Why Ruto is still more attractive to opposition MPs deserting Raila

President William Ruto and Interior PS Raymond Omollo with seven ODM 'rebel' MPs at State House, Nairobi. [PCS]

President William Ruto has always found a way to win over people - even when he was in flux like when he fell out with his boss Uhuru Kenyatta in their second term and interaction with him attracted a harsh reaction.

During those trying times, though, his Karen residence in Nairobi teemed with visitors, whose number and frequency increased during and a year before the August 9 elections.

Ruto’s closeness to the people is legendary.

It helped him blunt attempts by former President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to sideline him, then-deputy president after their political deal following the 2017 elections.

A patient schemer, Ruto didn’t throw in the towel and let his adversaries relish his absence.

He maintained his ties with many government officials, who, on their part, found a way to work with him, albeit surreptitiously. At the time, things were so unsettling that Ruto, then a presidential candidate, chillingly expressed his worry over the safety of his family in one of his election campaign appearances.

Now in power, Ruto is doing what he does best: Meeting with politicians, but this time those fleeing their parties and craving to work with him for, as they say, the good of the country.

Those elected politicians from the Nyanza region that was the main support base of Raila, in an open, in-your-face disrespect for the opposition leader who has been spearheading anti-Ruto agitation since last year, when he lost the election to Ruto.

President William Ruto’s 2022 victory was more than sheer good luck. While Raila’s loss was largely attributed to his campaign’s internal disorganisation, the lack of strategy and dependence on the former president, it’s increasingly becoming evident that Ruto was all along some sort of a lodestone, an advantage that helped him bulk up on politicians fleeing their parties or those willing to support his candidacy. 

Many Kenyans are puzzled over the mystical qualities that are making Ruto so appealing that even his erstwhile enemies are now falling over themselves to make up with him. 

Remember the 180-degree turn of Francis Atwoli, secretary-general of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, and his apology over his harsh remarks denigrating Ruto before the election. Atwoli once said Ruto would not be a president in 2022 and then went on and asked his audience to “take that to the bank.”

While Ruto’s generosity, eloquence, intelligence, and energy get top billing, other qualities, such as his unpretentiousness, open-door policy, joviality, candidness, decency, and the touch of a common man barely attract the attention - and these very qualities contribute to his popularity.

Francis Atwoli, secretary-general of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions. [File, Standard]

Ruto’s honesty with his allies is a departure from his predecessor’s style which was more Machiavellian and who tended to flip out when he didn’t have his way. Ruto’s friends and foes, as well as analysts, acknowledge that his loyalty to his friends, and ability to think ahead and keep friends in a non-transactional way are what pull many to him. 

Added advantage

Ruto’s “less privileged background” has been an added advantage, Nasong’o Muliro, a national and foreign policy specialist, told The Standard. “It makes him appear one of ‘us’; any common Kenyan can identify with his story,” he said.

Even President Ruto’s deputy Rigathi Gachagua has been calling himself a “truthful man” and “honest man,” at one time candidly telling graduates during their graduation ceremony that the government had no jobs for them.  “I don’t want to sit here and lie to you that we have jobs for you,” he told the graduates of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in June.

In another function, his candidness got him in deep doo-doo, especially when he likened the government to a company with shareholders.

Muliro said Ruto “campaigned so much using rhetoric that endeared him to the youths.” 

“He’s an eloquent, educated, brilliant, and fairly youthful politician,” he said. “Ruto easily got into the psyche or mind of youths as being one of them, a hustler, a product of ordinary Kenyan family and self-made, rather than opponents who were dynasties.”

Just days after Raila Odinga kicked out five members from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), and days after he warned President Ruto against tempting allied governors in the Western region, defiant lawmakers met the Head of State and had dinner with him, sending a message that they are ready to make their relations with Ruto a reality.

Ruto, who was last year mauled by Raila’s agitation and still grappling with the economic mess left behind by his predecessor, should have been the last destination of opposition politicians, especially at a time when their boss is still on the warpath with the Head of State. 

But that is not what rebel politicians from the Nyanza believe. 

President Ruto is “extremely sincere” in his dealing with us, Elisha Odhiambo told The Standard in an interview, saying that in the coming weeks, the president will visit Siaya, Kisumu, and South Nyanza to initiate new projects. “We did the opposition for a long time, let others do the opposition,” he said. “We want to be at the table.”

Raila Odinga’s former chief agent, Saitabao ole Kanchory, said three reasons are behind the politicians’ strengthening relations with Ruto.

“Interest. Ruto has a lot to give or offer. Raila has nothing,” he said. “Ruto values his people while Raila does not. Ruto is embracing them while Raila is casting them away.”

President William Ruto with seven ODM 'rebel' MPs led by Kisumu Senator Tom Ojienda at the State House lawn. [PCS]

ODM’s expulsion of the five lawmakers has elicited condemnation from Kenya Kwanza officials, who ripped Raila for meeting with the president in Mombasa while punishing his allied lawmakers for working with the president.  

So far, rebel lawmakers have gotten a reprieve until their case is heard and determined.

When Ruto took office on September 13, 2022, he found a nation, whose politics were so ossified that it was unrealistic to expect that his leadership style and his tone would catalyse a dramatic change in a year, as many who voted for him would have wished.  But his signalling that he was different from his predecessor was as good as a change, making many politicians feel comfortable working with him. 

 Nine years

The opposition lawmakers argue that their intention of working with the government is in the interest of their constituencies, but there could be other considerations: The August election loss and the advanced age of Raila may have convinced some politicians that they don’t have to stick with Raila any longer, especially when Ruto could be around for the coming for nine years.

The increasing acceptance of some opposition figures of Ruto carries a warning for Raila and for the larger opposition. Nasong’o Muliro, the national and foreign policy specialist, said Raila’s political life appears to be “approaching its natural end.”

“The opposition will enter 2027 as a fledgling and fragmented outfit,” Muliro said, citing the difficulty of recruiting a formidable opposition leader to replace Raila if he decides to exit from elective politics. 

He said there’s already a widespread narrative that if Ruto can defeat Raila, who was backed by the government “it will be a walkover now that he’s at the helm of the government.”

Defiant lawmakers’ action is a particular heartbreak for Raila at a time when he hasn’t yet recognised Ruto as president, irrelevant as that may be legal at this late time after the country’s Supreme Court confirmed Ruto’s win.

For the whole of last year, the Raila-led opposition has been trying to delegitimise Ruto’s election victory through a litany of actions - demonstrations, calls for boycotts and even threats to split the country in two, among others.

In response, Ruto has quietly but steadily taken an axe to his opponents’ parties. His efforts have so far exceeded expectations: His allies are now in charge of the Jubilee Party, the party that was once chaired by former President Uhuru.

Raila’s ODM, one of the most successful political outfits in the country’s history, is also being torn apart  - one man or woman at a time, the most intensive battlefront being Nyanza, Raila’s backyard. 

Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. [File, Standard]

Ruto’s open-arms, open-door policy is a marked departure from his predecessor, whose period was known for giving special consideration to those with true allegiance to government policies or to politicians whose fathers were part of the ‘Deep State’ in the Jomo era.

That policy of favouritism, mostly aimed at limiting privileges to a selected few to project power, expectedly drove the citizens and their leaders apart, with each party living in its own cocoon until Ruto came along and turned things upside down in a popular campaign that talked up a “bottom-up” economic model. 

The president’s detente (easing of hostilities) with Luo lawmakers is surprisingly unlikely to draw more than eye rolls from his Kikuyu allies, as the current crop of Central Kenya leaders are pragmatic and know that the Head of State has to tame Raila before 2027 for him to rule Kenya for two terms.

Kikuyu politicians are also more engrossed in addressing their region’s burning issues, such as coffee, tea, illegal drugs, infrastructure and development than faulting the president’s outreach to Nyanza, a region that was, despite its economic potential, purposefully underdeveloped since independence in 1963. 

Raila, feeling the dangers the decision of the lawmakers working with the government poses to the opposition, included this issue as one of the topics to be discussed in the ongoing talks between the government and opposition to dissuade the State House from continuing its poaching and co-opting of opposition members. The old Kenya, where things were dandy as long as the interests of the elites and their businesspeople were taken care of, is no longer viable in Ruto’s era.

Ruto’s three-point, anti-corruption policy - go to jail, leave the country or go to heaven - was a cry of dissatisfaction with the past, where cartels and elites were in lockstep at the expense of the citizenry’s well-being and the country’s development.

“Ruto’s personality is that of a planner, schemer, always moving to be ahead of the rest, thinking ahead,” Muliro said. “He’s witty, eloquent in speech and thoughts, but being so talkative and easy to promise makes him pass as a deceptive schemer.”

Relatively deceptive

In comparison with Raila, Muliro said, Ruto is not “transactional with his friends; once he commits to them, he seeks to fulfil the promise and keep the friends closer.” “While Raila is massively charismatic, charming and broadly trustworthy, the ODM boss is more transactional with his friends and community,” he said. “He appears to view his community as a means to an end.” 

President Wiliam Ruto. [File, Standard]

Muliro said Ruto keeps his friends and prioritises his community concerns.” Both Ruto and Raila, he said, are “power centric, calculating, and relatively deceptive,” he said. “Raila is also trusting, plans for the now,” Muliro said. “Ruto appears to trust others less and is even planning for the long haul.”

The new interest by opposition lawmakers to work with Ruto has warmed the hearts of the ruling party officials while hurting the opposition leaders, who’re at a loss about how to deal with Ruto’s mojo. 

While selfishness and self-preservation may have played a role in the decision of the opposition lawmakers working with the Ruto administration, it’s clear that Ruto’s advent has discernibly brought with it new political and leadership changes. 

The new development has implications for the country, the ruling coalition and the opposition. For Raila, he’s already facing calls to quit politics, some coming from his own once-loyal tribesmen.

“It is time Raila pulled back and became a mentor for the younger generation,” said Odhiambo, who revealed that he had no intention of joining the president’s party. “We will fight from within our party. When your house is on fire, you don’t run away,” he said. 

Odhiambo, who was one of the lawmakers who met the president recently, had nothing but effusive praise for the Head of State, ticking off some of the gains of their relationship with the president:  In the coming weeks, the president will visit the region and camp in Nyanza, especially Kisumu, to launch projects. Over 21 villages in the region will soon be provided with electricity, with a cost of Sh68 million. The president had donated Sh10 million to several schools in the region. 

“We are growing,” he said, disclosing that two more lawmakers, whom he didn’t name, will start closing ranks with them in their endeavour to work with the president, bringing the total rebel lawmakers to nine.

After decades of “divide and conquer” politics that led to the underdevelopment and marginalisation of certain regions perceived to be opposition strongholds, the Ruto administration’s “all Kenyan regions” message seems a breath of fresh air for many who didn’t support him during the election.   

In an interview last May with Citizen TV’s JKL show, Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale decried the “politics of deceit, betrayal and backstabbing” that characterised the country’s smash-mouth politics.

“I am not praising him (Ruto) because he’s my boss, I think he is a decent politician. He keeps friends. He respects friends and he’s a man who’s very consultative in decision-making,” Duale said.

Ruto’s tone of working with everyone has spread a rare sense of relief among foes and friends that he’s not a threat to any particular tribe, and that the interests of all will be served for the good of the country. Of course, Ruto, a smooth-tongued politician will do everything that could help him win the 2027 elections.