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William Ruto and the paradigm shift in Kenya

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Picture: AFP – Motorcycle riders read the ‘Daily Nation’, a local daily newspaper, with a headline reporting the election of Kenya’s fifth president-elect William Ruto, in Eldoret on August 16, 2022. Ruto’s presidency should be a break away from the entrenched political tradition and seeks to establish a new generation of political leadership to address the major crisis affecting social cohesion and national unity, the writer says.

By Dr Omololu Fagbadebo

The declaration of William Ruto, the Kenyan deputy president, as the winner of the August 9 presidential election was a turning point in the political history of the east African country.

The chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Wafula Chebukati, had hinted that the result was a victory over intimidation.

The election was truly the battle of the political titans. Ruto won 50.49 percent of the votes against his rival, Raila Odinga’s 48.85 percent.

The IEBC decision to transmit the results on a national portal for everyone to see was a crucial transparent mechanism for the credibility and integrity of the process.

Nevertheless, four out of the seven election commissioners, led by the vice chair, Juliana Cherera, objected to what they described as the “opaque nature” of the final phase of the vote-verification process. The dissenting commissioners had claimed that Chebukati did not consult them before the announcement of the result and that there was a discrepancy of 0.1 percent because the total collation showed a 100.01 percent. But the IEBC said that the position and demand of his colleagues were “tantamount to subverting the constitution and the sovereign will of the People of Kenya”.

Odinga capitalised on this to reject the result and declared it null and void. “The figures announced by Chebukati are null and void. In our view, there is neither a legally, validly declared winner nor a president-elect,” he said, adding that he would “pursue all constitutional and legal options available to us”.

Whichever way it goes, the general perception in Kenya is that there should not be a repeat of the 2007 and 2017 episodes of electoral violence in which more than 1,400 people were killed. Indeed, the apprehension of possible electoral violence accounted for the reduction in voters’ turnout in the election.

The emergence of Ruto is a shift in Kenya’s political paradigm. Odinga is a veteran of presidential contests having lost five times. He was a critic of Daniel Arap Moi’s one-party system and fought for the adoption of the multi-party system, which was adopted in 1992.

Ruto, like Uhuru Kenyatta, is one of the political “disciples” of Arap Moi, Kenya’s longest-serving president who left power in 2002 and died in 2020. Moi stepped down in 2002 for Kenyatta to succeed him but he lost to the coalition of opposition led by Mwai Kibaki, supported by Raila Odinga. In 2007, Kenyatta, and Ruto, supported Kibaki against Odinga. The outcomes of that election were characterised by violence. The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Kenyatta and Ruto in 2011 “for incitement of the ethnic violence against Odinga’s supporters”.

In the 2022 election, in a turn of events, Kenyatta supported Odinga against Ruto, his deputy. But Ruto gained the support of the “hustlers” against the Kenyatta and Odinga “dynasties”. Uhuru and Raila are the sons of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga, the country’s first president and vice president, respectively.

Ethnic politics emerged in Kenya in 1966 when Odinga left the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to form the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). The election that followed gave KANU the majority seats in parliament, but KPU had the majority vote. The Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group, lined behind KANU while the Luo supported KPU. In his maiden speech on Monday, Ruto acknowledged the fading ethnic sentiment when he said that his “gratitude goes to millions of Kenyans who refused to be boxed into tribal cocoons”.

Ruto’s presidency should be a break away from the entrenched political tradition and seeks to establish a new generation of political leadership to address the major crisis affecting social cohesion and national unity. Even though Ruto had links with the leadership of Arap Moi, he has supported his political rivals, Odinga and Kenyatta in the past. Indeed, Kenyatta’s support for Odinga in the 2022 election was an indication that Ruto was on his way out because the incumbency power worked against him, even though he was the deputy president. He contested on the platform of a political party outside the government and was able to rally substantive support.

Ruto’s electoral victory should be an opportunity to unite the country and blur the widening ethnic political gulf that has characterised the country’s politics. An inclusive government that would accommodate all irrespective of political and ethnic affiliation, is a sine qua non for lasting peace and stability in Kenya. Ruto acknowledged this and pledged to run an administration in which no part of the country would be excluded, regardless of political or ethnic affiliations.

“I really want us to know that the expectations of the people of Kenya are huge. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time”. This indeed is a paradigm shift in the political landscape of Kenya.

* Dr Omololu Fagbadebo is from the Department of Public Management, Law and Economics at the Durban University of Technology