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Kenya elections: Ruto, man of the people, vs Odinga, king-in-waiting

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Kenya elections: Ruto, man of the people, vs Odinga, king-in-waiting

Can five times Presidential candidate Raila Odinga defeat William Ruto, the champion of Kenya’s “hustler nation”, in the country’s 9 August election? Neil Ford appraises the two leading candidate’s for Kenya’s highest office.

Given the constantly changing landscape of Kenyan politics, this year’s Presidential election comes down to a battle between two men and the loyalties they are able to call upon. Current Vice-President William Ruto is hoping to defeat political veteran Raila Odinga, who benefits from the support of most of the political establishment and is hoping that it will be fifth time lucky in his bid for the Presidency. We profile the two men, their parties and their presidential running mates.

William Ruto – the man of the people

Although he is Kenya’s Vice-President, 55-year-old William Ruto is keen to depict himself as something different to the established order that has dominated Kenyan politics since independence. Given that this is the first time he has contested the Presidency, this portrayal has some truth to it and helps to distance him from Raila Odinga and also, from outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has failed to back him for the top job.

In contrast with the establishment families that dominate the country’s political landscape, Ruto comes from a poorer background, famously not getting his first pair of shoes until the age of 15 and working by selling chickens to passing motorists.

Ruto has sought to present himself as a man of the people, donating gifts such as handcarts and wheelbarrows to the unemployed on the campaign trail. Huge crowds have gathered to hear him speak as he promotes his image as the one leader who can represent the needs of hustlers – those struggling to make ends meet – against the establishment.

In common with many other leading Kenyan politicians, he has moved between different parties over the course of his political career. In 1992, Ruto joined the youth wing of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which used to dominate the political system, and first entered parliament in 1997 at the age of 30. He went on to support his main opponent in this year’s election, Odinga, at the 2007 polls.

However, along with Uhuru Kenyatta, Ruto was charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in the bloody violence associated with that campaign. The charges were dropped by the ICC in 2016. Ruto meanwhile had switched sides to become Kenyatta’s running  mate for the Presidency in 2013.

Ruto was rejected by the Jubilee Party as its Presidential candidate for the 2022 election, so last year he joined the United Democratic Alliance (UDA), becoming the official candidate of the 12-party Kenya Kwanza coalition, of which the UDA is part. There have been corruption allegations surrounding the main candidates, including questions over the legitimacy of some of Ruto’s assets. For his part, he insists that he has worked hard for everything he owns.

Ruto says that he will accept the result of the election whichever way it goes, although he also insists that government officials and the media are biased against him. In early June, he told a meeting of European ambassadors that he believed that a million voters had been removed from the electoral roll by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in areas that are expected to back him.

However, IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati said: “Let’s not talk about one million names missing, there’s no such thing. The one million names we are talking about are for those who applied for transfers and we are undergoing the process of ensuring that the proper transfers are effected.”

Raila Odinga – fifth time lucky?

Odinga is to contest the Presidential election as the candidate of the Azimio la Umoja coalition of 26 parties, including the two biggest parties: Odinga’s own Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party. Odinga has switched party allegiance many times, joining nine different parties or coalitions in the 13 years after 1992, but has been a member of the ODM since 2005.

He is the son of Kenya’s first Vice-President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who served under Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, Jomo. Raila qualified as a mechanical engineer in the former East Germany and briefly lectured at the University of Nairobi before entering politics. He was jailed for six years on charges of participating in the failed 1982 coup and has been imprisoned on other occasions for campaigning for greater political freedoms.

He came a distant third in the 1997 Presidential election with 10.8% of the popular vote and supported Kibaki in the 2002 polls rather than run himself. One of the big men of Kenyan politics, Odinga had been expected to win the 2007 election before the electoral count was suspended. This triggered ethnic fighting that resulted in more than 1,200 fatalities but although he was not declared the winner, he did serve as Prime Minister from 2008 until 2012 under the subsequent power sharing agreement.

All of Kenya’s Presidents to date have come from just two ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, so in this sense Odinga would mark a break with the past as he comes from the Luo community. He has been written off several times in the past, with many assuming that his 2017 bid for the Presidency would be his last.

Odinga has various business interests, mostly in relation to importing fuel and manufacturing gas cylinders. As with most other political heavyweights, he has been implicated in corruption scandals but nothing has been proved against him and with social media running amok with conspiracy theories, it is impossible to separate the totally false from the probable truth.

Odinga attracts strong emotions from supporters and opponents, so his supporters were initially stunned by the March 2018 handshake and subsequent alliance with Kenyatta but many continued to put their trust in him. It is possible that a behind-the-scenes deal was struck between the two men, with Kenyatta serving out his second term without Odinga’s opposition, in return for the former backing the latter in 2022. At any rate, burying the generational hatchet diffused a potentially dangerous situation and was broadly welcomed throughout the country.

He, Ruto and Kenyatta have formed and then broken alliances with each other several times over many years, so it would be interesting to see how any pact between Odinga and Kenyatta would hold up if Odinga did win the Presidency, with Kenyatta taking the post of Prime Minister (if it is created) or even merely influencing government from behind the scenes. There is also a question over how long Odinga will seek to serve as President. He has suggested that he would not seek a second term but his statements leave some room for manoeuvre. At 77, Odinga is 17 years older than Kenyatta and 22 years older than Ruto.

Vice-Presidential candidates

There has been growing interest in Vice-Presidential candidates ever since the 2010 Constitution introduced a joint ticket system for Presidential elections.

Rigathi Gachagua

William Ruto has selected Rigathi Gachagua, who is a Kikuyu, as his running mate to help him secure support from the most populous ethnic group in the country, and the one that has provided three of the country’s four Presidents to date. This is particularly important as none of the main parties are fielding Kikuyu candidates, for the first time in Kenya’s history.

Gachagua was formerly Kenyatta’s personal assistant but was not one of the favourites to be appointed as Odinga’s running mate, so his success in being chosen is regarded as proof of his political astuteness.

Martha Karua

Like Ruto, Odinga has decided to choose a Kikuyu running mate to help him secure support from that community. However, when discussing his Vice-Presidential candidate, it is difficult to avoid focusing on the fact that Martha Karua could make history if elected. 

It would be far better to focus on the policies of Martha Karua rather than her gender, but her inclusion on the ballot paper is another small step forward for African female politicians, as she is the first woman to be included on a major political party’s Presidential ticket in Kenyan history.

There were notable female leaders of African states in the pre-colonial era but none in the decades immediately following independence. Sylvie Kiningi served as Acting President of Burundi for nine months in 1993 after President Melchior Ndadaye was killed but it was Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who became the continent’s first elected woman President in 2006, going on to serve for two terms in Liberia until 2018. 

Other acting heads of state followed but there have now been four more elected female presidents: Joyce Hilda Banda in Malawi for two years from 2012; Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018; President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia from 2018 onwards; and Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of Tanzania since March 2021.

The role of women in Kenyan political life is slowly gaining acceptance. They now comprise 23% of all MPs and three women – Susan Kihika, Margaret Kamar and Fatuma Dullo – became the first ever to be elected rather than appointed to the Senate in 2017.

Karua failed in her own bid for the Presidency in 2013 when she won just 0.36% of the vote as the candidate of a relatively small party, the National Rainbow Coalition, but she can take heart from the experiences of Hassan and Banda, both of whom stepped up from the Vice-Presidency to lead their countries at a later stage. Speaking last year, she said: “I still have unfinished business with [the] Presidency, so God willing, one day I will serve in that capacity… History is calling us to close the gender gap in our country.”

Karua has a background as a lawyer, supporting a number of human rights and anti-corruption causes and fighting for improved access to clean water. She has previously served as Justice Minister but resigned from the post in 2009 over President Mwai Kibaki’s decision to appoint judges without consulting her.

Apart from her ethnicity and possibly her gender, she may also have been chosen to counter Ruto’s appeal, because of her reputation as a champion of the poor. She continues to criticise widespread corruption in the country. It will be interesting to see whether the inclusion of a woman on the Presidential ticket will influence the voting intentions of Kenyan women.

Others in the fray

The only two other candidates that satisfied all the criteria and made the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) list are lawyer David Mwaure and Professor George Wajackoyah.

The bearded Wajackoyah (Roots Party) is a colourful character with a career that seems to come straight from a political thriller novel. Escaping a dysfunctional family, he came to Nairobi and joined the thousands of others earning a precarious living as a ‘street boy’.

He was rescued from that life by the Hare Krishna followers, who sent him to school. He converted to the sect, becoming Krishna Balram. When he left school, he joined the Kenya police and rose quickly to inspector level. He was put in charge of covert operations digging out information about the murder of Kenyan politician Robert Ouko – whose death has not been explained to this day.

When things got too hot for him and following the sudden deaths of several people involved in the Ouko inquiry, he fled to the UK where he studied law, supporting himself by digging graves among other activities. He opened a law firm in the UK before relocating to the US where he acquired further degrees and worked as a lawyer.

He returned to Kenya in 2016 and opened a law firm called Luchiri & Co. Advocates. If he wins the election, he says he will legalise the growing and exporting of marijuana and encourage snake farming to obtain serums to produce antidotes to snake bites. He has also threatened to execute corrupt judiciary, public servants and politicians. “In China, you’re tried then hanged and in Europe, you go to jail but in Kenya, a corrupt person goes to Parliament,” he commented.

The final candidate, David Mwaure Waihiga is the complete opposite of Wajackoyah. A suave and polished advocate of over 35 years’ experience, he is the leader of the Agano Party. He is also an ordained church minister. This will be his second tilt at the Presidency, having thrown his hat in the ring in 2013 but later pulled out.

“We want to tell Kenyans that we are the only coalition that will fight corruption and fight it completely – these others cannot do so because if you look at the background, they are joined at the hip. The men and women who right now are calling themselves big horses are people who have been there for the last 10, 20 years,” he said.

The main parties

As in the Presidential poll, two big political forces dominate legislative politics but given the shifting sands of party politics in the country, it is possible that another force, such as the newly formed United Democratic Alliance (UDA), could secure a large number of seats in this year’s election.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party was born out of the Jubilee Alliance of 11 previously independent parties that was created to support Uhuru Kenyatta’s Presidential election campaign in 2013. The Alliance was converted into a party in September 2016 when the constituent parties agreed to merge.

It won by far the most seats in the Senate and National Assembly in the 2017 elections, taking 41% of the vote in the former and 40% in the latter, against the Orange Democratic Movement’s (ODM) 24% and 19% respectively.

However, it will be interesting to see what impact the Jubilee Party’s decision to back opposition leader Odinga in the 2022 Presidential election will have on its legislative popularity. Divisions within the party were deepened as a result of the debate over who to back, with many favouring Ruto.

The eventual decision to follow Kenyatta in backing Odinga prompted Ruto to leave the party to join the UDA as its Presidential candidate. The Kenya African National Union (Kanu) dominated politics during the early independence decades but is now a less important force on the political landscape.

The ODM was originally created in 2005 to oppose constitutional changes in that year’s referendum. It subsequently split in 2007 into the ODM Party and the Wiper Democratic Movement; the latter is still one of the most important of Kenya’s smaller parties. To complicate matters still further, Kenyatta and Kanu were key components of the ODM prior to the split.

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