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No love lost: Why UhuRuto divorce was a matter of when, not if

NATIONAL
By Special Correspondent | August 8th 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto chat after innovative youths demonstrated multi Agency projects to the head of state during his visit at the KWS Law Enforcement Academy in Manyani on October 16, 2020.[Stafford Ondego,Standard]

Where did the rain start beating William Ruto and President Uhuru Kenyatta? For when you are the deputy president and your boss does not hide his deep dislike for you and the thought that you could succeed him, you ride against a bad tropical thunderstorm. Equally, when you are the president and you can only lament about your deputy, you are also in a bad storm. 

President Daniel Arap Moi earmarked them early for great things, in the prime of their youth. He made them his protegees, one nurtured as the future helmsman in ship of state and the other one prepared to be the sidekick. He left nothing to doubt when, in 2002, he appointed them to high office in his Cabinet in August of that year and handed them the Independence political party, Kanu. 

Earlier, in March, he had stage-managed their appointment as party honchos in the ruling Kanu. The future king was named one of four party vice chairmen, second only to Moi himself. The kingmaker became the director of elections. The rollercoaster was ready. The rest was to take off and keep moving in the direction the self-declared professor of politics had shown them. A generation later, they have bitterly fallen out. Their resentment for each other is now wild and undisguised. 

President Kenyatta and his deputy are now worse than political rivals. They disparage each other in public without the slightest pretext of poise, or decorum. If Uhuru could have his way, he would long have sacked Ruto. But, to try to remove him is to walk through a political and legal minefield, an assignment that is best left well alone. Instead, Uhuru has elected to leave Ruto in the empty shell called the Office of Deputy President, and to regular ridicule by subaltern politicians and sundry hecklers.  

An embittered Ruto has for a while feigned humility and respect for his boss. Yet the mask of humility has now fallen off. The gloves of egg-treatment have come off. The fist fight is on, in the bareness of its knuckles.

Character issues

What went wrong? Ruto says it was the March 2018 handshake between Uhuru and ODM leader Raila Odinga. Yet the handshake would seem to have only come as a welcome catalyst for a relationship that was always going to collapse badly, thanks to personality and character issues that were bottled up for five years.

Uhuru and Ruto were always strange bedfellows. They were drawn together by the force of factors beyond their control, and are now separated by the force of the inevitable. They were always going to fall out, the critical issue only being when. For, they arrived at the heart of power from entirely different directions, their paths converging temporarily in Kanu and International Criminal Court (ICC) woods, before going separate ways again. 

Ruto was the rank outsider who met Kenya’s royalty as a student Christian Union leader at the University of Nairobi (1987 – 1990). His youthful enthusiasm brought him close to President Moi, as a member of the now infamous Youth for Kanu (YK) 92 formation that campaigned for Moi’s re-election in the multiparty elections of 1992. The rest has been a history of ascendancy, despite a few hiccups on the path.  

Uhuru was the proverbial child who was born in the inner chambers of royalty with the silver spoon in his mouth. He was nurtured as a prince, where Ruto was reared in the deep end of a directionless rural setting. Where Uhuru was prepared for great things, Ruto whistled in the dark night of the unknown.  

Close to the gods

When fate brought them together, Uhuru flew on the political wings of royalty, while Ruto flew on fickle borrowed wings of wax. In the clouds with the gods, Ruto forgot about his waxen wings. He flew too close to the gods. He sometimes attempted to outdo them by flying too close to the sun. While today he still flies only a heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the land, he forgot quite early in the flight that his role in the royal cast was always meant to be a silent one.  

He was expected to be seen and never to be heard. Yet, he became too loud, and often unpleasantly so. He failed to borrow the leaf from those who went ahead of him, perhaps because of the naïve belief that, unlike them, he was an elected second in command. He enjoyed a personal claim to the seat as a deputy who brought in a following of his own, from across the country. In the process, he forgot the golden rule that you should never outshine the boss – and especially not in public. 

Indeed, it is not in doubt that Ruto has a following of his own. The might of that following was on show this week, when he controversially and scornfully chaired a United Democratic Alliance (UDA) “Parliamentary Group Meeting” at his official Karen office and residence. The office is the property of the State and Ruto himself a State officer elected on the Jubilee Party.  

In a past dispensation, he would have been whisked out of the residence the same day. He would, without a doubt, be cooling his heels in Kamiti, or Naivasha, eating the bread of political sorrow and washing it down with the waters of affliction.  

That dispensation belongs to history, however. It went away with Presidents Moi and Jomo Kenyatta. Hence, Ruto can vex Uhuru, literally poking the finger in the president’s nose by assembling upwards of 100 MPs to criticise the president on government owned premises, and at the expense of the same government, and get away with it – scot-free.  

It is the knowledge that he has a constituency that gives him the boldness that rankles his boss. In their first term in office, Ruto often spoke like a co-president. At public gatherings, he was only expected to ceremonially introduce the boss and meekly sit down. Yet, he would fly off on a tirade of a lecture, often hogging everything that the boss was expected to say.  

For his part, Uhuru always knew that he needed Roto’s support for the next election. In 2010, the catastrophe of the 2007 presidential poll bound them together in uncertainty, over possible imprisonment by the ICC. They directed at the ODM leader the kind of verbal venom and scorn that they today pour at each other. They turned the 2013 election into a referendum about the ICC and a vote against Raila, whom they blamed their woes on. They won. 

But Ruto began emerging as a leader with an overbearing restlessness; an impatient political spirit that Uhuru found unpleasant but had to put up with, because he still needed him for the 2017 poll. Ruto should have read the writing on the wall when, towards the end of the first term, Uhuru’s hatchet man, David Murathe, told KTN viewers that the post-2017 Uhuru would wear the colours as a ruthless and no-nonsense leader. Murathe was calling the bugle for Ruto. 

Ruto, however, missed the point. He continued talking at public rallies about his “future presidency” after Uhuru. It did not help matters that Uhuru picked up the mantra and ran along with the call of “ten years for me and ten for Ruto.” State House sources say that deep down, and in private trusted circles, Uhuru seethed with anger. He particularly took umbrage with the fact that he had to check with Ruto, and clear with him first, on every decision and announcement that he made. “Even within State House, he had his own spies, reporting to him the goings on in detail,” State House sources say. 

Bidding his time 

Uhuru bid his time, waiting patiently but keenly, for the day he would free himself from the Ruto fetters. At this year’s Madaraka Day in Kisumu, he alluded to the yoke that Ruto had put around his neck, when he reported that he could now work “without being bothered about the politics.” It was the politics of overbearing brinkmanship from his deputy. He could not make a single appointment without Ruto clearing it first. Today, Ruto cannot be cleared to travel out of the country. 

Besides, in a government that was a virtual co-presidency, Ruto is reported to have focused on appointing only his Kalenjin kinsmen to state office, apart from a symbolic negligible inclusion of overzealous surrogates from other tribes. They included the fallen former Youth and Sports minister Rashid Echesa, Majority Leader in the National Assembly Aden Duale, and Majority Whip Benjamin Washiali. The rest was for Uhuru to wrestle with. Ruto made it clear that he did not want to know how the president sorted out the constitutional matter of the face of Kenya in his government. 

Add to that the fact that Ruto was being fingered in almost every corruption scheme in government, regardless that it was true or not. Add on his sometimes gauche public celebration of his rise from grass to grace, such that “a hustler who once sold chickens on the roadside and went to school without shoes was now dining with the son of the first president.” Add to it, too, that Ruto was claimed to disparage the president within the penetralia of his kinsmen in the Rift Valley, saying things like he was the one running the government, owing to alleged dissipation in State House.  

You have a near complete picture of the fallout, perhaps with the exception of details on how Ruto mounted a leadership coup in the Mt Kenya region. During the 2017 election, he is said to have orchestrated the defeat of most senior Mt Kenya politicians in the Jubilee party primaries and replaced them with loyal youthful greenhorns.

Uhuru was left a Mt Kenya king without a crown and a throne, a commander without an army. He has been seen as weak on his own home turf, where he has lost by-elections even in his own home county of Kiambu. And Ruto’s acolytes fan the fires of animosity when they gloat over Uhuru’s diminished influence in his own home base.  

Such is the rain that has beaten Ruto and Uhuru. It speaks of personality issues that can be reduced to Ruto’s perceived overbearing character, a tactless berating of pioneer families that he calls dynasties and the perception that he whips up sentiment against them.

It also speaks of perceptions about graft, failure to cultivate a pleasant personality and of scornfulness towards what he sees as the cloistered foibles of the big man. And so the stage is set for the royal battle. 

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