Ruto's 'drip drip' of State secrets keeps his challengers off-balance

President William Ruto speaks during his interview last week with journalists at State House, Nairobi. [PCS]

President William Ruto’s griping about, and raging against, the previous administration in his interview last week with journalists from carefully selected media organisations achieved one key thing: It tarred the Raila-led opposition with the same brush of the former administration. The president depicted both as partners in human rights abuses.

Ruto’s message to the public was: The Handshake–Raila’s bromance with former President Uhuru Kenyatta between March 2018 and August 2022–was an unholy bilateralism in which one side committed the crime and the other looked the other way, and both are accountable.

The target, however, appeared to have been more about Raila, the opposition and some former officials and less about Uhuru, a man Ruto does not want to appear to discredit personally and publicly in a manner that will set off a vicious cycle.

A master storyteller, the president employed suspense during the five-hour interview to give the impression that he has more surprises up his sleeves –and possibly an accountability shocker in store for members of the former administration. Talking in a relaxed way, Ruto had Kenyans on the edge of their seats, making them hanker for the next secret he would let them in on, and the raw nerve he would hit next.

The most stunning morsel of news from the interview was the disclosure that the previous administration had a ‘container’ in Nairobi in which ordinary Kenyans were ‘slaughtered’.

The disclosure on live TV had the country’s collective jaw drop open, the very objective of the lurid revelation.

“How did we end up there?” asked the president, visibly incensed. He called the police under the former administration a ‘rogue institution’ and disclosed that he had given former Directorate of Criminal Investigations chief George Kinoti the heave-ho.

“Of course, there will be a responsibility,” the president said.

Intriguingly, the president didn’t divulge further details about the ‘container of death’, perhaps as a tactic to heighten the public’s interest in the wrongs of the former regime. An aide later fleshed it out. The ‘container of death’ was ‘secured’ and “it’s intact, splashed with blood,” Dennis Itumbi–the omniscient aide, who says his job is ‘come here, go there’–tweeted after the president’s interview, striking further terror into former officials’ hearts.

Ruto’s constant digs at the previous administration has several advantages: It offers him a diversion, earns him new supporters, and helps him wreck Raila’s bid to rebrand himself and bounce back. The eventual aim could well be to cut off Uhuru from Raila, or at least sow discord between his two enemies.

Feeding off Kenyans’ sense of vulnerability at the hands of security agents, Ruto tried on Wednesday night to present himself as the masses’ saviour, vowing to end extra-judicial killings that were well known by the citizenry, but rarely acknowledged officially until his ascent to power.

President William Ruto speaks at State House, Nairobi, during a past event. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

“Let me repeat for the avoidance of doubt, there will be no extra-judicial killings in the Government of Kenya under my administration. Yeah, that is a chapter we must close ... and put behind us,” Ruto told the nation, stressing that he and the police leaders agreed that the force ‘will operate within the law’.

The focus on the blunders of the previous administration also has an upside for the new administration grappling with economic challenges, largely left behind by its predecessor: It helps defang Raila’s criticism of the Ruto administration and offers Ruto a chance to stake claim to Raila’s former niche as the sole bulwark against the government’s abuse of civilians.

Whether Ruto’s rhetoric is a calculated long-term stratagem or slipshod tactic, is open to question. But the evening’s polemic appeared to burnish Ruto’s image and sully Raila’s. In an apparent pushback against Ruto’s onslaught, Raila promised, sometime in the future, to take the lid off the August elections, which he said were rigged with the help of foreigners.

Ruto’s ability to one-up his foes and spot opportunities in places where others see risks is well known. Aside from his get-up-and-go, campaign strategy, natural wit and alertness, Ruto’s election victory owed a great deal to his titillating account that Raila – a man he dubbed as a person with two beds – illegally displaced him in the previous administration.

That sense of victimhood appears to have helped him establish a rapport with many Kenyans who are inclined to loathe the system. It undermined the opposition’s attempt to come up with a coherent and appealing message, even after churning out a voluminous report nitpicking Ruto’s months-old administration.

“Yes, I have been a subject of harassment by the police,” the president said in an answer to a question posed by a reporter.

Kenyans instinctively sympathise with victims, especially when their tales happen to be genuine. If the raconteur is the Head of State, the public is more prone to suspend its disbelief. At Ruto’s inauguration on September 13, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua – another alleged victim of the State – told the multitudes present – including nearly two dozen foreign heads of states – to cherish their new freedom and not be bothered with government agents’ eavesdropping.

“I want to tell all the people of Kenya, from now, you don’t have to talk with each other through WhatsApp for fear of being recorded and prosecuted by State agents,” Gachagua said in his speech that repeatedly referred to Ruto as an an ‘ordinary child’ – indeed “an ordinary child, owned by ordinary parents, brought up in an ordinary village, brought up in an ordinary way, growing up in an ordinary manner.”

President William Ruto arrives for a church service in Kipipiri, Nyandarua County, on December 11, 2022.  Right, DP Rigathi Gachagua. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The message of “we are you and you are us and together we defeated the snooty team” still rings effectively at State House four months later. And Ruto isn’t relenting in his quest to hold wrongdoers to account.

The president said he had ordered the Independent Policing Oversight Authority to explain how hundreds of civilians were lost to the hands of security agents.

While security agencies’ brutality against civilians dates back to the 1960s, no head of state has so vehemently and candidly talked about the issue of extra-judicial killings, underscoring how far the country has changed in a matter of months.

In 2021, the police unlawfully killed 167 people and forcibly disappeared 33 others, according to Amnesty International, which in 2017 ranked the country the first in Africa in police killing of civilians.

“Rogue Kenyan state officers not only adopt the doctrine of maximum force in crime control, they often kill suspects and non-suspects at the flimsiest excuse because of an institutionalised culture of impunity,” said the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (Imlo), a human rights organisation. “State brutality is becoming the order of the day,” Imlo said in its report ‘State of the Nation 2021’.

“From the streets of Mombasa via Nairobi CBD to the favelas of Kisumu, unlawful use of force by rogue state officers has ended the life of many citizens while many left injured, devastated and deprived of their rights.”

Aware of the former administration’s failings, Kenyans appear to be cutting Ruto some slack, a reprieve that is likely to prolong his honeymoon and help him take the burden off himself to meet strict deadlines, such as the promise to impanel a commission to investigate State capture.

“The reason why Azimo is definitely going to collapse is because it was built on quicksand. It was built on threats, blackmail, intimidation,” a smirking Ruto said, of the main opposition group that threatened to organise mass action against his administration.

The president also talked of occasions where governors were forced to take sides during the elections. He also let slip that Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji was arm-twisted into prosecuting certain cases.

“It was just an ugly situation and I pray that Kenya never again goes to a place where the criminal system is used to manipulate politics,” the president said. He said the military–’a sacred institution’, he stressed–had been roped into a scheme to “sabotage the will of the people of Kenya because of that State capture menace.”

Apart from the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of revelations, it’s unclear when Ruto will premiere the horror show about how the Uhuru administration did everything to foil his presidential bid. While Gachagua had told Kenyans that they “don’t have to look back when you do something”, it appears that pledge does not cover the period that preceded the victory of the Hustler Nation.

The Standard
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