By Mark Nicholson
William Ruto, 5th President of Kenya
A while ago I rang a friend in Mombasa to find she was at a political rally for one of the presidential candidates in our recent election. Ten days later she called me back from another election rally, that of the other party. “How come you go to both rallies?”, I asked her. “Why not?”, she riposted, “We receive around Ksh. 500 (US$4) to attend, they give us lunch and we get the T shirt and the cap.” She did not vote anyway and does not even have a voter registration card, in common with so many Kenyans. Disillusionment is widespread. I have asked many other young people and they all say more or less the same thing: “the politicians get richer and we get poorer; nothing changes, so why bother?”
Two principal candidates were vying for the presidency: William Ruto, the Vice-President under President Uhuru Kenyatta, the fourth president (and son of the first President, Jomo Kenyatta), who has just stepped down. The other was Raila Odinga (photo left), son of the first Vice-President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, from the populous Luo tribe in the west of Kenya around Lake Victoria. The Kenyattas and the Odingas are known as the political aristocracy of Kenya, along with the Moi family whose patriarch ruled for twenty-four years as the second President. All three dynasties are associated with vast wealth and enormous landholdings. The Kenyattas own at least 500,000 acres (200,000 ha.) of prime land, including around Nairobi where land values can exceed US$ 1 million per acre.
Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto have hardly spoken to each other since falling out a few years ago and the relationship developed into a slanging match before the election. It was therefore no surprise that Uhuru supported Odinga. Ruto’s campaign was slicker; he concentrated on the densely populated areas round Mt. Kenya lived in by the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru tribes. I was there during the campaigning and despite being driven off the road by Ruto’s convoy of sixty new Toyota Prados, I had first-hand experience of his determination to woo the Gikuyu. It was this strategy that won him the election. Odinga mistakenly assumed the Gikuyus would forever be behind any protégé of Uhuru Kenyatta.
The election took place on August 9. The results were announced a week later amid a raucous ceremony conducted by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the vice-Chair of which declared Ruto as winner with 50.5 percent of the votes, enough of a margin to preclude a re-run. Odinga received 48.8 percent of the vote and immediately cried foul. The IEBC process turned to farce when three of its seven members refused to endorse the results and walked out of the ceremony. The issue went to the Supreme Court and in early September it upheld Ruto’s victory. The decision was sensible in that it avoided yet more uncertainty, to say nothing of the cost of a re-run and the potential for civil unrest. The Court also averred that there was no evidence of “discrepancies, irregularities or interferences” as alleged by Odinga. That was clearly going a bit far: this is Africa, and this is Kenya. Irregularity was demonstrated by both sides – technical failures, bribery and vote-buying.
The bottom line is that we have a new President. The election, the announcement of the result, the reaction to the Supreme Court ruling, and Ruto's inauguration were all peaceful. This was in marked contrast to 2007 when over a thousand people were killed during largely inter-ethnic blood-letting. In that election, Odinga almost certainly won, though he has lost all three elections since. Evidence of rigging in 2007 was manifest and Mwai Kibaki, a Gikuyu, was proclaimed the fourth president. Peace was only secured after a compromise was reached: Odinga was offered the newly-created post of Prime Minister, a position of little power under an executive president and since abolished. William Ruto, a Kibaki supporter and subsequently a minister in Kibaki’s government, was indicted for crimes against humanity at the ICC in The Hague. However, he and other indicted Kenyans were all absolved, almost certainly because he was one of many on both sides who were equally guilty.
The low turnout this year (sixty-five percent of registered voters) has been attributed to voter apathy. Half of the population of over fifty-three million is over eighteen years old. The turnout was actually well under fifty percent of the total adult population, as many young have never registered to vote. Most Kenyans regard politicians as selfish, corrupt and overpaid (the second-highest paid lawmakers on the planet after Nigeria). Many consider that nothing will change whoever becomes President.
So, who are Ruto and his running mate? Ruto hails from the Nandi tribe, which is part of the Kalenjin community comprising numerous tribes from the Rift valley and parts of central and western Kenya. He prides himself on his humble origins. He reputedly started life selling peanuts on the street. He was then recruited by ex-President Daniel arap Moi as a reliable courier for vast amounts of cash. At fifty-five he is younger than the seventy-seven-year-old Odinga. He is energetic, charismatic, handsome, and more articulate than Odinga. But he is a self-admitted hustler and hustlers have a habit of becoming dictatorial. He has also become enormously rich from numerous dubious land deals. Ruto’s campaign slogan was “Every hustle matters". A hustler is normally a pejorative term suggesting a bully or a person adept at aggressive selling or illicit dealing, but he elevated the term to mean a ‘go-getter’.
The new Vice-President, Rigathi Gachagua, has an even murkier past. He is also hugely wealthy and been accused of involvement in many shady deals. He built his fortune as a "tenderpreneur", an entrepreneur involved in politics who uses his network to facilitate government contracts. Last year he was arrested and charged with acquiring more than Ksh. 7.3 billion (US$ 60m) from the proceeds of crime. But the wonderful thing about Kenya is that no politician has ever been indicted or jailed for theft or corruption. Gachagua continues to deny charges of money laundering and conflict of interest for allegedly awarding contracts to close associates.
Ruto has his work cut out. Kenya is a hugely indebted country thanks to Uhuru’s profligate spending on infrastructure. Kenya’s debt is nearly 70 percent of GDP and there is little chance of its being able to repay. Much of this debt is to China. The Standard Gauge Railway alone cost USD 3.6bn. Yet it peters out in the Rift Valley shortly after Nairobi. China refused to finance the line to Uganda (see https://www.only-connect.co.uk/post/the-second-best-exotic-lunatic-line).
Ruto is slashing state subsidies on basic foods and fuel, while at the same time promising to support the unemployed and the poorer sectors of society. The daily reality is that most people are getting poorer in what is fast becoming a global recession. Fuel prices have nearly doubled. Primary education, supposedly free, has become so expensive that children are sent home for non-payment of fees. Inflation is officially seven percent but, in reality, nearly double that. Ruto says he will create jobs (they all say that) but so far, the opposite is happening. He is cutting allowances to civil servants but there is no sign he is lowering politicians’ salaries and curbing their many perks.
He should be given a chance. I do not think he will relinquish power gracefully, now he occupies the top seat, but I may be wrong. President Museveni in next door Uganda has been in power for thirty-six years and shows no sign of ceding power. Hustlers get where they want to go because of their characters.
Kenya should be congratulated on a good election and smooth transfer of power. These are nascent stages of democracy. Of the fifty-three countries in Africa, Kenya belongs to a small coterie of about five countries where Presidential terms are respected, coups are avoided, and transparent and peaceful elections usually take place.