Nairobi, Kenya – Since Kenya’s independence from the British in 1963, every national day celebration unfolds the same way. After the entertainment programme and military parades, the deputy president makes brief remarks and introduces the president for his speech.
At this year’s June 1 Madaraka Day event, however, Deputy President William Ruto was never given the podium. Instead of calling on him according to established protocol, the master of ceremonies called President Uhuru Kenyatta to speak.
In his salutations, the president ignored his deputy, seated just a few feet away. He recognised the presence of every other VIP, including visiting President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone, Chief Justice Martha Koome and the two speakers of parliament.
It was seen by many Kenyans, not as an oversight, but as a deliberate slight that showed the extent of the fallout between the president and his deputy, who on first being elected in 2013 earned the moniker “UhuRuto” for their closeness.
There was no explanation from State House on the Ruto snub. But soon, social media users known to be pro-Kenyatta started claiming that security had uncovered a plot by Ruto to fill the stands at the event with his supporters who would cheer him and boo the president.
There were additional claims, also unverified, that Ruto had planned to steal Kenyatta’s thunder on his last Madaraka Day by using his remarks to announce his resignation as deputy president.
But what was certain is that, as soon as it became clear Kenyatta would not acknowledge Ruto, a section of the crowd walked out. The deputy president sat stony-faced throughout.
That Kenya’s leaders were no longer on the same side was already common knowledge, but it had never been so open.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on May 26, they did not sit at the same table, although Ruto did address the gathering and invite the president to speak. The politicians in Ruto’s camp also did not sit with the president.
The truce that triggered a threat
On August 9, Kenya will vote to elect a successor to Kenyatta, who is leaving office after serving the maximum two terms.
The incumbent has thrown his weight behind erstwhile foe Raila Odinga, who goes into his fifth try at the presidency as an opposition leader enjoying the support of state machinery. Meanwhile, Ruto is competing for the presidency as an outsider within government, being shunned by the establishment.
The Madaraka Day snub was the culmination of a long-drawn-out divorce that started just five months after the repeat presidential election of October 2017.
The Supreme Court had annulled Kenyatta’s victory in the original poll of August that year due to a petition by the losing candidate, Mr Odinga.
The latter then boycotted the repeat election, citing the failure of the electoral commission to close the loopholes identified by the Supreme Court. Consequently, Kenyatta and Ruto ran home with 99 percent of the vote.
Odinga rejected the results and announced a national programme of civil disobedience, to get the electoral commission to hold new elections within six months.
He also declared himself the “people’s president”, and on January 30, 2018, had himself sworn in as such at a large public ceremony in Nairobi, the capital.
It looked like Kenya was headed for a period of unrest, until March 9 when Odinga and Kenyatta surprisingly appeared together on the steps of Harambee House, the president’s office in downtown Nairobi, for a public handshake that changed the course of Kenyan history.
Ruto’s fear of being sidelined
With that truce, Mr Odinga dropped his plan for street protests and all was set for the launch of the Building Bridges to National Unity Initiative (BBI). The BBI was billed as a comprehensive look at the issues that divide Kenyans across ethnic lines, to fix non-inclusion in political and electoral systems, skewed allocation of public resources and the marginalisation of large segments of the population.
Instead of healing rifts, the Kenyatta-Odinga rapprochement opened up new faults. From the word go, Ruto was suspicious that beyond seeking to unite the country as advertised, BBI was actually the beginning of a new political alliance intended to isolate and sideline him in the 2022 elections.
He was soon proved right.
After a long series of public hearings under a task force appointed jointly by Kenyatta and Odinga, BBI culminated in a June 2021 referendum on a raft of proposals for major constitutional amendments designed to address the issues raised.
By then, Ruto had become the public face of opposition to the constitutional amendments that the president publicly backed.
He also led a large group of legislators from the ruling Jubilee Party – including a majority from Kenyatta’s Central Kenya stronghold – to defect en masse to a new outfit, the United Democratic Alliance at the appropriate time.
This forced Kenyatta to remove all the Jubilee “rebels” from leadership positions in both chambers of parliament – the National Assembly and the Senate. He was also forced to rely on Odinga’s lieutenants in both houses to counter the Ruto loyalists.
With the country headed for a referendum on the amendments and Ruto publicly identifying with the “No” brigade, his position was becoming untenable and there were expectations that he would resign as deputy president.
A month to the date, however, the High Court declared the BBI proposals unconstitutional, halting the referendum.
Although the BBI had gone through all the stipulated steps, including public hearings and assent by a majority of the 47 County Assemblies and the National Assembly, it had some key errors. One was that it had been presented as a popular citizens’ initiative but the president in his official capacity had appointed and legally gazetted members of the task force.
The decision, later upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, did not calm the political atmosphere, but now shifted attention to a showdown at the 2022 elections.
A race to the finish line
Odinga is backed by Azimio la Umoja, a coalition of political parties supporting his latest presidential bid. The key partners are Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and what remains of President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party after legislators loyal to Ruto decamped.
The deputy president, for his part, officially launched the UDA and brought in various smaller parties to support his bid under the Kenya Kwanza alliance.
All is now set for Ruto and Odinga to go head-to-head at the August 9 elections. Two other candidates cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBS), George Wajackoyah and David Waihiga, are not expected to make much of an impact.
While Kenyatta’s influence in his huge Central Kenya base has greatly diminished, that is slim comfort to Ruto who still has to contend with his estranged boss’s hold on the powerful bureaucracy, rattling the deputy president who often complains about plots to rig him out of victory at the polls.
It is now a question of who gains the upper hand this August – Kenyatta’s foe who became his friend or his deputy who became his foe?