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William Ruto: From Barefoot Student to Power Broker

William Ruto spent his childhood on a plot of family land down an unpaved, narrow road in a quiet village in the Rift Valley, where he tende...

William Ruto spent his childhood on a plot of family land down an unpaved, narrow road in a quiet village in the Rift Valley, where he tended cows and helped till the field for maize and cabbage.

But these days, Mr. Ruto, vice president of Kenya for close to a decade, wakes up in a giant mansion in a leafy suburb in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where he holds meetings before flying, as he did on a recent morning, on a helicopter parked close to a covered pool.

On Monday, the head of the electoral commission declared Mr. Ruto, 55, Kenya’s next president, but a majority of the commissioners refused to sign off on the count, citing a lack of transparency.

The campaign of Mr. Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, alleged that the count had been “hacked,” signaling that they would challenge the result in court. 

Late Monday, a spokesman for Mr. Odinga, Dennis Onsarigo, wrote on Twitter that the former prime minister planned to address the nation on Tuesday.

Mr. Ruto’s campaign was a repeated appeal to Kenya’s “hustlers” — the youthful strivers who find themselves underemployed or unemployed and are itching to better themselves.

His political rise almost came to an end following the bloody and contested 2007 elections. The International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity, accusing him of whipping up violence that left more than 1,200 dead and 600,000 others displaced. 

The charges included murder, persecution and forcing people to leave their homes.

But the case against him collapsed in 2016, as the government he served as vice president hampered evidence collection and engaged in what the court said was “witness interference and political meddling.”
William Ruto: From Barefoot Student to Power Broker

Mr. Ruto was born in Sambut village, a lush backwater about 12 miles northwest of Eldoret town in Uasin Gishu County. He raised sheep and cows, hunted rabbits with friends and attended school barefoot.

His parents, strict Protestants who were leaders in the local African Inland Church, shaped his faith, pushing him to regularly participate in church activities and sing in the choir. 

From early on, Mr. Ruto showed his ambition, classmates, neighbors and friends said in interviews. He also stood up for them against bullies from other villages, they said.

“The group that he was in always won the classroom debate,” said Esther Cherobon, who was his deskmate for four years. When a teacher threatened to cane the students for not knowing the answer to a math problem, “William almost always saved us,” she said.

Growing up, Mr. Ruto pleaded with his parents to give him a small patch of their land to plant maize, his friends said. He sold chickens to make money long after his friends stopped doing so, after finishing high school. 

During his presidential run, Mr. Ruto tapped into this back story, presenting himself as one of the “hustler” Kenyans born into poverty. In the late 1980s, Mr. Ruto left to study botany and zoology at the University of Nairobi. Friends said they began noticing his focus on politics.

In 1997, he challenged Reuben Chesire for the parliamentary seat of the Eldoret North constituency. Mr. Chesire had been a lawmaker, a powerful leader in the ruling party and a political stalwart of then-president Daniel arap Moi. But Mr. Ruto took a gamble and rallied his friends to crisscross the constituency on his behalf — and won.

For all of Mr. Ruto’s political success, his home village remains underdeveloped more than a quarter century after he joined the government. Many there struggle to make ends meet, trading livestock or working as motorcycle taxi drivers.

While Mr. Ruto has made some contributions to a school here or a church fund-raiser there, villagers said, the roads in the area are largely unpaved and many residents live in mud houses with no proper toilets.

Mr. Ruto, by contrast, has constructed a brick house with a lush garden on his family’s compound and mounted a solar panel on the roof. Many of Mr. Ruto’s classmates hope his win will bring change. “He sold chicken and lived like us,” said his close childhood friend and classmate, Clement Kipkoech Kosgei. “Maybe he will bring change now.”

He becomes Kenya’s first sitting deputy president to succeed the incumbent following competitive elections and first candidate to win the presidency at first attempt.

The declaration of the results was temporarily disrupted amid chaotic scenes by the losing candidate’s supporters alleging irregularities. The situation was thrown into further disarray when four commissioners broke ranks, held a separate press conference and denounced the results as “opaque”.

Ruto won the polls in spite of a sustained pushback by the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, his former ally who chose instead to back his former archrival and longtime opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Kenyatta and Ruto are former allies: Ruto campaigned for Kenyatta during his first presidential attempt in 2002, which he lost. Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the suspected masterminds of the mass atrocities that followed the disputed 2007 elections. 

They then teamed up to contest in 2013. They prevailed in 2017 as well, but not before the Supreme Court annulled the first round.

After their falling out, however, Ruto characterised Kenyatta and Odinga as the embodiments of dynastic politics and entitlement. The two are sons of Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first president and first vice president respectively. 

In a way, Ruto prevailed against the state, powerful elites, a biased media, the intelligentsia, civil society and jaundiced polling firms. His victory is historic and phenomenal.

As an outlier in Kenya’s political power matrix, which is dominated by a tiny clique related by familial and economic ties and adept at manipulating tribalism to capture the state, Ruto was elbowed out by the establishment. But he has somersaulted back by appealing directly to the masses, his original constituency.
Ruto versus status quo

For almost six decades, political and economic power has been confined within a group around Kenya’s first two presidents – Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi. Raila Odinga joined this group in the sunset years of Moi’s tenure and counted on it to propel him to power in the just concluded elections. 

The group has leverage over state agencies and the security apparatus. It exploits state power to advance commercial interests spread across the entire gamut of Kenya’s economy.

Kenyatta’s family, for instance, has vast business interests. The Mois are also fabulously wealthy . Ruto has accused these families of state capture – exploiting their control of the state to enrich themselves primitively.

Ruto is also certainly a man of means. According to his opponents in the government he too has extensive business interests. It’s for this reason that Ruto has been accused of hypocricy for championing the downtrodden, or ordinary Kenyans whom he refers to as “hustlers”.

Pivotal to Ruto’s campaign was his bottom-up economic model. Its pillars are the dispersal of economic and political opportunities, and dignifying the poor. It invokes equity, inclusivity, social justice and fair play.

His “hustler nation” movement was buoyed by mass unemployment, poverty, inequalities and state excesses such as extrajudicial executions and runaway corruption.

Ruto successfully reinvented himself as the agent of class consciousness hitherto absent in Kenya’s political discourse and competition. By rebranding himself as the antithesis of the status quo and personification of the hopes of the poor, his messaging resonated with a cross spectrum of the marginalised.

As the victor, his work is cut out for him. He will have to overhaul Kenya’s socioeconomic and political edifice to assuage the restless and disenchanted populace. 

He has to provide leadership that will disabuse the Kenyan society of tribal consciousness, embed civic values and national identity. If he does not, he risks becoming a casualty of his success.

Following disputed elections in 2017, Kenyatta and his close allies embarked on a campaign of vilification against Ruto. He was soon edged out of the government and remained as Kenyatta’s principal assistant in law only. 

Kenyatta transferred his official responsibilities as deputy president to a loyal cabinet minister in an attempt to whittle down the office and clip Ruto’s political wings. The aim was to delegitimise and frustrate him into resigning, thus knocking him out of the succession race. Ruto exhibited resilience despite the frustrations.

In Kenya’s media, including social media, Ruto was the villain; the bogeyman. Through newspaper headlines, hashtags, prime time news and talk shows, he was cynically depicted as the skunk of Kenya’s politics solely associated with vices such as corruption, land grabs, impunity, unbridled ambition, insolence, warlord politics, and ethnic cleansing. He exploited this sense victimhood to his advantage.

These vices, however, pervade Kenya’s political landscape and the depiction was more information by partisanship than moral rectitude. His accusers are no better.

Ruto cut his political teeth under the mentorship of the long-serving autocrat Daniel arap Moi in the early 1990s. Facing presidential opponents for the first time in 1992, Moi mobilised the youth vote with the help of young politicians, under an outfit known as Youth for KANU ‘92

Ruto was one of the youthful politicians who crafted the successful – but equally infamous – re-election strategy in 1992. This involved Moi sanctioning the printing of money used to bribe voters, among other things.

Ruto’s entry into parliament in 1997 was in defiance of his mentor. Moi, a fellow Kalenjin from the Rift Valley, had tried to prevail on Ruto not to run. Moi exited in 2002 and Ruto astutely won over the Kalenjin voting bloc and used it as a launching pad into national politics. Moi had wanted to bequeath it to his son, Gideon. Hence the fallout between Moi and Ruto.

The Kenyatta-Moi-Odinga axis, which Ruto has propped up in the past, turned against him, fearful that he would end their economic and political stranglehold. They perceived Ruto – relatively young, astute, ambitious, prescient and gallant – as a threat to their dubious privileges. Now that Ruto, has won the presidency, time will tell whether their fears were exaggerated.

In 2010, Ruto stood out from this coterie and mobilised against the passage of the current constitution. He later defended his stand on the grounds that he did not approve of some parts of the constitution – but embraced it once it was passed.

He faulted Kenyatta for violating the same constitution through blatant defiance of numerous court orders and weaponising oversight bodies and state agencies against Ruto and his allies. 

Ruto also accused Kenyatta and Odinga of a conspiracy to illegally amend the constitution to consolidate their power, and entrench ethnicity through the Building Bridges Initiative. The attempt was quashed as unconstitutional by the high court, appeals court and finally the supreme court.
Political traction

Despite his rhetoric, Ruto is a creature of Kenya’s political culture, notorious for a lack of scruples. Its elite is anglophile in outlook, and disdainful of the poor. It is also mired in impunity and tribalism.

What is significant is that Ruto’s reframing of the political discourse into hustlers versus dynasties has accorded him traction, helped him win the presidency and set the tempo of this election despite the outgoing government’s abysmal scorecard. 

He made the election about the rule of law, constitutionalism, equalisation of economic opportunities for the poor and marginalised and political competition based on cross cutting social economic interests.

This contrasted with Odinga, who publicly defined himself as the status quo candidate, an extension of Kenyatta tenure and therefore out to preserve the exclusive political and economic arrangement that dates to colonialism. It was a move that cost him the presidency on the fifth attempt.

The stakes are high for Kenyans. The Ruto victory has broken the back of dynastic dominance of Kenya’s politics and economy. Peripheral actors will emerge rise as he reorganises Kenya’s state and politics. 

As to whether Ruto will live to his lofty promises and prise open the economy for the benefit of all, that remains an open question. - Online Sources 

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