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William Ruto: Gifted leader who has stretched the limits

UDA presidential candidate William Ruto. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Deputy President William Ruto’s ambition for top leadership was first noticed in 2005 when he rallied Rift Valley residents in rejecting the Wako Draft proposed constitution.

Two groups led the campaign against the draft; one led by then Kanu chairman Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto, while the other team from LDP was led by Raila Odinga, Prof George Saitoti and Kalonzo Musyoka, among others.

It was during that campaign that Ruto endeared himself to the Kalenjin nation across Rift Valley, creating a strong ODM wave in the region.

Shortly after the Electoral Commission of Kenya (now IEBC) declared victory for the ‘No” side in 2005, Ruto was crowned a Kalenjin elder with thousands of supporters in attendance.

“Raila Odinga and Musalia Mudavadi attended that highly publicised function at the Eldoret Sports Club grounds where he was dressed in a Sambut to make him an elder,” says political analyst Martin Andati.

Observers said Ruto mobilised the elders to show he was the new kid on the block and also the defacto Kalenjin leader, usurping more senior leaders like former ministers Henry Kosgey and Nicholas Biwott. When Uhuru Kenyatta announced in 2007 that Kanu would not field a presidential candidate, Ruto had already technically decamped to ODM.

He made sure the community had its stake in the party when Kosgey was appointed ODM chairman as he bid his time in high profile campaigns across the country with Raila.

“Ruto became very popular in Nyanza and other parts of the country that supported Raila but it appeared his target was to be Vice President,” says constitutional law scholar Stanislus Murunga.

And so in 2007 as a member of the pentagon that included Raila, Musalia Mudavadi, Najib Balala and the late Joe Nyagah, he declared his candidature for president on the ODM ticket.

He, however, lost the nomination when he came third behind Raila and Mudavadi. Ruto appeared satisfied with the exercise, perhaps with hopes that he would have become Vice President should Raila have won.

When the grand coalition government was formed in 2008, Raila appointed him the Minister for Agriculture, a position he grudgingly accepted.

He made it known to his people that although they had expected something bigger, what they received was better than what he had in the Kanu government when he served as minister for barely three months.

His supporters protested that he should have been appointed deputy prime minister because of the larger number of votes Raila received from Ruto’s Kalenjin community but to their consternation, Mudavadi got the seat.

Shortly after, Raila decided to streamline the ODM party to fill positions that had been held on interim basis for elections purposes and that is when Ruto’s ambitions again came to the fore. Raila had to reluctantly create two positions of deputy party leader to accommodate Ruto and Mudavadi after the minister demanded the position, although the PM had openly shown his preference for the latter.

“It appeared Raila had seen that Ruto was very ambitious and that is why he tried to put him on the leash but failed to contain him, leading to his departure from ODM,” says Murunga.

Despite the fact that he was an ODM member, Ruto became belligerent as he created his own space in President Kibaki’s second term and became one of Raila’s biggest critics.

He championed the President’s agenda of distributing free fertilizer to farmers in Rift Valley and parts of the western region even after he had been moved to the Ministry of Higher Education making him more visible.

Opposed draft

In March 2010, Ruto again tried to test his popularity when he teamed up with the church to oppose the referendum that was being promoted by President Kibaki and Raila, Uhuru among others.

On April 11, 2010, a day after Raila toured Ruto’s Eldoret North constituency at the peak of their differences, Ruto declared that he was ready to face the Prime Minister in the 2013 presidential election.

“I am not afraid of anybody because he (Raila) is a man just like me. We will see each other at the ballot,” he said.

“Now that everybody knows that I am the leader of the ‘No’ campaign (on proposed constitution), people will want to know if I will change my stand. But I will campaign against the draft even if it means going it alone,” said Ruto.

He added that the outcome of the referendum would determine who between him and Raila was more popular.

Analysts have differed on why Ruto had decided to single-handedly take on the combined force of such an array of politicians.

Some argue that he wanted to build his profile, others say he still had an axe to grind with Raila while another group thinks he just wanted to test his popularity.

“He led the “No” campaign, galvanised the church around him and he used that chance to consolidate the Kalenjin vote around him,” says Andati.

He further argues that Ruto had big plans but because he didn’t want to do it through an election. He faulted the proposed constitution and got an opportunity to play high stakes politics.

Ruto’s side lost the referendum by garnering 32 per cent while Kibaki and Raila managed around 68 per cent to pass the 2010 Constitution which was promulgated that year. As time ticked towards the 2013 elections, Ruto quickly assembled a team led by former CS Charles Keter, former Speaker Francis ole Kaparo and Garissa Township MP Aden Duale among others to form the United Republican Party (URP).

It therefore came as no surprise when he again moved his Kalenjin troops to URP and announced he would contest for presidency.

Firm principles

Political analyst Philip Chebunet argues that Ruto knew his target long ago. Has says Ruto has always come out strongly to defend his principles and had been preparing to run for presidency since he joined Uhuru in 2012.

Andati argues that Ruto wanted to run for president in 2013 after he formed the URP party. “In 2013, he auctioned his support to Uhuru for a consideration of half of government and which in the process has allowed him to build enough muscle to run for presidency in 2022,” says Andati. 

Ruto’s ambition to be president emerged even more strongly when he began campaigning shortly after after they were re-elected in 2017.

But he appeared to have been more emboldened by the statement from Uhuru allies in the Mt Kenya region like Jubilee vice chairman David Murathe who openly told him to forget the Mt Kenya vote.

Ruto ignored caution from the president to stop the early campaigns and continued using his position in government to visit all areas across the country campaigning in the pretext of inspecting government projects.

Ruto’s campaign picked steam after the March 2018 handshake between Uhuru and Raila, when he began complaining he had been sidelined.

Top government functionaries have also taken over his duties, especially after Uhuru appointed CS Fred Matiang’i to carry out the functions of national coordination, a job that was in his docket. 

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