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A marriage of inconvenience: Kenya’s president turns on his deputy

They say a week is a long time in politics. The past week, in Kenya, every day has felt like an eternity.

It is no secret that there has been a growing divide between Kenya’s fourth president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy William Ruto. During their first term in office (2013 to 2017), the pair displayed enviable chemistry and unity of purpose — not least in facing down the International Criminal Court until all charges against them were dropped (the charges related to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007, when they were on different sides of the political divide). Sometimes they even wore matching attire.

But over the past two years, since their re-election, the relationship between Kenyatta and Ruto has become increasingly tense. They have even disagreed on high-profile government initiatives, such as how to fight the war on corruption; and whether the president’s flagship Building Bridges Initiative — an ambitious project to reform Kenya’s legislation — is really the best way forward for the country.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Kenya in March, these divisions became even more pronounced. Kenyatta, guided by his closest allies, was at the forefront of directing the response; the deputy president was nowhere to be seen. This fuelled speculation that the president was considering moving against Ruto — potentially jeopardizing Ruto’s long-held ambition of ascending to the top job in the next election in 2022.

Last week, that speculation appeared to become reality.

First, news emerged last Sunday of a secretive electoral alliance between the ruling Jubilee Party and the once-mighty Kenya African National Union (Kanu), which ruled Kenya from independence until 2002. President Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta — also Kenya’s first president — founded Kanu. There is another dynastic link: Kanu is now led by Gideon Moi, the son of Kenya’s second president and Kanu stalwart, the late Daniel Arap Moi.

The alliance was controversial because one faction of the Jubilee Party seemed to know nothing about it. That faction is aligned with Ruto. Some of Ruto’s supporters in the party have already challenged the alliance at the Political Parties Disputes Tribunal, arguing that it is not in line with Jubilee’s constitution.

Last Monday, the plot thickened. Kenyatta hosted a meeting of Jubilee Party senators. Senators from Kanu attended, but the deputy president and his allies were missing in action.

On Tuesday, things became even more serious when key Ruto allies were removed from positions of power. Both Senate majority leader Kipchumba Murkomen and majority whip Susan Kihika were defrocked and replaced by other senators.

On Wednesday, Jubilee secretary general Raphael Tuju began a disciplinary process against five senators who did not attend that meeting last Monday — a process that could end in their expulsion.

For the unlikely, but so far very successful, political marriage between Kenyatta and Ruto, this appears to be the end of the road. As the Daily Nation noted in an editorial last week: “The centre cannot hold and chaotic divorce is inevitable.”

The handshake

The collapse of Kenyatta and Ruto’s alliance became inevitable on March 9 2018 — the moment Kenyatta entered into another alliance, this time with his bitter political rival Raila Odinga. Although Kenyatta and Odinga and their respective supporters had hurled insults at each other throughout the messy 2017 election season, they announced then that they were putting their differences aside. This moment became known throughout Kenya as “the handshake”.

Kenyatta and Odinga — without much or any input from Ruto — put together a joint committee to generate solutions to nine problems that have plagued Kenya since independence, including ethnic antagonism, divisive elections and the lack of a national ethos. This committee’s major contribution has been the Building Bridges Initiative, which spent 18 months collecting ideas and feedback from Kenyans across geographic and social divides.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, momentum on the Building Bridges Initiative has now stalled. But between it and “the handshake”, the damage to the relationship between the president and his deputy had already been done.

For students of Kenyan politics, Ruto’s troubles come as no surprise. The second-in-command position has historically been a poisoned chalice. Kenya has had 11 vice-presidents in its history. Only two — Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki — have gone on to occupy the presidency. The rest have been derailed by controversies and political backstabbing.

But don’t expect this deputy president to go down without a fight. Ruto rose from relative obscurity to national prominence, and has been tenacious and ruthless in his ascent to power. Kenya can expect him to show the same qualities as he fights for his political life.

Waihiga Mwaura is the host of Newsnight on Kenya’s Citizen TV. You can follow him on Twitter at: @WaihigaMwaura.

This op-ed first appeared in The Continent, the Mail & Guardian’s new pan-African publication designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free issue here.

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Waihiga Mwaura
Waihiga Mwaura is the host of Newsnight on Kenya’s Citizen TV

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