DP Ruto: Rise of 'system boy' who has never been far from State power

Then KTB Chairman Uhuru Kenyatta chats with Eldoret North MP William Ruto during a peace meeting in Molo, Nakuru in July 2000 [File]

After a blistering four-year campaign across the country, Deputy President William Samoei Ruto, yesterday, formally kicked off his journey towards becoming Kenya’s fifth President.

It is a distinctive journey never travelled by a principal assistant of a President in Kenya’s history. Ideally, Ruto becomes the first sitting second-in-command to mount a presidential campaign to succeed his boss, not to mention the first non-native politician to seemingly capture the imagination of residents of the populous Mt Kenya region. 

Historian, Prof Macharia Munene, singles out Ruto as the President’s principal assistant who – in Kenya’s history – has so far nursed “serious ambition” and staged a “most powerful, well oiled and sustained” campaigns for presidency.

“He is not just the first serving deputy (or vice) president to attempt replacing his boss, but the most serious candidate. And this precisely explains why his candidature has generated excitement amongst his supporters, rivals as well as government,” observes Prof Munene, who teaches at the United States International University (USIU-Kenya).

Besides Ruto, the other principal assistants to the President who showed interest in the top job include Daniel arap Moi, who ascended to the throne peacefully without a national poll after his boss passed on in August 1978. Mwai Kibaki, eventually got elected but after faulty starts – twice he ran and succeeded on his third attempt. President Uhuru Kenyatta on his part did not serve as Vice president. An equally ambitious Josephat Karanja, on the other hand, was frustrated by Moi’s handlers forcing him to resign midway. The first VP Jaramogi Oginga Odinga attempted 26 years later after exiting from office, while Prof George Saitoti and Michael Kijana passed on before officially launching their bids. 

On the other hand second VP Joseph Murumbi, who exited just after nine months, exhibited no interest in politics till his death in 1990. Moody Awori, who replaced Wamalwa, has similarly not demonstrated interest in the top seat since his ouster as Funyula MP in 2007, while the 7th and 10th VPs, Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka, who have each vied once, continue to nurse presidential ambitions.  In the event that Ruto clinches the top seat, he would have scored several firsts. Former Cabinet minister Prof Amukowa Anangwe views his leadership as a reincarnation of President Moi, meaning he is populist, with people-oriented and pro-poor policies as signified by his hustler ideology and bottom-up economic model.

“He is a hands-on-politician, who wants to take full charge of the situation or what happens around him. He is also a more accessible leader who continuously endears himself to the people of all cadres and at all levels,” says Prof Anangwe, a political analyst.

Ex Jubilee Vice Chairman, David Murathe, has however claimed that one cannot become President on first attempt – except of course pioneer Head of State Jomo Kenyatta and his VP Moi, who succeeded him in 1978. Murathe observes that the Kenyan experience shows that one must first become an opposition leader – like Moi (Kadu), Mwai Kibaki (Democratic Party) and Uhuru (Kanu), to ascend to power. While Murathe’s markers are not scientific, the bottom line of his teasers is that presidential contests are very competitive to the extent that one cannot register victory on first attempt or without vast legislative experience.

Ruto has mostly been a “System’s boy”, aligning himself with the powers that be. And except for a short stint in the Opposition following the 2002 poll debacle – the former Eldoret North MP is on record stating that “we still believed that Mzee Nyayo (Moi) would pull some magical trick to overturn the results in favour of the Uhuru team”. 

Besides engaging in business ventures, like the sale of chicken, during school holidays and in college, Ruto never actually secured formal employment. Straight from the University of Nairobi, where he studied, Ruto was engaged in political activities, his first stop being at the Kanu party headquarters, Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), where he was seconded to the Director of Women and Youth Affairs, Prof Julia Ojiambo.

Yk 1992 officials Cyrus Jirongo and William Ruto at Serena Hotel in July 1997 [File]

Then in his mid 20s, Ruto ran errands for the party and Prof Ojiambo, before teaming up with Cyrus Jirongo in a new outfit, Youth For Kanu 1992, or simply YK92. Led by Jirongo, now Chairman of the United Democratic Party (UDP), YK92 was lobby group which successfully spearheaded campaigns among youths for Moi’s re-election in 1992. Reached out for comment yesterday, Prof Ojiambo, who is presently the Chairperson of the University of Nairobi Council, declined to react to Ruto’s big day and his past history: “It is true he briefly worked under me but I do not want to be drawn into political discourse about the Deputy President. He is now a big man and let us allow him to freely chart his new path and political dream,” she responded. 

A big man, Ruto truly is, Over the time he has become influential and super campaigner, whose “hustler nation” mantra has gripped all corners of the country. Actually it is Prof Mutahi Ngunyi who initially suggested that DP Ruto had a good opportunity of succeeding his boss through fashioning himself as a hustler. Noting that Ruto’s probable poll challengers were scions of some of Kenya’s political heavyweights, the political scientist proposed the Hustler vs Dynasty approach for the DP.

And before the ink could dry on Mutahi’s plot, Ruto ran away with the strategy and today it is the biggest source of Uhuru – and now Raila’s – political headache. Today, though, the political scientist has since changed tune by suggesting that unlike Raila, who is reaching out to the vote-rich Mt Kenya region through its gate keepers, including President Kenyatta, Ruto’s approach will fall flat because of trying to woo the locals directly and discretely.

This has all along been Ruto’s style, which is that he grabs the power by himself instead of waiting for it to be given to him. Those he has understudied like the late President Moi and former Prime Minister Raila, will recall vividly how he turned the “Kalenjin nation” in his favour overnight. Uhuru may well be experiencing the same in his own Mt Kenya backyard at the moment. This is further reflected in his campaigns mode whereby he initially hinted that he would not accommodate other players joining UDA with their parties, “because this is tantamount to promoting tribal chiefs with their tribal parties”.

Ideally, Ruto wanted those joining him to fold their parties first – a move that was a turn off to allies like former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri and Gatundu South MP, Moses Kuria. This strategy has since collapsed owing to the realities of Kenyan politics, paving way for the teaming up with Musalia Mudavadi of Amani National Congress (ANC) and his Ford-Kenya counterpart, Moses Wetangula. In the meantime, the excitement of most residents of Mt Kenya region in the Ruto candidature continues to confuse many. And despite President Uhuru’s public appeal and consultative sessions at the Sagana Hotel in Nyeri County, coupled with a listing of many development projects skewed in favour of “my people”, the love for Ruto is not diminishing as fast as anticipated by Uhuru’s handlers. 

This trend provoked Prof Mutahi into posing a question – through a tweet – whether or not the crowds in the region were genuine about their support for the DP. He was reacting to Ruto’s well-attended rally in Thika town on Sunday, where the DP unleashed veiled attacks at Uhuru: “Question: Is it remotely possible for Raila to go to Kericho, abuse Ruto and Kalenjins cheer him wildly? And can Ruto abuse Raila in Kisumu with Luos cheering? Ruto just did that in Uhuru’s backyard and Kikuyus cheered him on. Either they have lost it or they are setting him up”.

Noting that Ruto’s is a national movement that cuts across all Kenyan communities, Prof Munene equally wonders how the DP has succeeded to become a political magnet. According to him, it is this notion of “countrywide acceptance” that has given Ruto the courage to say unsavory things about the President, for instance, in his own backyard.

“He has similarly attacked Kalonzo at rallies in Ukambani region, but not necessarily in the same tough tone, and recently unleashed personalised attacks at governor Kiraitu Murungi of Meru in his backyard as locals cheered on,” says Prof Munene.

It is perhaps this kind of confidence that continues attracting defections towards Ruto. Pundits, however, attribute the defections and alignments to Ruto’s party and coalition in Mt Kenya region to the fact that he is presently the presidential frontrunner countrywide. Most pollsters have over the last two months posted his ratings in the region at between 60-70 per cent. While this might slightly change ahead of the August poll in favour of his closest challenger – Raila – the DP is likely to enjoy support of the majority to the last day. Even as Raila chips way substantial numbers from the region to boost his national tally, it is this superiority of numbers locally that most aspirants want to ride on.