“Every rush counts”: Kenya’s William Ruto is nominating himself as a candidate for the presidency

Minutes after protesters stormed the stage to contest his narrow victory, Kenya’s president-elect, self-proclaimed hustler and former street chicken vendor William Ruto, attempted to strike a statesmanlike note.

The vice-president, previously indicted by the International Criminal Court for inciting ethnic violence after the disputed 2007 election, congratulated his “worthy competitor”, veteran opposition politician Raila Odinga, and called for peace.

“The people of Kenya have raised the bar for us who aspire to leadership of our country. Not to sell our ethnicities, but to sell our programs, our manifestos, our agenda and our plan,” he said Monday to cheers and applause. “There is no place for revenge and as we look back we look to the future.”

Odinga has contested the results. His team said the results had been rigged in Ruto’s favour. Some election commissioners also denied the result. It is unclear when Ruto will take office. But Ruto’s supporters are aware that the man once associated with some of the worst electoral violence in the east African country has changed.

“Like all of us, William Ruto has grown. I think he’s a very different person from the person who became vice president. Those ten years were a character-building exercise for him. I think he’s better prepared for this job,” said David Ndii, his top economic adviser.

Ruto, one of Kenya’s richest businessmen, championed his rags-to-riches story. His yellow Hummer-esque campaign vehicle carried the slogan “Every Hustle Matters”.

The godly, teetotal 55-year-old botanist by training contrasted his humble pedigree with that of Odinga and his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, both sons of Kenyan independence heroes. “Ever since people decided to call me a chicken seller, I’ve decided to keep being one,” he told the Financial Times. “Now I have about 200,000 chickens.”

Ruto addresses the nation following Monday's election announcement in Nairobi
Ruto addresses the nation following Monday’s election announcement in Nairobi © Michele Spatari/Bloomberg

The electoral race, dubbed “dynasties versus hustlers” by observers, was rendered unpredictable by the fact that Ruto fell out with Kenyatta. Kenyatta’s victory in 2013 was made possible by Ruto’s supporters in the Rift Valley. In turn, Ruto had hoped for Kenyatta’s support for the presidency this year, but his boss sided with Odinga four years ago.

On election day, Kenyatta’s traditional Kikuyu supporters – from Mount Kenya – supported the Deputy President, who is a Kalenjin. Voter turnout was almost 65 percent, down from around 80 percent in previous elections. The result can be interpreted as a sign that the ethnic ties that shape electoral politics in Kenya have weakened, analysts say.

“I said we’re going to have a different conversation, we’re not going to have the usual conversation about big boys and sharing power and sharing positions,” Ruto said in a pre-vote interview. “This conversation is less and less about ethnicity, it is less and less about what has always created tensions between Kenyans. It is more and more about topics without ethnic ballast. It’s about job creation, cost of living, dealing with debt and making sure we have adequate income.”

If he takes office, he would have to steer an economy battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, soaring food and fuel prices spurred by the war in Ukraine, the worst drought in four decades and rising national debt.

“He faces some significant economic challenges, including the need to put Kenya’s public debt on a sustainable footing. On that front, investors could welcome a Ruto presidency, not least because he had discussed his preference for fiscal consolidation while his opponent had been open about the need for debt restructuring,” Capital Economics’ Virág Fórizs wrote in a note.

Ruto supporters celebrate in his party headquarters with the slogan:
Ruto supporters celebrate at his party headquarters © Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP

Ruto’s supporters say his plans to increase agricultural and industrial production are just what Kenya needs. “Ruto, a thoroughbred politician, spawned a revolution that has taken the country by storm. To his followers, he is a virtually omniscient political chess master who plots his course many moves in advance,” Kenya’s newspaper said. The nation, wrote on Tuesday.

Ruto told the FT: “It’s trickle down versus bottom up because I think where Kenya is at the moment there are some imperatives that are necessary – we need to sort out the cost of living, we need to deal with our debt situation. ”

Although he presented himself as an outsider, Ruto began his political career in 1992 campaigning for the late President Daniel arap Moi. “He’s been around for a while, he’s been discussed by former President Moi, stepped in as a youth leader and is someone who has risen through the ranks pretty quickly for our politics,” said Nerima Wako, a Kenyan political scientist.

Ruto’s critics accuse him of corruption, land grabbing and ruthlessness in his quest for power, allegations he denies. “Ruto is a political marauder, an economic saboteur,” said Luke Odongo, an elementary school teacher who volunteered for Odinga’s campaign.

Ruto supported Raila Odinga in the 2007 elections in which 1,200 people were killed in post-election violence. He was tried by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, but the charges were later dropped. “The allegations that were made against me then just went up in flames because they were false,” he said.

For his followers, this victory is a for all hustlers. “I’m happy with the results because we’re winners,” said Joshua Marata, a 24-year-old boda-boda, motorcycle taxi driver. “I’m a hustler like him, he supports hustlers, and this is a hustler nation now.” “Every rush counts”: Kenya’s William Ruto is nominating himself as a candidate for the presidency

Adam Bradshaw

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