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Making of an all-powerful presidency

 President William Ruto held bilateral talks with Guinea Bissau President General Umaro Sissoco Embalo. [PCS]

Looking at his political chessboard and how he has been playing the all-telling game, keen political observers may have noted that President William Samoei Ruto could perhaps be an emerging political enigma of Kenya’s politics.

In less than two years of his first term in office, Kenya’s 5th President has managed to amass what could be seen as an expansion of his reach and control with little or no obstructions in the way he wants things done.

And now, it only takes his goodwill not to be a Kenyan strongman. 

Despite the safeguards of the 2010 Constitution, today’s Parliament has become his political Pentecostal echo chamber, a wussy Opposition that looks disgruntled, an ailing civil society, a confused clergy that is more of the Head of State’s choir, a Judiciary that is ready to hold talks with him at State House following strong critique by him and signs of playing a Machiavellian game of independent media. 

The recent assault on the independent media, which the government has denied advertisements, could be one of the last attempts in the absolute consolidation of power and the muzzling of ‘unwanted noise’. 

Ruto’s political coalition has 201 legislators in the National Assembly, a near absolute majority especially after retired President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee party MPs quickly played ball, running away from their opposition coalition, Azimio, and pledging allegiance to Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza administration.  Today, in Kenya’s Parliament, there is little or almost no impediment to what the President wants passed. Passage of the controversial Finance Act 2023, followed by succeeding laws that have loaded Kenyans with a heavy tax burden can be cited as good case study in this debate. 

A hands-on President, Ruto, sources indicate, has in the past personally called legislators including some from the Opposition when he wants his business in the House given a nod. 

Unlike his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta, Ruto enjoys a warm political relationship with the legislature that he controls and in the last nearly two years in office, no Bill has stalled in the bicameral Parliament. The best the minority side has done has been to walk out as happened during the passing of the Affordable Housing Bill in March. 

During his visit to Parliament during the State of the Nation address last year, parliamentarians in the government coalition and those in the opposition fell over their feet to get the President’s eye. 

But it is his maneuvers around the independence of the Judiciary, which has looked to be the last remaining independent institution since the dawn of the 2010 Constitution, that is politically dazzling. 

 President William Ruto shares a light moment with Catholic Bishops Machakos Diocese, Norman Kingoo, Wote Diocese, Paul Kariuki (behind) and Nyahururu's Joseph Mbatia (extreme left) during a church service in Wote, Makueni County. [PCS]

A year into his presidency, Ruto’s government suffered several blows following rulings by the Judiciary that seemed to halt a number of the president’s flagship projects including the Affordable Housing Programme, the revamping of healthcare, and a series of other projects that left Ruto jilted. 

While speaking at at a funeral in Nyandarua county in January, President Ruto said that he would begin ignoring court orders, a warning that jolted the Judiciary after he accused some judges of being part of a cartel that is conspiring to frustrate government programmes. 

“We will not allow these people to derail our plans,” he said as he directed Roads Principal Secretary Joseph Mbugua to move with speed and allocate funds for the construction of a road in Nyandarua County which had stalled following a court order. 

Driven to the wall by Ruto’s tough call, the Judiciary in a statement signed by none other than Chief Justice Martha Koome admitted that there were suspects of corruption within the bench. That was followed by accepting to join a meeting at State House chaired by the President. 

Immediately thereafter, Azimio la Umoja Leader Raila criticised the Ruto and Koome meeting, terming it an irresponsible move. Raila noted that such a meeting should have happened at a neutral place. 

“State House is the home of the Executive. That is where the president resides. If there is going to be a dialogue over issues of governance, it should be held on a neutral ground,” he said. 

Despite hard hitting criticisms from the opposition, Ruto on Monday, January 22, 2024, held the planned meeting with Koome, after the two arms of government had constant conflicts over corruption allegations. 

The meeting was, however, broadened to include the parliamentary leadership to give the look of heads of the three arms of government consulting and not the Executive and Judiciary alone. It was attended by National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula, Leader of Majority Kimani Ichungwa, Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, Attorney General Justin Muturi and Solicitor General Shadrack Mose.  

“The Judiciary is being held hostage by the Executive, and we’ve seen this before. We saw it happen under previous presidents, and we’ve tried to caution the current CJ not to go to bed with the Executive,” Raila cautioned.   

He further termed the move as an unfortunate development, and hoped that the rest of the members of the Judiciary will not be compromised.  

Political Scientist Dismus Mokua, however, avers Kenya’s Judiciary is yet to be ensnared by the Executive.

“The Judiciary has maintained both institutional and decisional independence consistent with the 2010 Constitution,” he said, adding: “A meeting between Heads of Arms of Government does not rob the judiciary of her independence.”

He said the three arms of government are expected to do regular coffee meetings aligned to “Moraa”’s interests and aspirations. Such coffee meetings cannot compromise their independence.

“Judges and magistrates retain decisional independence. In fact, a number of judges have pronounced themselves on petitions around President Ruto’s priority projects and made Kenya Kwanza to go back and recalibrate in adherence to court action. The Affordable Housing Act comes to mind,” Mokua said.

With the Judiciary falling into his plan- of holding talks - a political gimmick, Ruto’s next move was to clip the wings of the Opposition. 

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition was giving the president headaches with a series of demonstrations that triggered restlessness in Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and a host of other towns.

The protests seemed to gain momentum, bolstered by a complaining country because of a weak economy, high food prices, majority of Kenyans struggling to make ends meet and the falling value of the shilling, leading to unease at the House on the Hill.

Ruto send signals that he was ready for talks, albeit rather informally through a tweet while he was headed to Tanzania. 

“My friend @RailaOdinga, I’m off to Tanzania for a human capital meeting to harmonise the expansion of employment opportunities in our continent. I’m back tomorrow evening, and as you have always known, I’m available to meet one on one with you anytime at your convenience. WsR,” read the president’s tweet.

Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo questioned the president’s motives, doubting whether he was ready for dialogue. Speaking during an interview on Spice FM, Otiende said he did not see the need for the president to tweet.

“I find the tweet by Ruto interesting. I didn’t think that if William Ruto wants to speak to Raila he tweets him. I thought he would just give him a phone call or even send someone to do so. It has happened before,” he said.

Talks would, however ensue, eventually to the National Dialogue Committee (Nadco) report that has since been overshadowed by Ruto’s push to have Raila clinch the African Union Commission chairman’s job.

It has been described by pundits as Ruto’s way of managing Raila and disempowering the Opposition. 

In a move seen as seeking to silence the independent media, the Principal Secretary of Broadcasting at the Ministry of ICT Edward Kisiangani decreed that only KBC and Radio Africa are eligible for broadcast and print/online adverts respectively. 

Kitui Senator Enoch Wambua, however, believes that dwindling fortunes of media houses is not entirely as a result of this, saying there are many reasons, including the booming social/alternative media spaces.

He argues that media has lacked targeted and sustained investment in emerging global media trends like investigative journalism, convergence and day two journalism.

“You should be careful not to give bad governance undue reverence by crediting it for consequences of global market realities,” said Wambua.

What is clear, however, is that today, Ruto can get away with any political and socio-economic blunder in his government without few or no fingers pointing in his direction. 

Politicians from the government side however hold a contrary view.

Belgut MP Nelson Koech told The Sunday Standard: “Ruto is a democrat and respects the separation of power.He is committed to the ideals of democracy but he is a consummate politician who knows how to play politics. You cannot fault him for enjoying the approval ratings of the majority,” said Koech.

Senator Wambua, on his part, said the so-called State capture of all other arms of government is overrated for obvious political reasons; to create the misleading impression that voices of dissent will be easily drowned.

 President William Ruto during Kakamega International Investment conference at Masinde Muliro university of science and technology on March 20, 2029. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

“The truth of the matter is that political greed is as old as democracy. This is not the first time politicians elected on one party have crossed over to work with the party forming the government of the day “for the sake of development for my people”. This is a tired cliche and we all know how and where such politicians end up,” said Wambua. 

Political Scientist Dismas Mokua said Ruto has played statecraft management cleverly. 

“President Ruto has secured support and numbers to execute his administration’s legislative agenda. It is the dream of all heads of governments to have a legislature that is aligned to the administration’s legislative priorities,” said Mokua. 

He acknowledged that President Ruto has faced minimal, if at all, legislative challenges because the minority either by omission or commission have not come up with alternative legislative proposals. The minority he said opts to walk out when they are in fact expected to engage in high debate.

President Ruto could be the president who has probably held the highest number of parliamentary group meetings in the history of independent Kenya.  Parliamentary Group meetings are useful in establishing priorities and aligning the Administration’s agenda.  

Unlike in the Moi, Kibaki and Uhuru administrations where civil society and the clergy had alternative voices and checkmated government, the current church is looking to only await their turn to host the President in their sanctuaries where awe stricken ‘men -of -God’ grin as they greet the Head of State in amazement.

With the church humbled to only preach the word, the civil society and the and unions are competing on who will praise the head of state louder. 

Just like the Kenyatta and Moi era politicians, Ruto today has the whims to run his politics in the way knows best with little checks from the quarters thanks to his charisma, political hindsight and wizardry. 

Away from controlling the three arms of government, President Ruto has tactfully run his coalition with wit, pulling ping-pong political games with those around him. 

His deputy, Rigathi Gachagua, has appeared to limit his operations around Mt Kenya where emerging undercurrents have not spared him. He has faced resistance against him led by Kiharu lawmaker Ndindi Nyoro.

Despite an earlier bromance where the two were shown shaking hands, the DP has looked lonely. That alone has contributed to edifying the President, making him emerge as the only politico in the Kenya Kwanza coalition, and, therefore, the country, with a thorough- bred national image.

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