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What President William Ruto’s win means for Kenya

The Week UK logo The Week UK 9/20/2022 Julia O'Driscoll
President William Ruto Billy Mutai/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images © Billy Mutai/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images President William Ruto Billy Mutai/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Former deputy has promised ‘radical transformation’ as East African country battles economic crisis

William Ruto has become Kenya’s president after the nation’s Supreme Court ruled that allegations of election fraud were unsubstantiated.

After being sworn in last week, Ruto attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London on Monday, before travelling to the US for further official engagements. The former deputy president and self-described “hustler” will also face a packed agenda when he returns home, having “inherited an economy saddled with debt, inflation, joblessness and national pessimism”, said X.N. Iraki, an associate professor of the University of Nairobi, in an article on The Conversation.  

Who is William Ruto? 

The new president’s “humble beginnings” appear to have helped win over voters in Kenya’s recent elections, said Deutsche Welle (DW). Ruto “says he sold live chickens to make ends meet in his youth”, the German news site continued. But today “he is one of the wealthiest Kenyans, boasting a 2,500-acre ranch, a massive poultry farm, and investments in the hotel industry”.

“A confessed Christian”, Ruto studied botany and zoology at the University of Nairobi, before beginning his political career in 1992. He was “mentored, he says, by then-President Daniel arap Moi”, said the BBC, and “was part of the youth wing of Mr Moi's once-dominant Kanu party”.

By 2007, he was backing Raila Odinga, his main rival in the recent vote, in the centre-left Orange Democratic Movement. The ODM narrowly lost the 2007 election but the result was disputed and violence erupted after Mwai Kibaki was declared president. Around 1,200 people were killed and “hundreds of thousands of others” displaced, said DW. The International Criminal Court in The Hague accused Ruto of committing human rights abuses; the charges were dropped 11 years later.

Uhuru Kenyatta, accused along with Ruto of human rights abuses following the disputed election result, won Kenya’s presidency in 2013 and again in 2017, with Ruto serving as his deputy for both terms. 

It’s “still not clear” why the two would later “fall out”, said DW, but they “parted ways in 2021”. The United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party then backed Ruto to run for the presidency this year.

How tight was this year’s election race?

“Clinching Kenya’s top job was difficult” for Ruto, said DW. His campaign was marred by a “public repudiation by his boss”, Kenyatta, who backed Odinga’s campaign for re-election and said that Ruto was “not fit for office”, said Reuters

It was thought that Kenyatta’s endorsement of Odinga would “draw in support” from the Kikuyu communities, said The Guardian. Around one in five people in Kenya belong to the ethnic group, which has “been at political odds” with Odinga’s Luo community “for decades”. But a “reconciliation” between Odinga and Kenyatta “was ultimately not enough to bridge the divide”. 

“Both sides hurled accusations of corruption during a deeply personal, acrimonious campaign,” said Reuters. The “outspoken” Ruto “defied all odds” to secure 50.49% of the vote, compared to Odinga’s 48.85%.

Odinga challenged the result, alleging that there had been cases of election fraud. But Kenya’s Supreme Court handed down a “scathing ruling” in early September that unanimously confirmed the result, said the BBC.

“Perhaps the biggest success of the 2022 elections is the fact that Kenyans demonstrated commitment to move past the country’s history of electoral violence,” said an analysis by the United States Institute of Peace

What will Ruto’s leadership mean for Kenya?

Ruto promised “radical” economic “transformation” during his campaign, with a bottom-up approach to tackle unemployment and improve living standards for the poorest people, said Iraki at The Conversation.

Lowering the price of fuel and food are two “key challenges” Ruto faces, said Al Jazeera. But days after taking office, Kenya “scrapped” subsidies on petrol, which Ruto had described as “unsustainable”. 

Higher prices have been set for fuel, with the cost of petrol increasing by 13% and diesel by 18% compared to the previous month, which analysts warn could “push inflation even higher”.

On social issues, Ruto “is not shy of publicly professing his faith”, said the BBC. He is “expected to take a tough stand on gay rights” and “the chances of his government relaxing abortion laws are slim”. 

Ultimately, “overcoming the country’s legacy of ethnic politics and building national cohesion” could prove to be the “biggest challenge” Ruto will need to tackle, said the United States Institute of Peace.

What will his leadership mean for international relations?

Less than a week after taking office, Ruto has already “embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive”, said Kenyan newspaper The Star, joining world leaders at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. 

He will travel from London to America on Monday, and is set to make his first presidential address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday. The US has “massive” interests in expanding Kenya’s infrastructure, and has invested “millions of dollars” into “education, environment, rule of law and democratic governance”, said the paper.

A host of meetings with “the world’s influential leaders” will put Ruto “in a strong pole position to push for his agenda”, said The Star. Tweeting on Sunday, he said: “Strengthening ties with the international community will catalyse the transformation of our country.”

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