Nairobi, Kenya – On Monday, Kenya’s electoral commission announced Deputy President William Ruto as the winner of its August 9 polls.
The announcement signalled that Ruto had outsmarted two of his former bosses and allies – perennial aspirant Raila Odinga and his backer, sitting President Uhuru Kenyatta – in the race to become the country’s fifth president.
On the campaign trail, Ruto skillfully avoided ethnicity, a major factor in Kenyan politics.
Instead, he framed the narrative as a class war between the haves and have-nots, given his humble beginnings and the political dynasties his rivals came from.
By doing that, he “mobilised inequalities and the gap between rich and poor” and “undermined mobilisation of politics along ethnic lines”, Karuti Kanyinga, a professor of development studies at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies (IDS), told Al Jazeera.
Kenyatta and veteran opposition leader Odinga sparred on the political stage for years, squaring up in the 2007, 2013 and 2017 presidential elections.
They mended fences in 2018 after Odinga boycotted the 2017 rerun – that Kenyatta won – and chaos seemed all but certain.
The reconciliation, a seminal event now known in Kenyan politics as “the handshake”, effectively displaced Ruto as the establishment candidate to succeed Kenyatta after his second five-year term.
In its campaign, Ruto’s camp maintained that Kenyatta was distracted afterwards and deviated from the agreed governance agenda.
Public debt has risen under the Kenyatta administration, from Sh1.89 trillion ($21.95billion then) in 2013 to Sh8.59 trillion ($71.85 billion) now, as it relied on loans for much-needed infrastructure projects. Unemployment is also high, leading to frustration among Kenyans, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 35.
Coincidentally, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine happened within two years, drastically disrupting food supply and driving up costs of living.
So Ruto weaponised these topics to get Kenyans to vote to protect their bellies and not their blood ties.
“He identified with people who go to the supermarket and have no money to buy what they are looking at,” Edward Kisiangani, a professor of political studies at Kenyatta University and a Ruto advisor, told Al Jazeera.
“Raila Odinga was a state project of a weak president who ruined our economy,” he added. “Ruto came with an economic blueprint that promised to bring change to the lives of many. People saw that blueprint as a pathway to economic prosperity.”
A history of bad blood
But as Ruto hammered on the rising costs of living to the masses, ethnicity was always lurking in the background.
Indeed, 55-year-old Ruto’s route to the presidency began eight months before he was born, as a rift between the fathers of the two men he would eventually have to take on half a century later.
In 1963, when Kenya gained independence from British colonial rule, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga became president and vice president respectively of the nascent country. Their party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), was mainly full of Kikuyu and Luo elements, the tribes the two men came from.
The two fell out over ideological differences and Jaramogi Odinga resigned from office in April 1966. The bile that followed was of spectacular proportions and eventually moved from an individual level to a communal one.
By December that year, when Ruto was born in Kamagut near Eldoret in the Rift Valley, Kenyatta’s Kikuyus and Odinga’s Luos, two of the country’s largest ethnic groups, were barely seeing eye to eye.
Over the years, those tensions marinated the sociopolitical landscape, intermittently manifesting in dangerous dimensions, especially as Kikuyus have accounted for three of the country’s four presidents.
The exception was Daniel Arap Moi, an ethnic Kalenjin like Ruto who has gone from being a village boy tending to his family’s cattle in rural Kenya to the presidency.
After the return to multi-party politics in 1991, the ruling KANU established a youth wing to seduce young voters ahead of the election the next year, to facilitate Moi’s fourth term in office. It was called Youth for Kanu (YK92) and brought Ruto, one of its leaders, to national consciousness.
By 1997 and aged just 31, his political tactics were solid enough to defeat the long-serving MP for Eldoret North, a veteran politician named Reuben Chesire.
Ruto racked up degrees in botany, zoology and plant ecology – later up to doctorate level – while holding roles in parliament and cabinet. After supporting Kenyatta’s presidential bid in 2002, he withdrew his own candidacy five years later to support Odinga’s second presidential bid.
In 2013, Ruto ran for office alongside Kenyatta but the 2007 post-election violence that left hundreds of Kenyans dead and more than half a million others displaced, became a major talking point.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) charged the duo with crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in inciting violence in that episode. They had been elected into office but waived their immunity to attend the trial.
After they were discharged, Ruto, who regularly visits and donates to churches, said he had believed in his “God of justice and victory” to vindicate him.
During Kenyatta’s trial in 2014, Ruto served as acting president for three days. That brief stint as Kenya’s number one citizen may have reinforced his belief that he was meant to be president.
Having worked in campaigns for Odinga and the last three presidents, Ruto tapped into their networks and his, to build an alliance. For instance, Uhuru Kenyatta’s cousin Kung’u Muigai, former Odinga campaign manager Eliud Owalo and Johnstone Muthama, a longtime ally of Odinga – and former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka – joined Ruto.
As Kenyatta left him out of major government functions after “the handshake”, Ruto recruited new lieutenants including politicians who felt sidelined within the ruling Jubilee Party’s fold.
Soon there were two factions in government, one backing Kenyatta and the other loyal to Ruto.
His populist Kenya Kwanza (‘Kenya First’ in Swahili) movement, targeted not just his strongholds but also jobless youths and opposition areas.
He styled himself as a hustler who had hawked chicken and peanuts on the streets, promising to provide better economic solutions than the Odinga and Kenyatta dynasties had done, or could do.
Despite allegations of corruption and a 2013 court ruling against him for land grabbing, he regularly invoked the “deep state”, talking about a powerful elite subverting the people’s will.
Ruto also appealed to the Kikuyus, the country’s largest voting bloc, in an election where none of their kinsmen was at the top of a major party’s ticket, even if he did not directly mention ethnicity.
He picked Rigathi Gachagua, a Kikuyu, lawmaker, seasoned campaigner and Kenyatta’s former personal assistant as his deputy. They toured Kikuyuland several times, like Kenyatta and Ruto did between 2013 and 2017, when the former told his kinsmen to vote the latter as his successor.
In that period, Kenyatta – like his father did to his rival decades ago – repeatedly besmirched Odinga. He returned to his kinsmen to say the opposite ahead of the 2022 elections but only few of them voted in accordance with his wishes.
The president-elect won in Kenyatta’s hometown, and in that of Odinga’s running mate Martha Karua, a woman seen as a pillar of integrity but a political outsider among her fellow Kikuyus.
An analysis by local outlet The Nation showed that two-thirds of Ruto’s votes came from 10 counties in the Mount Kenya region – mostly inhabited by Kikuyus – and seven counties in the Rift Valley – mostly inhabited by Kalenjins.
“Many of those campaigning for Raila presented Ruto as a person trespassing against the palace,” Kisiangani told Al Jazeera. “So the Kikuyu rank and file, because they had the same problems as any other Kenyan did not think to support Kenyatta [and his candidate] because he is their son.”
For Kiarie Ciombou, head of the elders’ council in Murang’a county, a predominantly Kikuyu area, the results reflected Ruto’s efforts.
“Ruto managed to get Mt. Kenya votes because of his strategy and consistency,” he told Al Jazeera. “Four years [of] campaigning using vocal people especially focused on one region had to bear results.”