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Ruto-Raila contest: Is their switch of style by political design or fate?

By Oscar Obonyo | October 3rd 2021

ODM party leader Raila Odinga and Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya addressing a rally at Bungoma bus terminus after attending the burial service of the late Mama Margaret Mutenyo Nandalwe at Rasha village in Sirisia, Bungoma county on October 2, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa,Standard]

An observer on the Kenyan political scene who has been away for the last four years, and who has not been following the political developments, would be excused for confusing Deputy President William Ruto for ODM leader Raila Odinga and vice-versa, with specific regard to their clout in government and approach to next year’s General Election.

Within a short period, the two have fallen out of character. Perhaps the only consistent thing is the “Rs” is their political aggressiveness, astuteness and influence.  

In an apparent swap of strategies, Deputy President William Ruto seems to be living up to the design of his bottom-up economic model, even in mobilising for votes. Raila, on the other hand, is embracing a top-down approach. Fashioned as “partnerships”, the former premier is seeking to marshall votes nationally by knocking at the doors of regional political kingpins, while the DP’s “hustler nation” train is directly targeting those lower down the ladder.

That Ruto, a pro-establishment politician since 1997, is now pushing the “people’s agenda” and ODM leader Raila Odinga, a crusader and defender of the rights of the masses for decades, is putting in a word for the government of the day makes next year’s poll an interesting battle.    

Quoting Raila’s reaction to the 2017 poll loss, Prof Amukowa Anangwe says the then National Super Alliance (NASA) presidential candidate solely blamed “the system”, or rather an orchestrated plot by the state machinery to rig him out.

Dismissing the August 8, 2017 poll outcome as a fraud, the former prime minister claimed that rigging had taken place in other ballots, besides the presidential one, “aimed at creating a false impression” that the president’s party had similarly won several seats in the Senate and National Assembly.

And the ODM leader went ahead to christen the alleged rigged-in parliamentarians as vifaranga vya kompyuta, in reference to what he claimed were computer-generated results.  

“Because he believes he lost the poll unfairly owing to the so-called system, Raila has now resolved to embrace that very system or the senior authorities in government.’’ This according to Anangwe, a political scientist, is in the hope that it will yield a different result.

On the flipside, Anangwe’s reading of Ruto is that he has embraced the grassroots mobilisation route, not out of choice but conditions, after falling out with the powers that be. “Having been a beneficiary of the system, which catapulted him to power in 2013 and 2017 under controversial circumstances, he had to reinvent himself as the new defender of the people’s interests,” he says.

In Anangwe’s perception, Ruto and Raila are like individuals who have been compelled to ‘swap wives’ to match the new ideological approach that they have embraced. Whether this works for them is another ball game dependent on a host of factors, including activities and decisions of other political players like President Uhuru Kenyatta, Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi (ANC) as well as Kanu chairman and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi.

Powerful individual

The one man who has worked closely with the two, Mr Johnstone Muthama, argues that Ruto is projecting himself as the Raila of yesteryears while Raila’s approach paints him as a powerful individual Kenyans were accustomed to during Ruto’s heydays in power under former President Daniel arap Moi and during the first term of Uhuru’s presidency. 

“They seem to have exchanged pairs of shoes. It is also why Raila opted to work with me and why Ruto found me a suitable ally when Raila went for his Handshake partner, Uhuru,” says the former Machakos senator and former member of Raila’s campaign steering committee. Today, Muthama is the chairman of the United Democratic Alliance, which is associated with Ruto.

National Assembly’s Minority Whip Junet Mohamed, however, differs. “Ruto is the so-called Deep State himself. I mean he sits in the National Security Council and has access to all crucial intelligence reports as well as security planning plots,” says the Raila confidant.

“How can you purport to protect the people against the danger and excesses of very self? Ruto is the country’s deputy president. If he has not been able to change the lives of the people, then he must stop telling them that change is on the way.”

According to the Suna East MP, Raila remains the people’s defender, only that today, as a statesman with even bigger responsibilities on the continent as high representative for infrastructure development in Africa, he has changed his approach. 

According to the UDA chairman, Ruto simply exploited the vacuum that had been left by Raila, as his Wiper Party leader Kalonzo and counterparts, Musalia Mudavadi (ANC) and Moses Wetang’ula (Ford-Kenya) had allegedly failed.

Prof Luke Odiemo, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi, attributes the apparent swap to biological age and political experience. He notes that Raila’s quest for the presidency has been bedevilled by his militancy against the government of the day and flirtation with  Communism when he was younger.

“And this is because the so-called system behaves like a family and it fights back if you expose a country’s dirty linen to the international community,” he argues.

Ruto has had to occupy the space left by Raila “and he is making good of the same because the hardships in the country have lately peaked” and the DP seems to be the only available ‘Messiah’.

In a way, according to Prof Odiemo, the swap is only natural and understandable: “Pushing for radical change requires a relatively younger man, while stabilising a country whose economy and systems appear broken appeals more to an elderly politician.”

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