade of a slippery Uhuru Kenyatta. Raila's dependence on Uhuru, his complacency, and his inability to rally international supporters foredoomed his bid for the presidency. 

National Assembly majority leader, Kimani Ichung’wa, said Uhuru's support for Raila was the “the last nail on the Azimio coffin.”

“The extent to which he [Uhuru] hurt the people of Mt Kenya made it so difficult for him to even push a candidate through,” he said in a recent interview with the Kenyan Historian channel on YouTube.

Ichung’wa said, "He (Uhuru) truly believed the people of Mt Kenya should be worshiping either him or the Kenyatta family and believed that his word was law to people of Mt Kenya, which was not the case.” 

If Ruto gave Raila a drubbing in August, the post-election was a time to politically finish him.

And soon after the elections, things got gloomier for Raila. His fabled post-election playbook that won him two sweetheart political deals with his rivals -- Mwai Kibaki in 2008 and Uhuru in 2018 -- didn’t seem to produce its desired results this time around.

Raila was up against an ambitious youthful man, who, unlike the son of Jomo, Uhuru, was not perturbed much by protests or prone to easy compromise, locally known as the 'handshake', which is the partaking of government positions and its authority.

How one would outsmart a nosy man who seems to know more than his ministers or a nocturnal politician who sometimes sets up appointment at 3am in the belief that what is discussed at night is implemented during the day?

Ruto was cut from a different cloth. He wanted the whole enchilada, not a half. Ruto knew how Raila adulterated Uhuru’s second term in which corruption allegedly spread like wildfire and the country was burdened with debt running into trillions of shillings.

Ruto had another reason to not get in with Raila: Raila was the man who in 2010 helped oust him from his ministerial post during the Kibaki administration and who in 2018 unofficially took up his position during the Uhuru administration.

Raila's headache wasn't only Ruto. The West had unfavourable perception of him.

The West, which in 2007 stood with him, didn’t seem to want Raila to triumph in 2022 when its war with Russia for global influence was intensifying. Neither the United States could trust a protégé of Uhuru, an ally of China and former coloniser, the UK, whose ties with Washington is a love-hate affair when it comes to national interests. It seems suspicions over Jaramogi’s alleged friendship with the Soviets, now Russia didn’t die either.

In a word, the West wanted a staunch ally in State House and Ruto fitted the bill. Raila’s failure to properly read those intertwined tangles of local and international dynamics has helped conspire to torpedo his quest for victory and post-election agitation.

For the whole of last year, Raila gasped for political oxygen that seemed to be in short supply in a changed Kenya, where the unyielding Ruto rendered his tactics ineffectual. 

The ever-nagger, Raila eventually felt compelled to wage an all-out political war against Ruto’s ascendancy. He declared that he didn’t recognise Ruto’s victory and termed his administration illegitimate.

When the Supreme Court upheld Ruto’s win, Raila went sour on almost everything institutional, courts (didn’t agree with its opinion), electoral body (believed its chairman connived with Ruto), Constitution (disregarded Ruto’s legitimacy) and security agencies (accused them of being tools of Ruto.) 

He railed against foreign diplomats for being silent on government’s abuses against his supporters, reserving particular scorn for the US ambassador, Meg Whitman, whom he asked to “Keep your mouth shut.” He called Whitman a “rogue ambassador.”

The intensity of Raila’s calculated hardball tactics last year seemed to have had an unsaid objective: To engineer a regime change or get a cut from the government’s cake, although he later vehemently denied that, calling Ruto’s government a “tainted” regime.Last year was an emotional roller coaster for Raila. The loss has gutted Raila so much that Ruto’s first anniversary is likely to further fill him with a profound sorrow.

Raila’s strategists must be asking why none of their bright ideas didn’t work. Raila's efforts to find a win for himself and a loss for Ruto were a wild goose chase. His demand that the electoral commission’s server be opened for audit was no more than scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Raila’s devastating period of despair came after his efforts to delegitimise Ruto came up empty, even after firing on all cylinders. His demonstrations -- deadly as they were to his supporters and devastating to the wider public and to the nation’s image – haven’t led to Ruto’s ouster.

Instead, Ruto – although he somehow lost some weight and possibly some sleep over Raila’s incessant harassment -- savoured his victory, while keeping a watchful eye out for his rival’s ever-changing tactics. 

Last year’s presidential election and its aftermath were in many ways remarkable. The country has never ever experienced a yearlong anti-government agitation led by a trounced contender. Also, a winner has never been as adamant as Ruto was. The former president’s open admiration of Raila to spite his successor was itself a first in Kenya’s history.

Before peacefully handing over power to Ruto, the former head of state said "my leader is Baba Raila Odinga.” 

Raila didn't disappoint his diehards. He may have been down, but, in his anti-Ruto crusade, he showed them that he was not out, just yet. He kept coming up with creative ideas – like the ever-changing scads of demands -- that kept the Ruto administration on its toes. His party, Azimio, dropped one seeming bombshell after another, most juicily the claim of a whistleblower -- a still-unidentified individual – had the true results that gave Raila a lead of more than two million votes over Ruto.

New websites also popped up, containing unverified figures that claimed Raila won. Last July, Raila disclosed a citizens’ initiative – via tumechoka.net -- to collect 10 million signatures to “remove from office Mr William Ruto as President and Mr Rigathi Gachagua as Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya.”

Yet, the more it appeared to Raila that his efforts were changing things, the more things stubbornly remained unchanged.

Throughout last year, Ruto, the ever-strategist, played smart and proved unmovable. He exhibited little overt concern over Raila’s agitation, while covertly working hard to take apart Raila’s narrative and demolish his decades-old political edifice. The current war within ODM between the allies of Ruto and Raila is itself a manifestation of the damage the president did to his rival.

When the going got a bit tough, though, Ruto dangled the carrot of the bipartisan dialogue, which Raila swiftly grabbed, as his options of persisting in his agitation were running out.The resultant on-off dialogue, which was later legalised through Parliament and called the National Dialogue Committee, offered both Ruto and Raila the lull they badly needed, though there’s still a real fear that it could become a clunker.

To Raila, the 10-member body – assisted by another 8-member technical team -- gave him the illusion that he had forced Ruto to yield. To Ruto, the climb-down depicted him as a reasonable man who has the nation’s interest at heart.But the hope that the committee will grant Raila's wish of auditing last year’s election is doubtful, if not improbable.

Deputy President Gachagua has already expressed his reservations about the government's talks with the opposition, saying he doesn't agree with one of the agendas, the audit of the 2022 elections.

“We would like to ask that agenda be dropped from those talks,” Gachagua said on Sunday in Meru in the presence of the president.One of Raila's foibles before and after the election was to underestimate Ruto and his message of hustlers versus dynasties.

Despite the enormous challenges erected on his way to the presidency, Ruto’s political machine functioned well and his message got caught on. During the election, he won over political heavyweights, like then-National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, Western kingmakers — Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang'ula as well as Alfred Mutua and other politicians from every region.

In Ruto, Raila has also lost portent battle cries that served him well in the past: Victimhood and the Kikuyu domination. In 2022, Ruto was the victim and the Kikuyu card proved dud. Ruto was a shrewd politician from the Kalenjin tribe, not a Kikuyus, the evergreen foes of the Luos. In his battle with Kibaki and Uhuru, Raila had subtly played the tribe card: The rest of Kenyans against the Kikuyu.  

Ichung’wa said Ruto’s message resonated with the Mt Kenya region. “The people identified with him (Ruto)…and he was speaking to the people in the language they understood,” he said in a past interview with Kenyan Historian.

“The people of Mt Kenya had endeared themselves to the candidature of William Ruto and William Ruto had endeared himself to the people of Mt Kenya. And He had a message and an agenda that the people believed in,” Ichung’wa said, noting that Ruto visited more parts in Mt Kenya in four years than Uhuru did in ten years.

Raila’s setback may not be a fleeting one this time around. The August loss could be a bad omen for Raila’s political future within Azimio. Further muddying the waters for Raila is his open enmity with the US.

Raila’s brother, Oburu, has recently mooted National Assembly’s minority leader Opiyo Wandayi as a possible heir to Raila’s struggle. But as is always the case after every election, Raila remains mum about what he will do next or in 2027, meaning a variation of Raila's high-wire act would continue this coming year, an outcome President Ruto seems well prepared.

During the current, dialogue-induced lull, Ruto is rejoicing in what, in retrospect, politically looks like a mutual assured destruction that befell the "handshake brothers", Raila and Uhuru. One is out of sight, has largely opted for silence and, for his own survival, disengaged from the ongoing national discourse.

The other is having no joy delegitimising Ruto - and, worse, is being distracted by internal wrangling raging within his own party.

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