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Ruto gets into his stride as Raila stumbles

 President William Ruto and Azimio leader Raila Odinga. [Standard]

President William Ruto's 10 months in office have been full of upheavals: An opposition rejecting to recognize him as president. Chaotic anti-government demonstrations. Banditry in the north. An economy in bad shape. A predecessor is sympathetic to the opposition's cause.

It was a trial by fire. Ruto took the helm of a country mismanaged for so long that upon his arrival, warning lights were blinking red.

The debt crisis was so severe that he had to temporarily postpone some civil servants' salaries. The shilling was (and still is) losing ground to the dollar. The cost-of-living crisis -- now exacerbated by new tax measures that walloped employees' basic salary and imposed a 1.5 percent housing tax and raised fuel's value added tax to 16 per cent, up from 8 per cent -- showed little signs of abating.

President Ruto's initial efforts to clean up his predecessor's mess was as hard a task as that of Hercules, the man who after 30 years cleaned King Augeas's stables. For example, there is fear that individuals may have indeed pocketed more than Sh4 trillion of the country's Sh9.39 trillion debt (as of March this year). In such a condition, you would expect opposition leader Raila Odinga to be rubbing his hands in glee, as the man he refused to accept his election victory or recognize his presidency ran into problems right out of the gate. The new corruption scandals that have hit Ruto's nascent government should have added to Raila's schadenfreude.

But, Raila is neither overjoyed, nor is he nearer to his goal of delegitimizing Ruto's rule. Worse, President Ruto, who so far hasn't buckled under the weight of the country's myriad crises, is plowing ahead with his agenda, The Plan. Why is Raila, even after going as far as threatening to split the country in two, so unsuccessful to have his way and Ruto still so lucky to stand his ground and possibly set to win?

The answer could lie in the difference between Ruto's survival strategy that combined both offensive and defensive strategies and Raila's reactive tactics that garnered more media coverage, but did little to compel Ruto to share power as the last two former presidents did. After months of Raila-led protestations, Ruto isn't only standing, he has a real chance of once again outsmarting the opposition, even as problems pile up nationally. Into his first year now, Ruto still has four more years on his side to correct things.

Already, there's a sense of relief, if shaky, in Ruto's camp that the best is yet to come.In recent months, Ruto has been more relaxed in his public appearances, particularly more confident than he was a couple of months ago when he wore an angular look and pinched face. He recently admitted that he had gone back into the gym after two years of rigorous election campaigns disrupted his timetable.

New allies

Politically, Ruto is winning new allies, as many opposition members have decamped to his side. Internationally, he's made waves with his anti-imperial, pan-African speeches, the latest being his Friday address on climate change and financing at the Champs de Mars, Paris, France that was interrupted by a sustained eruption of applause from his audience before he could even finish his greetings.

At least to his supporters, the scathing lead stories in national newspapers and on TV stations are good omens that Ruto is trying to reform a system that has been badly broken by his predecessor and made worse by outside forces, such as the war in Ukraine that triggered global food crisis. There's some truth to this argument. The rising cost-of-living pain, for instance, is not limited to Kenya.

 Faction of Jubilee Party led by Kanini Kega addressing the media in Nairobi on May 2, 2023. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

In the UK, prices are rising so high that the government has recently broached food price caps. In France, protesters, who have adopted Azimio supporters' tactics and put saucepans on their heads, have for months been marching through Paris's streets to express their opposition to the government's plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. In the US, the Biden administration has narrowly survived a devastating default after the opposition, the Republican Party, frustrated the White House's bid to raise the country's debt ceiling.

This turbulent world is making little of Raila's threats for mass actions, a stark contrast to the days when world affairs were relatively calm and Raila's protests captivated the world and hit international headlines. To Ruto's supporters, the new government's reform agenda is being stymied by vested interests, whose concerns are mainly dictated by selfish pursuits and personal vendetta than by the betterment of a lot of Kenyans. In fact, a victory for Raila would have meant more influence for the officials of the former administration and a cover-up for their misdeeds.

President Ruto came to office cognizant that his biggest challenge to his rule will come from former friends turned foes, his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila, the opposition leader known for nagging those who beat him in elections. To minimize their threats, he courted as many opposition politicians - both elected and unelected - from every corner of the country.

Anti-Ruto opposition

That strategy paid off in a big way, as the president's party now enjoys a decent majority in Parliament, calling into question the survival of the anti-Ruto opposition, already an amalgam of over two dozen parties, whose raison d'etre largely dissipated after the election loss.

The campaign to delegitimize Ruto's rule, which is running on fumes now, was - right from the off - a mare's nest. The reactive strategy was a set of confused actions, whose effectiveness was vitiated by a lack of well-articulated end game, inconsistency and poor timing and planning. Raila's anti-Ruto agenda, it seems, is being determined by the daily policies of the Ruto administration. For the last 10 months, Raila has been reacting to one crisis after another: The August election loss, the attack on Kenyatta family's farm, the cannibalization of the opposition, the Mungiki, and now the Finance Bill.

 Migori brige blocked by Azimio supporters who are protesting the High cost of living on May 2, 2023. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

All but two of them found their way into the ever-changing demands of Raila's irreducible minimums, raising questions about Raila's real strategy, if any, in confronting the ever more live wire Ruto. With no clarity on the end game of his anti-Ruto crusade, Raila's agitation now seems to have fallen into some sort of a trap that the new administration would be very much happy to see him entangle in day in, day out. Better clarity would have been good for Raila's political capital, messaging and retention of the goodwill of his supporters. He could barely afford to fritter away his precious time on chasing his tail, when the opposition is already hemorrhaging as a result of the no real war, no real peace state of affairs.

As stressful as Raila's activism is for the new administration, Ruto is muddling through. To Ruto's relief, the current war of attrition between him and Raila is likely to further weaken Raila politically more than it would hurt Ruto, an incumbent with the levers of power. Raila's rejection of Ruto's legitimacy has already become an old story, as it was overtaken by reality. Kenyans and the international community have accepted Ruto's presidency.

Raila's early missteps have helped solidify Ruto's rule. He almost disappeared from the national arena for months. The shock victory was so devastating that it appeared to have beaten the hell out of Raila.

Accepted loss

At one time, many Kenyans assumed that Raila had accepted his loss after the country's Supreme Court rejected the soundness of his petition calling for the annulment of Ruto's victory.

During the lull, Ruto - far from being heady with victory - worked his guts out, seducing opposition members to ward off any potential onslaught from Raila and his allies. He succeeded in eating into the support base of the opposition, persuading its lawmakers to close ranks with his ruling coalition, Kenya Kwanza. When on December 7, Raila reappeared to hold his first public engagement with his supporters, it was a flop of sorts, as he only attracted hundreds of people, far lower than the tens of thousands he used to pull in the past on short notice (six months later, Raila is threatening to return to the same venue, Kamukunji Grounds, for the same reason, public consultations).

Even when the opposition's anti-Ruto strategy picked up momentum months after elections, Azimo's message was incoherent and hardly resonated with the public. It had no wide support even in areas where some of the opposition leaders hail from. Worse still, former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the chairman of Azimio, initially steered clear of publicly throwing his support behind his party's agitation at the right time. And when he eventually did, he did it just because Ruto-allied officials had seized control of his Jubilee's leadership.

 Migori brige blocked by Azimio supporters who are protesting the High cost of living on May 2, 2023. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

While it's too early to give a conclusive appraisal of the Ruto-Raila battle in less than a year, the odds are Raila will - if he continues his anti-Ruto crusade - likely be weakened further, as the head of state is unlikely to take the opposition leader lying down.

Ruto has already made inroads into some constituent parties of the Azimio coalition, and if pushed to the wall, he could be unsparing and make quick work of Raila's ODM, as he did to Jubilee, and by 2027 there could be no more ODM to talk about. Just a few months ago, Ruto quipped that Raila may not even get agents to look after his votes in the next election.

Ruto's success can't only be attributed to pure luck. He was indeed super-proactive - and that is why a lot seems to be going on for him now, to the annoyance of the opposition group, Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition Party. Ruto has, for instance, restructured the security sector and, in the process, headed off any threat of a mutiny or coup by any disgruntled officers or members of the former administration, a fear that was first expressed by one of Ruto's aides earlier this year.

'Destabilising the government'

Last February, Denis Itumbi, an aide to Ruto and Deputy Cabinet Secretary nominee, tweeted that there was a meeting by former government officials, whose agenda was to sponsor 'distraction and general destabilisation of government'. The attendees, he wrote, agreed to raise Sh15 billion to sponsor opposition rallies "to spur resistance over payment of tax, ensure the cost of living remains high and activate phase two of protests, which is expected to lead to a citizen revolution."

"Pay generous stipends to Government officials in strategic positions so as to undermine (Ruto's) government programmes and frustrate the new plans," read part of Itumbi's revelation.

Raila can't be blamed for the improving fortunes of Ruto, or for not trying. He did his best under the circumstances. He went hammer and tongs at Ruto, declaring his government illegitimate and saying that he will not recognize him as the country's president. He bounced back fairly quickly from the depths of despair that he had sunk into after the election loss and managed to bring tens of thousands of people onto the streets in Nairobi, Kisumu and several towns in the western region, demonstrations that eventually compelled Ruto to propose the bipartisan talks (now-faltering) to open discussions on the reconstitution of the electoral body.

But Raila - now at 78 - has less stamina and tenacity to continue headlining energy-sapping protests that have so far done more harm to ordinary citizens, businesses and the image of the country than force Ruto to yield any meaningful ground to the opposition. Much as he would have liked to unseat Ruto, Raila hardly wants to risk the possibility of pushing the country over the cliff, as he did in 2007, nor does he desire to have a date with the International Criminal Court prosecutor for causing bloodbath in the country. Raila, whose contribution to the citizens' fight for multi-party democracy is still well respected nationally, doesn't seem to want to live with the ignominy of becoming the man who destabilized the country he sacrificed so much for.

If Raila Amolo Odinga had a fair chance of becoming Kenya's president in August, he now knows that he has almost zero chance of toppling Ruto, even if his opposition to the current administration stretches into the next election. His intransigence and rejection of Ruto's presidency could only drive him away from the more urgent task on hand: Reorganizing the opposition and then keeping it united until the next election. That realistic calculation may have influenced Raila's decision to de-escalate the tension and accept Ruto's outreach last April. Any hope by Raila supporters that their hero will go all-in was further dashed after a neighbour, Sudan, exploded into street battles in its capital, Khartoum, after two rival generals failed to resolve their differences amicably.

Such a cautious approach is a win for President Ruto. The on-off bipartisan talks will likely drag on for some time and buy Ruto more time to further reinforce his authority before the August harvest hits markets to ease the country's cost-of-living crisis, something that will help chip away at one of Raila's potent items in his laundry list of demands.

In fact, the Raila crisis has served President Ruto pretty well. The new head of state has needed a peg on which to hang his early blunders. Now, he's handily blaming the economic mess he's grappling with on Raila's ties with the former government, popularly referred to as the "handshake regime." Ruto's allies have gone further and demonized the former president, accusing him of financing destructive riots that threatened to destabilize the country. Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has recently accused Uhuru, of "setting young people, innocent young people, against security apparatus," in reference to the alleged resurgence of the proscribed Mungiki sect.

Raila's agitation has also helped Ruto in another way: Many Kenyans saw the president's purging of Uhuru allies from the government as a justifiable surgery. Ruto - that line of thinking goes - is in a fight with individuals who wanted him toppled. The lack of an international support for the opposition's efforts to delegitimize Ruto has angered Raila and his allies, who accused an unnamed foreign country of being behind Ruto's victory.

 Azimio MPs walk out of National Assembly Chambers as Treasury CS Njuguna Ndung'u presented the 2023/24 budget. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

"We believe that this election was stolen, was rigged by UDA (United Democratic Alliance), by the IEBC in cahoots with some international interest that I don't want to name (it) here today. We believe that very strongly and we have evidence for that," Azimio spokesperson Prof. Makau Mutua, told Citizen's JKL show.

In a changing world, where African countries are caught in the ideological and economic war between the West and the East, particularly China and Russia, Ruto's ascent has pushed Kenya's foreign policy toward the West, especially toward the European Union and the US, while at the same time chilling ties to China and, to a lesser extent, to the former colonizer, Britain. In a geopolitical viewpoint, the Ruto-Raila contest last August was a competition between their international friends, as each side tried to have its man carry the day. The post-election antagonism still seems to reflect that dynamic.

In realpolitik, though, prolonging the anti-Ruto agitation serves Raila just fine, regardless of whether a foreign country feeling let down by Ruto's win supported him or not. For Raila, the more he is in the national limelight, the more relevant he will be, even if his anti-government crusade come to naught. Keeping his name and cause in the national discourse was sufficient enough to preserve his stature as the country's foremost opposition leader.

Being a persistent nuisance could have an added advantage for Raila in the long run: It can help threaten Ruto's second term chance if a rematch between the two ever takes place.For example, if Raila persists in his politicking and resists any temptations to strike a political deal, the anti-Ruto agitation would give him a leg up and a hard fight for Ruto in 2027.

In any re-election bid, Ruto is likely to be up against the full force of his predecessor and his team. Uhuru and Co. suspect that they would be harassed - and possibly prosecuted - should Ruto win a second term, which will free him from any political baggage.

Raila's apparent acceptance to call off the bi-weekly demonstrations to give dialogue a chance could have been a strategic-cum-personal tactic to foil the ongoing anti-Raila onslaught by a new crop of politicians in his backyard that is allegedly being egged on by Ruto's party, Kenya Kwanza.

Raila has no desire to lose everything. If he lost the presidency to Ruto, that shouldn't result in a post-Raila era in Luo land or in Kenya at large. He knows that an all-or-nothing strategy could jeopardize any dream to have one last shot at the 2027 presidential race. A Raila who's busy with his own survival is good for Ruto and his 2027 aspiration. It will offer him a breathing space to try to cure the malaise he inherited from his predecessor - and possibly an other opportunity to romp to victory in the next election cycle.

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