Just judge them by their history

William Ruto and Raila Odinga

Deputy President William Ruto (left) and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • DP Ruto presents himself as the outsider, the opposition being fought by status quo.

  • Mr Odinga, by way of brand, has become hazy with the passage of time.

There has been a shift in the race to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta. I often say that we media people are like the mongoose. We put our noses up and smell the air, twitch out whiskers carefully and we can tell you where the hyena is hiding. I cannot express a preference, no journalist can, but I can describe what I am seeing and what I am thinking.

So what has changed? The race between Mr Raila Odinga of Azimio la Umoja and Deputy President William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza Coalition has, surprisingly, achieved some ideological frame and now presents a clear choice between two political and economic mindsets, perhaps more clearly than we have seen since 2002.

Mr Ruto, an excellent political operator, is carefully branded and not that deeply examined. He has been successful in being seen as what he wants to be seen as, rather than what he actually is. It takes some skill and discipline, which he has by the buckets. So he is seen as this scrappy kid who grew up among chicken coops, a “hustler” and champion of the youth and the poor. 

He also presents himself as the outsider, the opposition being fought by status quo (dynasties), which he is fighting to upset, never mind that in actual fact he is a wealthy man who has spent his adult in the cauldron of power and its privilege. 

He is also positioned as the opposition “underdog” taking on an inefficient, uncaring government and its “deep state”, never mind that he is the sitting Deputy President, the second most powerful man in the land, member of the National Security Council, the innermost sanctum of the deep state.

Second liberation

Mr Odinga, by way of brand, has become hazy with the passage of time – and the multiplicity of political formations he has been in and out of. It is often assumed that his record as a dissident and reformer speaks for itself and bears no repetition. However, a majority of the population have no memory of the struggle against the Kanu single party regime and were born long after his release from the most recent detention. For them, the second liberation is “not a thing”. Their clearest memory of his politics would probably be Cord or the post-election crisis, at best.

The deputy presidential nominations, I want to argue, have highlighted in stark relief the differences between the two tickets and now offer a clearer choice between them. John Kamau’s excellent article on Mr Rigathi Gachagua, the Kenya Kwanza nominee, and the political history he shares with the Deputy President, helps a lot in this understanding. 

Like Mr Ruto, Mr Gachagua joined the Kanu regime as a university student and was brought up by a succession of leaders: Prof Philip Mbithi, Ngibuini Kuguru, Uhuru Kenyatta, among others, in a career that included a stint in the provincial administration. Mr Ruto’s progression is similar, without the provincial administration tour but including the Cabinet at an early age and a lifetime in or around State House.

In a word, these two are Kanu grandees, billionaires in their own rights, schooled in the old ways of the single party regime and to whom government is second nature. They have an innate understanding of power – how to win it, wield it and keep it – and the nooks and crannies of the country and its people and how to bring it to heel. 

They were fashioned in the hot cauldrons of control and suppression, any claim to an interest in civil liberties, the rights of the population and modern approaches to government and economy is, in my personal opinion, as alien as to them as make up on a donkey. These are ach-conservatives swimming in a lake of liberal speeches.

Drivers and bodyguards

Mr Odinga and Ms Karua are social democrats, forged in the streets, protest, detention without trial and civil society. Their instincts are distributive and devolutional, in their gut is a deeply buried distrust of centralisation and an unfettered state, tending to err on the side of empowerment and inclusion because unlike their rivals who spent their youth and politically formative early adulthood in the sanctums of state power, riding in motorcades with drivers and bodyguards, the other two spent them on the outside fighting to get in. 

Both have had government experience and Mr Odinga is clearly a student of old, Kanu-style power, dandled on the knee of an independence era Vice President who was largely a socialist, but he and Ms Karua, like introverts who have learnt to be extroverts, are at the end of the day tree shakers, changers of things and upsetters of the status quo.

More than Mr Ruto, I have formed an opinion of Mr Gachagua not just as a child, but also a guardian of, a Central Kenya-dominated establishment stretching back to independence but without Mr Ruto’s dexterity at either genuine evolution or appearance of it.

None of the labels in this quick analysis is a necessary qualification or disqualification for office. But it provides us with a frame of reference from which to assess and judge their ideas. So judge them by their proposals for government and the sincerity of those proposals by their history.

The other change is that Mr Odinga has found some traction in the race, according to the latest opinion poll and that, believe me, changes everything. But I have run out of space. To be continued.

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