Deputy President William Ruto’s recent tour of the Rift Valley sought to solidify support in his backyard ahead of next year’s elections.
Dr Ruto, who is making his first stab at the presidency, returned to the region four years after he and President Uhuru Kenyatta were re-elected in October 2017.
A lot has happened since the repeat elections. While Ruto has made clear his intention to succeed Uhuru whose final term ends next year, the president is managing his succession away from his deputy.
The two fell out politically. Uhuru, who had publicly promised to back his deputy, has since changed tune.
The March 2018 handshake between the president and ODM leader Raila Odinga politically isolated Ruto. Raila has been marketing his Azimio La Umoja mantra, but is yet to formally declare his candidature. He has promised a major announcement on December 9.
Ruto has been on a countrywide campaign since 2018, but had gone slow on the Rift Valley. However, this week, he kicked off the blitz on Monday in Narok County to popularise his bottom-up economic model and rally the region behind the United Democratic Alliance (UDA).
His message to the people, who voted overwhelmingly for the ruling Jubilee party, was simple - “do not let me down.”
“You know, I’m on a mission to lead this country and I’m counting on you here at home not to let me down.”
“Please assure me of your votes before I seek support in other parts of the country,” he told Kapsabet residents on the third day of his five-day tour.
The DP appeared to have crafted his message depending on development issues affecting the people and the political undercurrents.
On Monday, he addressed issues surrounding conservation of the Mau Forest complex and recent evictions of illegal settlers.
In an attempt to appease the Maa community and their leaders, Ruto said the issue has now been settled for good.
“The days of this water tower to be used as a political tool are over. The Mau issue has been resolved. All those who were inside have been removed. There is no one who will be allowed back to the forest,” the DP said.
The Maasai community leaders have been critical of the invasion of the Maasai Mau by squatters, settled there by previous regimes.
Pundits say the message was a clever move by Ruto to win over the Maasai vote.
“It is worth noting that previously, Ruto, during the 2017 presidential campaigns accused Raila of being the architect of the Mau Forest evictions,” said Prof Gitiile Naituli.
He added: “The DP rode on the emotive Mau Forest issue to ask residents to turn out in large numbers and vote for Jubilee Party. And now, he has changed tune. It is simple, he wants the support of the Maasai.”
Since 2008, allocation of land in the Maasai Mau Forest to the landless people from the neighbouring Nakuru and Bomet counties has been a thorny issue.
Initially, in 2004, the Ndung’u report termed the land allocations in the Mau illegal and recommended that all title deeds issued be revoked.
This prompted the government to revoke some titles without an elaborate resettlement scheme.
In July 2008, Raila, then prime minister, issued an order that the Mau eviction process should continue to pave the way for conservation.
Raila’s order was vehemently opposed by Rift Valley politicians led by former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto.
Another section of politicians led by the DP gave a condition that the evictions should not be allowed to continue if the evictees have not been allocated land elsewhere.
On Tuesday, when Ruto moved to neighbouring Kericho County, his message turned to stalled projects that the Jubilee administration had promised in 2013.
He spoke of the multi-billion shilling Itare Dam project that has stalled due to corruption allegations and after the Italian contractor was declared bankrupt.
The region has Sopin-Koru, Itare, Bosto and Londiani dams that have stalled due to what the Deputy President termed as “hijacking and sabotaging the Jubilee agenda.”
His promise was that he will revive the projects when he takes over as president next year.
“Even though President Kenyatta is retiring, I am still around. I will make sure the promises we made to Kenyans in our manifesto are fully implemented,” he promised.
In Nandi County, Ruto pleaded with voters to stick with him, adding that he has a clear development agenda.
In Uasin Gishu County, where there were murmurs among the local leadership that the DP had neglected the region, he presided over a funds-drive for 36 churches at Chebolol.
He rallied residents behind UDA, urging them to elect candidates in all the positions next year as a show of solidarity.
He, however, denied reports that the party had preferred candidates, saying the people’s wishes will be respected.
His assurance came in the wake of jostling for the UDA ticket in the region, with the DP’s close allies seeking various seats sparking fears that they may be favoured during party nominations.
In a move seen as responding to claims that his North Rift backyard had nothing to show for the years he has been in government, the DP listed projects the Jubilee government had accomplished in the region.
He cited connection of 90,000 households to the national power grid in Nandi County alone up from 20,000 in 2013.
“Some of my opponents were holding senior government positions but they have no development track record. They have now resorted to inciting jobless youth to throw stones during my meetings,” he said.
On Thursday, the DP was in Nakuru County where his message revolved around peace.
Being one of the counties hardest hit by post-election violence in 2008, Ruto’s peace message resonated well with residents who have been concerned over the fallout between him and the president.
“Rift Valley will be a valley of peace in the coming elections. We should not entertain politics of division and incitement for selfish reasons,” he told rallies in Njoro, Molo, Kuresoi North and Kuresoi South constituencies, which have been hot spots for electoral and ethnic violence.
It is in Nakuru where the political ‘marriage’ between Uhuru and Ruto was solemnised and UhuRuto tag coined.
Ruto’s return to Nakuru without the president was clear sign that their political union is no more and the two leaders are charting different political paths.