Raila, Ruto are front runners but must shake off all negative perceptions

Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga during the funeral service of former Finance Minister Simeon Nyachae at Gusii Stadium in Kisii County on February 15, 2021. [ DPPS, Standard]

With just 296 days left to August 9, 2022 when Kenya elects its fifth president, the optics are that the race is narrowing down to ODM leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto. Whether it is by design or default, the political fraternity in the country has performed to a script that has made the two the undisputed leaders in the cast. Political barbs and daggers ominously aimed at them, even when they come from the One Kenya Alliance (OKA). 

The actors in this drama can stop almost anything, except time. In the remaining 296 days, Raila and Ruto will need to throw everything into the fight. Each knows that if he does not become Kenya’s president next year, the other one will most likely be. What must they do to ensure that they romp home to victory? 

Already, the campaigns are on, regardless of any admission of the fact on their part, or by anybody else. So high are the stakes that presidential bans on political activity, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, have been observed more in breach. Exuberant and massive crowds have thronged Raila’s and Ruto’s rallies everywhere they go.

A visitor to Kenya would imagine the elections are slated for next week. They have subjected the rest of the competition to a campaign attrition that is running them out of breath. Whether they face up to the facts or not, the rest of the political notables who have already declared their interest in Kenya’s highest office will have to swallow their phlegm and cast their sights lower. And those who are slow to swallow could very well discover there is nothing left to swallow. 

Both Raila and Ruto are likely to continue to subject their adversaries to campaign burnout, as the entry point. They will run them across the country until they run out of political campaign oxygen. They must be made to stumble and fall. Those who rise up must join either side, or perish. Already, Kakamega Governor, Wycliffe Oparanya, has seen the light. Oparanya has been first off the blocks. Having heard the sound of the gun in the split second ahead of everyone else, Oparanya has cautioned his Western Kenya compatriots that the race is now between Ruto and Raila.

If you are not with either of the two Rs, you will be consigned into oblivion, Oparanya said in a recorded audiovisual footage presently doing the rounds on social media. 

Oparanya was reacting to media reports that a leader’s meeting in the county last week endorsed Raila as the person to support for State House. The meeting was also reported to have endorsed COTU secretary general, Francis Atwoli, as the regional spokesperson. Accordingly, Atwoli is expected to rally the region behind Raila and to bargain, especially, for the Luhya people in a possible future Raila led government. Volleys of condemnation of the resolutions of meeting came swiftly, led by Team Musalia Mudavadi, and forcing Oparanya into a retreat. 

In the clip, Oparanya says, among other things, “Francis Atwoli was not made the spokesperson of the Western people, or the Luhya community. That information is wrong. We have given Atwoli the chance to coordinate all of us and then we can negotiate (with others). The issue of Atwoli being our spokesman is a lie. It is unlikely that Musalia will beat Raila in Western. We don’t want to disrespect any leader. But the facts are that there are only two main contenders. And we don’t want to be in the Opposition. We want to be part of the government that will be there next year.

“As a community, we don’t want to pretend. The meeting never said it is going to support Raila. They never said clearly that they are going to support Raila. But the qualities they pointed out point at Raila. But we want to negotiate with the two main contenders. As you know, there are two main contenders, William Ruto and Raila Odinga. As you know, I am the deputy party leader of ODM, I will definitely support Raila.”  

Oparanya adroitly sums up the mood of the moment. In a country whose political leadership shifts with the winds and the tides, Ruto and Raila must each give the optics that they are in control of the political winds in the country. You are either with Ruto, or with Raila. Anything else in between is a big gamble, barring the unknown hand of fate, the benevolent acts of angels of fortune, and the wicked deeds of the spirits of mischief.  

When they act together, these forces can change the course of things beyond recognition. Such possibilities cannot be ruled out of Kenya’s election next year. For now, however, the die appears to be cast. And it has fallen between Raila and Ruto.  

To secure their commanding positions all the way to a victorious finish, the two leaders will marshal electoral war chests full of propaganda, money, and faithful troops in a fickle and feckless electorate. They will secure strongholds, win fresh territory and manage collateral damage. They will take advantage of the ongoing voter registration process to muster big numbers in their strongholds. They will also seek to convert into voters the crowds that throng their public meetings. 

For Raila, one of his foremost concerns will be to persuade his historical detractors that they are safe with him. Even as the Mt Kenya Foundation and a section of the political class in the Mountain region make spirited efforts to position him as the man to beat, the poisonous fruit of the previous seed of fear remains.

Raila was marketed as a frightful figure. There is the apocryphal narrative that without his name on the ballot paper, there are those who would not vote. They previously came out to vote not because they loved Uhuru Kenyatta more and Raila less, but because they feared Raila more. He will want to address their fears and win them over so that they do not stay away, but turn out to vote for him.

The fears in the electorate, however, go beyond the mountain. Raila has the task of persuading the Kelenjin Rift Valley that he is not swapping them for Mt Kenya. If in the past the Mountain was afraid of him, he has to ensure that Rift Valley does not become the new centre of Raila-phobia. His campaign against Ruto must not look like a hate campaign.

If it does, Raila risks generating a wave of fear among the Kalenjin tribes. There is a saying that nothing mobilizes voters like fear. It is a tidal wave that Raila must avoid. He must manage the same sentiment in the country’s landed aristocracy and wealthy classes that previously feared for their estates under a possible Raila presidency. Beyond this, there is the urban petite bourgeoisie with its rental facilities. It has previously feared possible loss of rent, following the 2007 – 2013 experience. After the post-election violence of 2007/08 some landlords, especially in Nairobi North and Kibra, purported to have lost rents to Raila’s supporters. He must address their fears. 

In the face of all this, Raila must still make Ruto look bad. Indeed, he will want to make Ruto stink. The line has so far been to bedraggle him through the sewers of grand corruption. There is likely to be more of the same in the coming days. Ruto and all those around him will be made to look bad, as Raila casts Ruto as the veritable Lord of the Flies. Anybody around him must be seen as one of the flies, wallowing in the stench.

Raila knows that it takes long to fight off stench. He will probably want to take advantage, all the way, of Ruto’s apparent inability to fight off corruption allegations against him and sink him into it. Those who fight stench must, however, take care that some of it does not rub off on them. The slightest whiff of corruption around Raila, or Team Raila, could destroy that strategy beyond repair.

Then there is the question of vote catchment areas. Mt Kenya is the latest attraction for everyone. In the process, however, vital traditional vote baskets are getting left behind. It is not enough to visit them and tell the residents, ‘We are together.’ They will need to believe that their vote for Raila is worth something. If he is taking a running mate from the Mountain, he must show the rest of the country what is in it for them. The carrot of social protection of Sh 6,000 per month has been floated. It seems incredible, however, and such incredulity could generate doubt around every other promise. 

In a special way, Raila must continue to keep around him the regional giants who have walked with him and bring on board some new ones. He has ODM governors, senators and MPs who have rallied around him to secure. They have to see a future around him, and especially so the retiring governors. The rest of the ODM fraternity must believe that there will be free and fair party primaries. ODM has been notorious for mismanaging party primaries. 

Away from all this is the need to galvanise the strongholds, especially Luo Nyanza, to register as voters and to come out and vote. While this population is unapologetically dedicated to Raila, voter turnout has remained poor. It sometimes just manages to rise above 50 percent, with even poorer voter registrations. The numbers must swell in both respects.

On the other hand, Ruto’s foremost challenge is to shake off the Lord of the Flies tag that Raila has given him. Each one of his competitors uses ‘the war against corruption’ as the entry and exit points. Team Ruto has been lethargic about this agenda. It is almost as if they have accepted it as their weak link and are ready to live with it. That stench is bad and harmful. They must face it squarely and fight it off. Whether it is about declaration of wealth and how it has been sourced, or denial, or mounting their own anti-corruption campaigns about corruption among their adversaries, or none of these, Team Ruto must address the question of corruption. When your adversaries paint you in the colours of a thief, they open up a major credibility gap. The electorate must fear for public property under your watch.

But Team Ruto must not just demonstrate that they are not corrupt. They must take the war against corruption to the other camp. They will have to put the shoe on the other foot and wear out Team Raila and all its associates with fighting off the tag of corruption. In the process, Team Ruto will want to physically sap Raila out of energy. They will want to subject the ODM leader to a blitz of campaign rallies whose pace the ageing Raila will not sustain. In the process, Raila will possibly be made to look too old, tired, and out of tune with the times and irrelevant for the future. 

War of attrition is indeed the most potent weapon in Ruto’s lap. He must act and let Raila and his troops react all the time. But he must also act with speed and spice, and do so repeatedly that his nemesis cannot keep pace with him. Team Ruto will possibly provoke Raila so that he looks angry and vindictive. They will possibly want him to look like a perennial election loser, who is getting ready to reject another election result – and to force his way into government. 

Like Raila, Ruto must address the question of fear. The non-indigenes in Rift Valley need to be assured that they will be safe under his watch.

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