Ruto: Why winning the election was the easier bit for him

President William Ruto in prayer during a church service in Donholm, Nairobi, in August 2022. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

On one side was an indestructible wall of loyal supporters of enigmatic politician Raila Odinga and on the other, a swarming crowd of ‘hustlers’ behind then Deputy President William Ruto.

Two colossal forces were set to clash in the August 9 General Election, but the hysteria on the hustlers’ side arguably reached a crescendo in the months leading up to the showdown, and Dr Ruto ultimately tasted victory.

The year 2022 was arguably his best in politics, and may remain his best ever. And now buoyed by this triumph, powered by his vision and the support of millions of loyal hustlers, 2023 is his year to actualise his dreams of a new Kenya.

Although Ruto has triumphed against powerful forces to occupy State House, he has now a mountain to climb to surmount the challenges posed by the crippling drought, high debt levels, the ever rising cost of living.

Branding himself as an ordinary Kenyan, the son of an unknown man (a ‘nobody’), Ruto rallied behind him millions of Kenyans who were convinced he was one of them; he was like them - a hustler. It has not been easy for him to generate that euphoria.

Born on December 21, 1966, Ruto was first elected to Parliament in 1997, representing Eldoret North constituency. He served as minister for Agriculture from 2008 to 2010 and Minister for Higher Education from April to October 2010.

The political firebrand, often labelled one of the most intelligent in the political game in the Kenyan arena, has a history of winning. He has never lost in an election since he joined elective politics. As such, the elections pitting him against the timeless Raila was a test of a longstanding theory, that the self-declared Chief Hustler never crossed paths with defeat.

The 2013 ascendancy to the seat of Deputy President, Kenya’s first under the 2010 Constitution, could have been, for many, the ultimate achievement. He was not going to be the first principal assistant to the president to gun for the top seat, though. Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s second and third presidents respectively, had served as Vice Presidents prior to assuming the top seat. Their journey had been, however, quite different from Ruto’s.

Moi assumed the presidency in 1978 after founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died in office. After 24 years in power, he retired as Kibaki rode to power in 2002. However, Kibaki’s victory came after successive losses in previous polls.

Ruto ran on a Jubilee ticket with Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 and albeit burdened with debilitating charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in the 2007/08 post-election violence, his ticket won, beating Raila’s, who was on a joint ticket with Kalonzo Musyoka of Wiper Party. It was Raila’s third stab at the top seat.  

A story of an Uhuru-Ruto bromance, accentuated by their matching apparel (red ties, white shirts), defined the first term of the Jubilee regime. The two inseparable principals, man and his deputy, would painfully fall out in March 2018 when President Kenyatta met and struck a political truce with his then key opponent and the leader of opposition Raila.

Suddenly, the bonds had been shattered and Ruto was out in the cold. “The handshake was formed to kill the role of oversighting the government, we didn’t discuss that members of the ruling party would be jettisoned so that members of the opposition can occupy committees in parliament,” the President recently told the Voice of America (VoA).

Man for the job

Somewhat banished from the inner sanctums of power, Ruto seized the moment and rode the storm. He was being punished because he was the son of a nobody, his supporters said. The dynasties were out to neutralise him because they wanted Kenya to remain in their stranglehold, it was said. Having come from nothing, he was the man for the job; he understood the plight of the ordinary mwananchi.

Ruto purported that government operatives were hell-bent on ruining his chances of reaching the top seat.

“I just want to tell them: ‘We’re waiting for you’. This system, this deep state we are being told about, we are waiting for it,” he said in a rally in 2020. “They’ll come with the system, but we will be there with the people and God and see who wins.”

Ruto and his wife Rachel depicted the image of a deeply religious couple and the masses were entranced. Church service after church service endeared the man to the electorate, who was viewed by many as the government’s scapegoat, and his support burgeoned.

But perhaps his ingenious card was, alongside expertly having his political detractors fall into their own trap by embracing victimhood, wooing President Kenyatta’s Mount Kenya backyard.

Here, a community defied their son. Despite Kenyatta’s concerted efforts to have the voters in his home region vote for his preferred successor Raila, Ruto’s appeal grew by the day. It was the hustler narrative properly at work.

Ruto pointed out how he had humble beginnings, where he sold chicken by the roadside along the Nairobi-Eldoret-Malaba highway. On the contrary, his two rivals were the sons of a president and a vice president, royalty, and did not relate with the common man.

A wheelbarrow soon became his party’s emblem. This to show that every small job was valuable and that was what drove the country’s economy. The party, United Democratic Alliance (UDA), was founded in December 2020 but months later produced winning candidates in several by-elections, announcing itself to the national stage with such swagger.

Facing a ‘deep-state’ described as indefatigable, with a sitting president solidly behind his competitor, Ruto had all the odds against him. Opinion polls in months leading up to the elections showed that he was losing ground in his strongholds. At some point, conquering Mt Kenya, which is a vote-rich region, seemed the two candidates’ leading agenda.

“Baba (Mr Odinga) is climbing the mountain, he is expected at Lenana peak by the end of February,” a blogger wrote in 2020 after a Raila rally in Central Kenya. It was not to be.

When the polls finally came, Ruto had garnered 7,176, 141 (50.49 per cent), securing the constitutionally required 50 per cent plus one to win the presidency in the first round. He also took at least 25 per cent of the votes in 39 counties, a good 15 more than the 24 counties required by the constitution.

Although the results were disputed, ironically even before the announcement in a major standoff at the Bomas of Kenya and then in the Supreme Court, Ruto’s win was upheld and he was sworn in on September 13 to a rapturous applause from hustlers gathered at the Kasarani stadium.

A roller coaster of emotions outlined the importance of these moments to him. In a Karen prayer service just over a week to the elections, he broke down in a cacophony of emotions.

“The punishment given to good people who do not vote is to be led by fools. Good people like us who are sitting here, if you do not show up to vote you should not complain when the wrong people are voted in,” he told the congregation.

When the Supreme Court announced their verdict upholding his election, he fell onto his knees with tears of joy. It was testament to the relief of a man who had been on the brink of collapse and to whom life had been restored.

Immediately after getting into office, he swore in Court of Appeal judges who  Kenyatta had for long declined to. He also snapped a ten year ban on importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in part to address a food security problem in the country.

Ruto also scrapped subsidies on fuel, which he termed unsustainable, as the government vowed to subsidise production and not consumption. He promised maize flour prices would come down within a year of his reign.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the CoP27 shortly after being sworn in, he spoke about Kenya’s commitment to end poverty and drought, and to contribute to better climate policies.

But Ruto was lambasted for writing to Speakers of the National Assembly and Senate to consider the introduction of a constitutional amendment Bill to set up the office of the official opposition leader, with opponents accusing him of resurrecting the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) reforms, which he had vehemently opposed. He has also spoken about the government’s plans to sell a controlling stake in national carrier Kenya Airways, which has been registering losses for a decade.

President Ruto introduced the Hustler Fund, where Kenyans can borrow on their phones from a kitty of Sh50 billion. By December 27, a total of Sh11.3 billion had been disbursed, with 37 per cent of the money repaid.

With inflation roaring at 9.48 per cent and the rate of unemployment still high, and with about 4.5 million Kenyans still facing hunger, the President will be the man to watch in 2023 as he embarks on keeping his campaign pledges and steering the ship out of troubled waters.

How he handles the opposition, after he said he would never go for a ‘handshake’, will be crucial as he seeks to establish control and have Bills passed with ease.