Ruto: Insider who ran presidential race as an outsider

Kenyan President-Elect William Ruto

Kenyan President-Elect William Ruto delivers a speech at the Bomas of Kenya Tallying Centre in Nairobi on August 15, 2022.

Photo credit: Tony Karumba | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Ruto's Hustler vs Dynasty narrative, a potent class ideology that in many ways transformed competitive politics from the usual ethnic mobilisation.
  • His tears flow easily, and these ones would have been well-deserved as he contemplated the enormity of what he had achieved.
  • It was no doubt a feat of great satisfaction that his “hustler movement” took on the combined forces of the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga scions and emerged victorious.

President-elect William Ruto would undoubtedly have had a handkerchief at the ready the moment confirmation came in that he had been elected fifth President.

His tears flow easily, and these ones would have been well-deserved as he contemplated the enormity of what he had achieved.

The emotional, bible-quoting mien does not in any way suggest a weakling. As a politician, Dr Ruto is as tough as nails, giving no quarter and often as ruthless as can be.

The laughter and smiles come easily and he knows when to turn on the charm offensive, but a vicious streak and steely, focused, a single-minded determination is what has propelled him to the presidency.

He can look back in awe at a meteoric rise from a period in his life he has often played up, a son of peasant farmers who supposedly hawked ground nuts and eggs by the roadside to make ends meet.

It has indeed been a long journey, and affirmation of the narrative he consistently pushed throughout his first presidential campaign — the self-made “hustler” from a poor background taking on the “dynasties” that have dominated the Kenyan political and economic scene since independence.

The dynastic families he targeted were those of his rival in the presidential election, veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga who is the son of Kenya’s first Vice President at independence, Oginga Odinga; outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta who is Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta’s son; and Kanu leader Gideon Moi who is the second President Daniel arap Moi’s son.

It was no doubt a feat of great satisfaction that his “hustler movement” took on the combined forces of the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga scions and emerged victorious.

Yet Ruto can also be magnanimous in victory, as illustrated in his acceptance speech yesterday with the laudatory words for President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, and assurances that those who opposed him had nothing to fear.

Long journey

The boy from Kamagut Primary School in rural Sugoi who, by his own account, did not own his first pair of shoes until he went to Wareng Secondary, now has the keys to State House.

It is a long way from Sugoi to the ultimate seat of power, but Dr Ruto will hardly be overawed. Not after two terms as Deputy President since 2013, two terms as a member of Parliament before that from 1997, cabinet seats during the period, and throughout his early forays into politics straight out of university.

Unlike President Mwai Kibaki who came direct from the opposition—albeit after long stints in government including ten as Vice President—and thus was coming in replace the Moi system, Dr Ruto assumes the presidency having campaigned to change the very system he served.

From President Ruto, we can expect a clear-out at senior government ranks, but realpolitik will also ensure that campaign rhetoric and promises do not override the realities of governance.

Dr Ruto may well be a disruptive influence in many ways, as evidenced by his early life in politics when he became a bit of a thorn in the flesh of the Moi power structure, but he has always been more comfortable within the system than against it.

While he campaigned on the change platform and the promise of the revolutionary transformation of the economic system, there is nothing in Dr Ruto’s history and background to suggest a revolutionary.

Born in 1966 in Sugoi, Uasin Gishu County to a humble farming family, though not as dirt-poor as he often says, Dr Ruto had his early education at Kamagut Primary School.

He then joined Wareng Secondary School for his ‘O’ Levels followed by Kapsabet Boys High School for his ‘A’ levels.

He joined the University of Nairobi where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Botany and Zoology in 1990.

Unlike many who cut their political teeth at the ‘mother’ university, Dr Ruto was more active in the Christian Union and choir than in radical activism. If there was any political involvement, it was in supporting the status quo of a one-party regime tightly controlled by President Moi.

After university, Dr Ruto worked briefly as a schoolteacher in the rural outposts of his birth, then earned a scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Nairobi.

He had hardly taken up his studies when the allure of politics beckoned. The wind of change was sweeping across the world, toppling totalitarian regimes, and Kenya was no exception.

The multi-party campaign was pushing President Moi to the wall, and he sponsored an organisation called Youth for Kanu ’92 to help his regime resist the clamour for change.

YK '92

Dr Ruto took a break from his studies to enlist in an organisation that, within a short time, gained infamy for wanton looting of public resources.

When the top YK ’92 leadership under Mr Cyrus Jirongo fell afoul of President Moi after the first multi-party elections in 1992, Mr Ruto played it cleverly, ingratiating himself into the Moi power structure, but also establishing an independent political profile that had him into a love-hate relationship with the President.

He had made his first parliamentary bid for Eldoret North Constituency in 1992, failing to dislodge veteran politician Reuben Chesire, but catching attention with youthful vigour and relentless attacks on his older opponent that showed no fear or respect for status. Come 1997, and Ruto won the seat, but also mended fences with Moi.

As the President serving out his final term started plotting his succession, he brought into his fold the young politician who would come to play a critical role in years to come.

After the 1997 election when President Moi brought a key opposition figure, Mr Odinga, into the Kanu fold, playing an important part in crafting the new-look ruling outfit was Mr Ruto, who had become part of a constellation that included Gideon Moi and political fixer Mark Too.

The ‘New Kanu’ taking shape ahead of the 2002 elections saw political greenhorn Uhuru Kenyatta bring in one of for vice chairmen alongside Noah Katana Ngala, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi in a new power structure that ejected then Vice President George Saitoti and other members of the old-guard.

Mr Odinga became Secretary-General while Dr Ruto settled for the post of Director of Elections.

A sign that callow young man from Sugoi had finally arrived was illustrated one Sunday when President Moi summoned Kalenjin politicians, elders, and community leaders to introduce to them those chosen to represent the community in the new dispensation at State House, Nakuru.

When ‘Total Man’ Nicholas Biwott, the once-all-powerful cabinet minister, realised that his name was not on the list, he stood up angrily to protest.

President Moi listened quietly, looked up to Dr Ruto somewhere in the back of the room, and casually told him: “Find something for Biwott”.

Dr Ruto nodded and retreated to an anteroom where Gideon Moi was monitoring proceedings. After hurried consultations, he came back to announce that Mr Biwott could have the post of Kanu Organising Secretary.

When Mr Odinga led a mass migration from Kanu in protest at Moi’s naming of Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred successor, Dr Ruto remained to back his doomed presidential bid and was by his side when at Serena Hotel when he conceded defeat to Mr Mwai Kibaki.

Both Uhuru and Dr Ruto in private conversation admit that they were stunned by the outcome, not so much in Kibaki winning, but in that their expectation Moi would pull something out of his bag of magic tricks to over-ride the choice of the voter did not materialise.

Uhuru assumed the role of Opposition leader with Ruto as a key lieutenant, but things took an interesting turn in 2005 when Mr Odinga and other key figures in the Kibaki government who had crossed over from Kanu in 2002 rejected a proposed new constitution.

They teamed up with Uhuru and Ruto in a movement leading to driving the ‘Orange’ No campaign against the ‘Banana’ Yes in the referendum.

The Orange campaign morphed into the Orange Democratic Movement led by Mr Odinga, with Dr Ruto and Mr Mudavadi coming in as key lieutenants.

Meanwhile, Uhuru took what remained of Kanu into an alliance with Kibaki, looking to inherit the large Kikuyu vote that would be up for grabs when the President exited.

In the 2007 elections, it was a straight fight between President Kibaki and Mr Odinga, the former retaining his seat in a disputed election that led to widespread violence.

The peace settlement brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan saw Mr Odinga join the Kibaki government as Prime Minister with Uhuru and Mudavadi as co-deputies and Dr Ruto as Agriculture Minister.

ICC case

But, within a short time, relations between Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto soured. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the intervention of the International Criminal Court into the 2007 post-election violence.

Initially, when then ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo came into the country to launch investigations, Mr Odinga was adamant that his side of the Grand Coalition government was innocent, saying blame for the violence lay solely with the Kibaki side for allegedly stealing the 2007 elections.

When Mr Ocampo finally released his list of suspects, Mr Odinga initially defended Mr Ruto, saying he was a victim rather than a perpetrator. However, he finally came to support the ICC cases.

The ICC trials were a seminal moment in Kenyan history. Mr Odinga might have calculated that his path to the presidency would be easier with two key foes out of the way, but everything rebounded when Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto reunited to not only fight the charges jointly but exploit the cases to craft a powerful new political movement ahead of the 2013 elections.

Their Jubilee coalition won the polls, and Mr Odinga was out of luck for the third time.

Jubilee won again in 2017 and it was the fourth time unlucky. But then came the famous handshake the following year, which eventually led to President Kenyatta switching support to Mr Odinga and ditching Dr Ruto.

By that time Ruto was already campaigning for his own 2022 presidential bid and securing the loyalty of key Jubilee leaders, particularly from President Kenyatta’s Mt Kenya region, who would form the bulwark of his ‘Hustler Movement’.

Alongside politics, the DP had found time to return to Nairobi University to complete his Master of Science degree in 2011 and PhD in 2018.

When Kanu effectively collapsed after being inherited by Gideon Moi when Uhuru decamped to the Kibaki side, Dr Ruto effortlessly moved in to fill the vacuum in Kalenjin leadership, assuming the mantle once tightly held by the late President Moi.

It was probably during that period he started crafting the Hustler vs Dynasty narrative, a potent class ideology that in many ways transformed competitive politics from the usual ethnic mobilisation.