The paths between political arch rivals – Deputy President William Ruto and Opposition leader Raila Odinga – are narrowing every day, with every indication that they may play the same side in the impending referendum campaigns.
Ruto, a ruthlessly ambitious politician with a penchant for smelling the moments, has stubbornly stuck to the consensus mantra, holding on to it even after the BBI “reggae” train piloted by Raila and President Uhuru Kenyatta left the station on Wednesday.
It was an event he was not invited to, given his propensity to turn the tables, but one he has come to terms with. Unwanted, but unrelenting, Ruto has in a record matter of weeks, transformed from BBI’s harshest critic and opponent to a lukewarm supporter.
“I have a constitutional duty to assist my boss, the President. We have made improvements to BBI post-Bomas. Now working on consensus for Kenyans to have real choices to decide/vote while avoiding yes/no, all/nothing division. We avoided lose-lose, we can overcome win-lose to achieve win-win,” Ruto tweeted yesterday.
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He was reacting to reportage of his Friday turn-around that shocked his constituency, with many saying he had abandoned them.
“Rush not to conclusions or pretense to prophecy. I’ve received overwhelming feedback from Kenyans. Ahsante. The fury of political merchants desperate to en-cash (Like they did COVID19) a divisive referendum is shockingly evident. Possibility of consensus is their nightmare,” he added.
The natural course of events would be a big banquet to welcome Ruto into the BBI train. But Raila’s troops are not that keen to embrace him, and are throwing every manner of snide remarks to reinforce the truth that he’s unwanted.
“Boss the signature collection is on... when are you signing since your boss the President signed on Wednesday. Story zingine ya yes/no and yes/yes baadaye,” BBI Secretariat Co-chair Junet Mohamed reacted to Ruto’s tweet yesterday afternoon.
The two – Raila and Ruto – have a history. A history that, depending on who you ask, either delivered a victory for then opposition or came a close second to former President Mwai Kibaki. The fallout from that partnership that lasted barely two years into a shared government with President Kibaki, was messy.
Barely two years after the 2008 power-sharing deal between Raila and Kibaki, Ruto soon found himself ostracised from the centre of power, suspended on Valentine’s Day by the man he had helped claim his stake in the government.
A combination of unforeseen events that included corruption scandals that rocked the government and what is believed to have been an unwillingness by Ruto to back a hastily crafted unity government formed the initial layers of a decade-long rivalry between the two politicians.
Reading the mood
But, as was the case in the run-up to the 2007 and again in the 2012 elections, Ruto, a politician gifted at reading the mood of the electorate, might just have done it again.
As he did in 2007 by aligning himself with Raila and in 2013 by being at the forefront of a Kenyatta presidency, Ruto might have once again read the mood and decided to be on the winning team and once again warm himself into the centre of the succession conversation.
Another uncanny feature of their history is that their joint fate has always been decided by referendums. In 2005, they were united by Banana versus Orange referendum politics, riding on its crest to affirm their place at the high table of Kenyan politics.
In 2010, they parted ways, with Ruto opting to milk political capital out of the Green versus Red referendum campaign by opposing it. Ruto had played the biggest role in Naivasha constitutional talks, forcing tough bargains, striking consensus and exacting support, only to cross the other side to oppose it.
And now, the BBI referendum campaigns are presenting yet another opportunity to define their political fate.
In a somewhat similar narrative to 2010, Ruto has spent considerable time bashing BBI, only to turn around in support.
“Are you telling us that the creation of FIVE lofty positions for the mighty by BBI is more urgent than the implementation of the Housing Programme that would create 2.5 million jobs for ordinary Kenyans! Really?? Hata kama ni madharau JAMENI! Tho!” he tweeted on September 26.
Ruto and legislators aligned to him had on previous occasions rubbished calls for consensus around the BBI initiative, pushing for a referendum and vowing to defeat the proposals to amend the Constitution at all costs.
To the DP and his supporters, the BBI was dead on arrival. However, the complete reversal from this position began on Friday, when he claimed victory in his social media handles, saying the concerns he had over the now heavily politicised process had been addressed.
“New article 11A in the BBI Constitution BIll introduced after Bomas will anchor the ordinary people’s Hustler economics of wheelbarrow, boda boda, mama mboga, pastoralists, butchers and guaranteed minimum returns on coffee, tea, korosho, sukari, maize,” he tweeted, alluding that concerns raised by pastoralists, agricultural and coastal communities had been addressed.
His pronouncements sparked debate on the possibilities of an Odinga-Ruto partnership in the run-up to the next General Election and whether the two former political bedfellows can find a common path again, with the backdrop of the succession politics hanging over Uhuru’s last term.
“It would have been easy to wish him away if he were on the opposite side,” political commentator Edward Kisiangani says. “What do you do with Ruto if he refuses to leave the room?”
For now though, Ruto’s turnaround ensures he remains in the middle of the BBI conversation, fighting his succession battle from within and making it harder for his opponents to strike a blow without inflicting damage on themselves.
The possibility of a Raila-Ruto pre-election pact remains a reality. A reality that might again be born out of a necessity that might reveal one of the most accurate statements in politics – that there are no permanent enemies in politics. No permanent friends. Only permanent interests.
Belgut MP Nelson Koech says Raila and his allies have been hoping that Ruto opposing the BBI could save him by creating a campaign network for 2022.
“He (Raila) is politically clutching on a straw, he believes that BBI will save his dwindling fortunes, he hopes that this could save him, he will be shocked,” said Koech.