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Inauguration: How speechwriter nearly ruined Ruto's big day

President William Ruto addresses the nation after his inauguration at Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi. [PSCU]

Far from sounding like another campaign pitch, the speech by the 5th President William Ruto grated from the choice of phrases, words and paragraphs that got cut off abruptly before concluding on an argument being advanced.

The personal touch was manifestly lacking in the speech unlike at the launch of his manifesto where it seemed enough thought went into writing the speech.

Also remarkable was that the author of the speech did not ensure that he gets into the text words that his subject would enunciate well (with proper intonation and pause) to enhance message delivery. A lot of the words got lost as the new President tried to pronounce them.

Because it lacked the defining personal touch, the speech failed to capture the moment- a moment inspired by his improbable rise to President. The was nothing much to hang on to or anything to rouse the hustlers and the downtrodden into self-belief.

“I know that life can be a struggle… the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but yours,” said former UK Prime Minister Theresa May when she took over the office in 2016.

President Ruto did not strike a different note and therefore lost an opportunity to reawaken hope and belief in the poor folk.

By rehashing, his sounded like a rewritten speech from his predecessor, yet this was to be a new beginning. Is his a continuation of the Jubilee administration. Wasn’t this supposed to be a new beginning?

Matters weren’t made any better by the President’s decision to read from an iPad and not from the ubiquitous ivory-coloured official papers we are used to.

An inauguration speech carries with it the power of new beginnings and affords a leader a chance to inspire and rally his followers (and non-followers) around his beliefs and philosophy of leadership.

Considering the moment - a moment only comparable to when President Mwai Kibaki became President on December 30, 2002 - President Ruto’s speechwriter disappointed by not using words to colour and capture the mood of the moment; a day when the Hustler Nation was enthroned.

Compare this with these words from President Kibaki's speech: “You have asked me to lead this nation out of the present wilderness and malaise onto the promised land. And I shall. I shall offer responsive, transparent and innovative leadership. I am willing to put everything I have got into this job because I regard it as a sacred duty.”

The Hustler Nation narrative evokes cause and effect; the hope of a better tomorrow; reward from struggle; a willingness to get things done, and a struggle to climb up the ladder no matter the circumstance.

After running a consequential campaign where he is credited with injecting issues into the political discourse, it was disappointing to listen to what might go down as a drab speech.

Where did the charisma and the excellent grasp of idiom we saw in the campaigns?

The speech didn’t address the worries and fears of the many millions who feel hard done by a political system that rewards incumbency; those who will go to bed hungry, millions of unemployed Kenyans looked forward to a speech that would assure them that help is on the way.

Markedly, the word hustler, on which his campaign was anchored, is mentioned only twice in the 4,063-word speech.

Additionally, the role of the heroes in the fight for independence – Freedom Fighters- is mentioned in passing.

There was no mention of unity in the true sense of the word. Consider that unity is a vexatious issue in Kenya as is in the rest of the world. Even the much discredited President Donald Trump spoke about it.

“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” said President Trump at his inauguration in 2016.

President William Ruto (left) at Kasarani Stadium during his inauguration as the 5th President of Kenya on September 13, 2022. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Notice there were no specifics on things that touch on the President’s Hustler Nation base, nor did he beckon on the middle/working class who bear the brunt of the bad policies of the Jubilee administration with an eroded purchasing power.

Appointing the six judges, establishing the autonomy of the police, and serenading IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati and IEBC team plus the Judiciary was nothing much than pushback against the malevolent forces in the deep/shallow state.

A promise to relook at the Competency-Based Curriculum was nothing more than a dig at one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous policies.

“My fellow Kenyans, I will strive to lead you to create a country you can be proud of again. Let us join hands and remain united for the sake of our country.” President Kibaki concluded his speech.

Meanwhile, critical constituencies that would play a role in turning around the economic fortunes of the country like the private sector (the biggest contributor to the GDP) did not get any mention. The chief role of any government is to create jobs and create an environment where private sector players can play their role in creating wealth and jobs. Was it an oversight to leave it out of his speech?

A wary private sector hedging its bets will no doubt undermine revenue growth and imperil economic growth.

Hopefully, these were oversights of an ill-prepared speechwriter rather than the real intention of the 5th. But poor speechwriters ought not to be allowed to ruin a president’s big day.

I critique not out of malice. I appreciate the challenge public speaking carries. I believe that in the future leaders use speech to speak about what matters to us.

An inauguration speech is not an ordinary speech. Because it is a statement of intent, it carries so much weight. Take the fuel subsidy, for example, President Ruto introduced it and then left it hanging without a resolution. For a man known for his resoluteness, this did not auger well. 

Make no mistake, it is not so much the lack of substance as much as style. In public speaking, delivery is half the job. 

Raila Odinga, Dr Ruto’s main opponent in the last election, was for the most time a darling of the crowd with his analogies that were heavy with African sayings and parables. But his critics weren’t amused. The observation is that they often petered off into clichés that hardly communicated intent.

Besides that, he was prone to give dates and numbers something that students of realpolitik say is fraught with great risks. 

Yet William Ruto is a great orator, off-script. The audience listens with rapt attention to his unwritten speeches because they come from the heart. It would seem as though the written speech doesn’t work well for him. There are people like those. They need notes/talking points and that is it. 

His performance (reading scribbled notes) at the Bomas during the launch of the BBI- before a hostile crowd- was a master class.

Former President Bill Clinton once observed: “Don’t forget: communication is 50% of the battle in the information age… say it once, say it twice and keep on saying it and when you’ve finished you’ll know you haven’t said it enough.”

Good speeches transport our imaginations and put fire in the belly. They create momentary ecstasy. Great speakers use the power of words to rouse their audience to action.

Chief Justice Martha Koome (left) hands over a certificate of inauguration to President William Ruto during his inauguration at Kasarani. [George Njunge, Standard]

Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister animated his audiences with his bravura performance on the stage. 

Even he (Mr Blair) struggled at first. In his book, A Journey: My Political Life, he writes about watching and listening to one of Labour Party grandees Tony Benn deliver a spell-binding speech. That was the days before he contested to be leader of the Labour Party. 

I sat enraptured, absolutely captivated and inspired. I thought; if I could speak like that. What impressed me was not so much the content- I didn’t agree with a lot of it- but the power of it, the ability to use words to move people, not simply to persuade but to propel. For days, weeks afterwards, I sat going over it in my mind. 

Probably for him, this was one of half a dozen he did that week and was nothing special, but for me it was a revelation.

What worked for Mr Benn? 

According to Mr Blair, “First, there was his utter confidence. From the outside, the audience was relaxed and able to listen, because they knew the speaker was in control. When he began… the presence of self-belief. He held them, easily and naturally.

Second, he used humour. If someone can make you laugh, you are already in their power.

Third, there was an argument. Fourth, the argument was built not plonked down… all the words were connected, the purpose was made plain and the argument was out there and you thought only the willfully obdurate could not see its force and agree with it.”

It would seem that Mr Blair is a good student. He took the lessons and applied them in his later speeches to great effect. 

The art of persuasion is cultivated and patiently honed.

“We can never be the biggest. We may never again be the mightiest. But we can be the best,” said Tony Blair in 1996 when he took over the leadership of the Labour Party and consequently Prime Minister. Commentators hailed the speech as a “historic statement of intent.”

Martin Luther King Junior’s I have a dream speech is as fresh today as it was when it was delivered almost 60 years.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Barack Obama was derided as “a president who could only deliver good speeches and no action” when it seemed as though he was taking so long to fix things following the 2008/09 financial crisis. The right-wing media portrayed him as all talk and charisma and no substance.

Yet he had captured the imagination of many Americans with his oratory skills. His speeches were pointed and lifted and carried the spirits of Americans and gave them the audacity of hope. 

He deployed to great effect the rhetorical device- the tricolon: a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses- the same was used by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech in 1961. 

In his acceptance speech on election night on November 4, 2008, he said: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there… this victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.”

President William Ruto takes the oath of office during his inauguration at Kasarani, Nairobi, on September 13, 2022. Right, his wife Rachel Ruto. [File, Standard]

“I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you.”

Speaking about his improbable rise to the US presidency he says with self-deprecation: 

I was never the likeliest of the candidate for this office.”

A good speaker connects with their audience.

While pushing for the BBI Constitutional Amendment, President Kenyatta’s speeches were some of the most memorable because of the way the sentences were weaved together to beseech and convince the naysayers.

 “Our Founding Fathers cautioned us that what was put on paper was the letter of the Constitution. It must never become more important than the spirit behind the Constitution… the spirit of the Constitution was justice. And that justice was also the spirit of God… when the spirit of justice behind our Constitution disagrees with the letter used to write it, the letter must be changed… Kenyans are not made to serve the Constitution. The Constitution is made to serve Kenyans,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta in his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech.

“A Constitution that elicits compliance by creating fear can only cause disturbance to the soul of the nation,” he added.

 “You all know that in a constitutional moment, the soul of the nation is constantly in turmoil over elections and the perpetual quest for regime change,” he said in his New Year 2021 address.

Reacting to the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Dr Ruto’s win, President Kenyatta (visibly hurting) once again chose memorable words and phrases:

“I urge citizens to constantly put them (institutions) under scrutiny… This civic duty requires every citizen to constantly put the truth presented by our constitutional institutions to the test and they must test them for coherence but also for correspondence.

They must scrutinize the coherence and ask themselves whether the truth has been coherent from one election to another. Has there been a consistent pattern that is acceptable to our democratic ethos? We must ask ourselves: is it about numbers? Or is it about the process? Which of these is it?” 

In the Bible, Isaiah draws pictures using words when he describes the paradise and tranquillity and restoration that follows Israel’s destruction in one of the most enthralling imagery in the Bible. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and yearling together (Isaiah 11.6).

Most speechwriters deploy contrast to paint pictures, create effect and cause emotion.

Some of the memory verses are in the book of Ecclesiastes which uses contrast to great effect: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. 

- Mr Kipkemboi is the Partnerships and Special Projects