It is in Ruto’s interest to back BBI even if he remains a ‘soft critic’

This week was a significant turning point for the political trajectory of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) train after it was reported that Deputy President William Ruto (pictured) would opt out of leading the No movement in the upcoming referendum. 

That would leave his zealous supporters disoriented since they have been more vehement than him in opposing the initiative. While it is too early for pro-BBI folk to pop the champagne, politicians can re-orient depending on political dynamics. There are at least four reasons that explain why it is in the DP’s interest to support BBI.

Firstly, the greatest beneficiary of the expanded executive proposal in the BBI is the DP.

To win the presidency in 2022, the DP must not only maintain the support of his Rift Valley backyard but also garner a substantial number of votes from Mt Kenya. There is no doubt that at this point, the DP is the politician to beat in Mt Kenya. He attracts impressive crowds and excites the rank and file in the region with his offerings of wheelbarrows and other “economic empowerment” handouts.

Interestingly, for all his impressive crowds, the DP has failed to attract to his team politicians of significance from this vote-rich region and has to move around with a coterie of political lightweights.

The reason is fairly simple. While the large crowds are good for optics, they are fickle. Many are excited by the DP’s outsider status “anti- system” rebellion, but anyone who appreciates Mt Kenya politics knows that this is skin deep and can shift overnight as political dynamics change.

Seasoned Mt Kenya politicians recognise this and are lying low until things get clearer.

They have worked out the political math and determined that in the executive structure in the current Constitution where there are only two candidates; the president and his deputy, Ruto can only win if he appoints one of their own as deputy.

They recognise that this is a near impossibility; such an anointing would create a rebellion from other regions he is trying to maintain in his coalition and can cost him the presidency.

His only salvation is an expanded executive in which he can offer senior seats to a diversity of communities including Mt Kenya, thus placating the latter without losing other partners.

Secondly, the DP knows that to mount a strong No campaign requires massive resources. He’s been here before, having been the political head of the No campaign in 2010. With an election due in 2022, it would be imprudent to exhaust his resources leading an attack on a document which is beneficial to him!

Thirdly, the DP recognises that it is unwise to enhance the frontal war with his boss, two years before the General Election.

An all-out war around a cause which he would most probably lose, would cast him as a rebel and disrespectful insider, thus denying him the victim tag which so far has paid political dividends in parts of the population.

Finally, the DP has been around long enough to recognise that however wounded the system maybe, this is still Africa; governments hardly lose plebiscites unless it is in their interest to lose, as happened in the Orange-Banana referendum of 2005.

What then are the options left for the DP? It is clear from his recent statements that while he may not oppose the referendum, he will not be its effusive supporter. He may instead leave himself wiggle room to be a soft “critic in chief” while savouring the benefits of a successful vote. By the time the referendum is over, we will be a year to the elections.

He can then re-colonise the “anti-system” movement which will have been wounded but energised by its loss at the referendum and searching for political leadership, assuming the Kivuthas and the like-minded won’t have fully occupied that space.

Whether that enables him to launch a serious stab at the presidency or to negotiate a space at the “handshake coalition” only time will tell.

What is becoming clear is that for all the vitriol against it, BBI may end up having no major political opposition to its passing.

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

Download the BBI Judgement by all seven Judges - Civil Appeal No. E291 of 2021