Echoes of UhuRuto Season II wars as DP and President bond cracks

President William Ruto talks to his deputy Rigathi Gachagua at Masinde Muliro Stadium during Madaraka Day celebrations in Bungoma on June 1, 2024.  [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

There were predictions that they would split. If they also knew it was inevitable, President William Ruto and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua preferred the comforting lie that their partnership would always be rosy.

They had declared themselves “God’s candidates”, arguing that their bond was forged by prayer. And they had answers for anyone who thought their strong personalities and abrasiveness set them up for endless wrangling.

“That will never happen to us,” Gachagua would answer questions about what would happen in case he could no longer see eye to eye with Ruto, whose relationship with former President Uhuru Kenyatta was punctuated with acrimony in their second term in office.

“It will not happen. I will not allow, for example, my running mate or deputy president to be humiliated by junior staff,” Ruto would say in a 2022 interview on NTV, a recurring message throughout his campaign.

The duo is yet to celebrate their second anniversary in office and their prophecy has been proven wrong. Ruto and Gachagua are fighting. Theirs is an ugly battle that has roped in allies and the “junior staff” the Head of State promised would not demean his deputy.

For months, Public Service Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria has been at war with Gachagua. The president has said nothing about the wrangles within his Cabinet, which also included an initial power struggle between Gachagua and Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi.

Recently, Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru and her Nairobi counterpart Johnson Sakaja joined the assault on the deputy president. Ruto has been equally silent.

“A progressive democracy does not allow us as occupiers of public offices to personalise them to the extent that it becomes taboo for anyone else to nurture and express ambition to occupy them,” Waiguru said on social media recently.

Former Bahati MP Kimani Ngunjiri wondered if Ruto’s silence meant he endorsed the offensive on his deputy.

“Waiguru is insulting the deputy president aboard the same plane as the president... how should people interpret that? Do you want to tell us she is confirming you (your position)?” he posed recently.

Gachagua finds himself in the crosshairs of Ruto’s allies, who are unrelenting in their attacks. The battle lines are drawn and their colleagues are aligning themselves to either side.

The DP enjoys the support of a section of Mt Kenya lawmakers and has recently courted Uhuru to join his wing, which he probably believes will help his claim to the region’s supremacy. But Ruto also has a sizeable number of Mt Kenya leaders in his corner, with his support enhanced by the unanimous endorsement of his Rift Valley backyard.

And so it seems like season two of UhuRuto all over again, with Gachagua occupying a spot Ruto vacated. Uhuru’s experience with Ruto was meant to be a lesson to prospective presidents on choosing running mates. The pair’s wars confused mutual friends in Parliament. It disoriented their juniors in the civil service. 

“Improper behaviour from the top people affects juniors. It demoralises the bureaucracy and divides them... they always take sides,” says diplomatic historian Macharia Munene.

Political analyst Javas Bigambo argues that the tiff threatens the workings in the public service and the constitutional order in terms of the functioning of the Executive and Parliament. “A bankruptcy of civility in politics such that the president and his deputy would be at odds for reasons... of nurturing narrow political interests undermines the spirit of constitutionalism. Our collective memory... reminds us that MPs allied to Uhuru were at war with those allied to Uhuru, creating enmity”.

“It kills the spirit of political hegemony, with the president and his deputy creating orbits around which they revolve, creating an ‘us-versus-them’ perception, in turn killing nationalism by sowing the seed of ethnicity,” he added.

Indeed, many during Uhuru’s second term as president took sides. Those who chose Ruto lost significant roles. Uhuru’s allies - the majority, mostly afraid of seeming like traitors - reaped big, earning plum parliamentary positions among other rewards.

Ruto found himself in constant wars with Cabinet secretaries, who spared no chance to belittle his office. Former colleagues in Cabinet would accuse him of being a liar, with others describing him as “karani”, a clerk. His office guaranteed that he would be present at public engagements, but it was clear that he was unwanted.

Ruto was “number two” only on paper, with his former boss elevating former Interior CS Fred Matiang’i above him. Gachagua recently escaped this fate by a whisker. A spirited push to establish two deputy leader positions in the ruling United Democratic Alliance, currently imploding, was defeated by the Head of State’s intervention.

But the message - Gachagua’s critics want to cut him down to size - was home, as it has been recently. And the focus is undoubtedly on his position, coveted mostly by those who never get to taste it.

“The position can be a blessing and a curse - a blessing because it takes you so close to power but (a curse because) it is also like dancing so close to the sun,” the Standard Group’s head of news and political commentator Kipkoech Tanui aptly put it during a podcast session on Wednesday.

Indeed, a number of those who have occupied the deputy presidency have suffered hurdles, but have held on to the hope that they would earn promotion to the highest office on the land. They have had to navigate landmines in that path, placed mostly by the president’s inner circle, which comprises blue-eyed boys with unfettered access to the boss, and who often share the ambition to ascend to the presidency.

“Many things depend on whoever is on the president’s side, the powerful people he engages with. Some have a tendency to provoke others and throw their weight around and they may not even be elected officials,” says Prof Munene.

The historian believes that a successful DP should know their place, and not behave as though theirs is a co-presidency. “Gachagua should keep his head down and should not complain. There was a time former President Daniel Moi told then-Vice President Mwai Kibaki (later president) that he should stop thinking, that thinking is a prerogative of the president”.

But the dilemma facing Gachagua is the rise of politicians from his region who seem as contenders for his position. Among them are Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro, who had unsuccessfully sought to be Ruto’s running mate ahead of the 2022 General Election. Interior CS Kithure Kindiki also fell short in his bid to deputise Ruto.

Those from the Mt Kenya region who preferred Kindiki thought his amiable personality was the ideal fit for Ruto. Further, the pair had been allies longer. Kindiki has been Ruto’s lawyer, representing him during his trial at the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Although Ruto praised Gachagua’s mobilisation prowess as he selected him as his running mate, the latter’s deep pockets are believed to have mattered, too. The greatest consideration was, however, his ethnic background, and Gachagua has not shied from expressing his desire to safeguard Mt Kenya’s interests.

Bigambo argues that Kenya must move beyond this brand of politics, saying that the Constitution envisioned that politics would be orderly.

“This kind of politics creates superficially segmented realities that are not true. They are imagined realities by politicians which extend to the public that will eventually identify with them,” he adds, arguing for a review of boundaries that would have mixed ethnicities across Kenya. 

University lecturer Francis Owakah, who does not believe there is a clash between Ruto and his deputy, argues that Gachagua is too frail to “mount a rebellion as he has no base”.

“Ruto is very much in charge. Things will only explode when the people decide to disregard him. Only the people can start a rebellion,” says Dr Owakah.

The philosopher argues that unlike Uhuru, who he says depended on advice, “Ruto is the adviser”. 

“He was able to galvanise the civil service and was aware that he could have toppled Uhuru at any time... Gachagua has no real powers. He only grew horns because of Uhuru, and the fact that he is looking for the former president exposes his weakness. Ruto defied former President Moi and succeeded. He did not seek a truce,” adds Dr Owakah.