When President Uhuru Kenyatta and his erstwhile opponent Raila Odinga walked down the stairs of Harambee House and shook hands in early March, there was a tectonic shift in Kenya’s political scene. The two had been engaged in a gruelling duel of two back-to-back elections, just five years after another whose wounds were yet to heal. But the most significant thing about their handshake was who was missing from the scene: Kenyatta’s ally and deputy president, William Ruto.
Ruto’s journey to the second most powerful office in the land has been nothing but spectacular (see timeline), and the next five years will determine whether he gets to succeed Kenyatta. Although the two have a pact for this to occur, there were already undertones before last year’s elections that Kenyatta’s side would renege on the deal. Because of this and his position in his own backyard, Ruto appears to be permanently in election mode. Kenyatta’s words during the handshake with Odinga – “Our future cannot be dictated by the forthcoming election” – sounded more directed to his partner than to the man standing beside him. The constitution bars Kenyatta from firing Ruto, and the process of impeaching him would lead to open political war.
The Kikuyu vote
For a man who joined politics less than three decades ago, Ruto is now the man to beat. Just three weeks after the Kenyatta/Odinga truce, a survey by the firm IPSOS indicated that 30% of people believe Ruto will be Kenya’s next president. Ruto came out on top in the poll, followed by his rivals: Odinga, Baringo senator Gideon Moi and Mombasa governor Hassan Ali Joho. It might have been the timing of the poll, but Odinga’s approval ratings were the lowest they had been in a long time. Odinga ranked highest on the question of who respondents thought would never be president, at 42%.
There are two significant challenges Ruto still has to overcome. The first is internal politics, both in his backyard and within the ruling Jubilee Party. While the official party line is that no one will tear up the 2013 promise to allow Ruto to run in 2022, several politicians from Kenyatta’s side have publicly said their support will not be ‘automatic.’ Ruto’s main fear is that after Kenyatta’s exit, Kenyatta’s Kikuyu support base will take a similar stand. The Kikuyu vote is historically insular, choosing to divide its choices among rivals from the region instead of voting for someone from outside the area. The counter to this is that Ruto is seen as the reason for continuing peace in the Rift Valley, a perennial problem since independence in the 1960s.
The other hurdle is the rivals in his backyard, led by Baringo senator and son of Kenya’s second president, Gideon Moi. That Moi ranked second after Ruto in the IPSOS poll is telling of his growing stature in the anti-Ruto camp. For conservatives in Kenya’s elite power circles, Moi could be a safer pair of hands than the deputy president. Moi also has immense personal and family wealth, as well as powerful connections built by his father. One of the most revealing scenes in the lead-up to last year’s election was the overtures made by both Kenyatta and his mother to the Mois to support Kenyatta’s reelection. In the Ruto camp, those overtures were seen as betrayal and a revelation that his partnership with Kenyatta might not be so strong. For a man who has repeatedly called himself ‘the son of a peasant’, Ruto is now a man of means too, but the fears that older networks might be his undoing are not unfounded. Among his closest allies are national assembly majority leader Aden Duale, Senate majority leader Kipchumba Murkomen and senator Kithure Kindiki.
The external hurdles are a result of Kenya’s fragmented politics. Even if Ruto is leading the succession race today, he cannot win alone. A Jubilee ticket would be ideal, but that could force him to choose a Kikuyu running mate. That would likely alienate other potential partners and even strengthen an opposition to his course.
In the Kenyatta-Ruto partnership, the latter only controls a part of the west, with the opposition coalition controlling most of the Nyanza and Western regions. Kenyatta only has a hold on the centre, with the rest divided among the opposition. For Ruto, this fragmentation is as much opportunity as it is an uphill task.
Two days after the Kenyatta-Odinga handshake, Ruto began a spirited campaign to win over the opposition-controlled coastal regions. He received public declarations of support from several politicians, and at least one promise of a cessation of fire. The choice of the coast was revealing of Ruto’s wider plan to build bridges. Stories of his meetings with central and western Kenya leaders emerge almost every week on days he is not touring those regions to launch development projects.
There are two big possibilities in Ruto’s game plan, one that involves Odinga and one that does not. A decade ago, the two of them were on the same side of what turned out to be a destructive election. When Odinga was sworn in on 30 January in his own version of an inauguration after last year’s contested election, pockets of his support base openly told him to mend fences with Ruto. An endorsement from Odinga would undoubtedly boost Ruto’s standing, but it could also harm his reputation as a self-made politician. His could-be kingmaker is more experienced and connected, and even after losing five elections still seems in it for the 2022 race.
Another group that will shape Ruto’s potential 2022 run is outgoing county governors. Governors are limited to two terms, and in the August 2017 elections, 33 of them, all men of means, were reelected. At least two have publicly declared their interest in the presidency – both Mombasa governor Hassan Ali Joho and Machakos governor Alfred Mutua ranked higher than all of Odinga’s current coalition partners in the IPSOS poll.
A likely referendum between now and 2022 could be a stumbling block for Ruto. In one draft bill being assessed by parliament, a politician from Ruto’s backyard wants to restore the parliamentary system. Some pundits think it is a ploy to keep Kenyatta relevant after 2022 as Jubilee Party leader and therefore, a potential prime minister. Others see it is a way of making space for Odinga as well as the outgoing governors, who could be placated with cabinet posts. Such a change would require a national referendum that could also work as a litmus test for 2022.
Ruto has proven himself a wily, risk-taking politician but one who still is cautious. A good example is when, in 2010, he took on the entire government by leading a spirited campaign against the new constitution. Although he failed, he came out of it with a solid support base as well as strong support from the church for his conservative stance on moral issues. It epitomises what Ruto himself calls ‘kujipanga’ (to strategise and organise oneself). In 2018, he is staring at a chess board that could either win him the most powerful office in the land or ultimately destroy his career.
This article first appeared in the May print edition of The Africa Report Magazine