Kenya’s Obama moment: Of Ruto and audacity of hope

Former US President Barack Obama with President-elect William Ruto.

Former US President Barack Obama with President-elect William Ruto during a past meeting at State House, Nairobi. Both men are born leaders and kings of men. They are talismanic, fantastically picturesque and admirably shrewd.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Both men are born leaders and kings of men. They are talismanic, fantastically picturesque and admirably shrewd.
  • Their dramatic lives feed our obsession with royalty and rags-to-riches stories.
  • They are endowed with that irresistible fascination that only the greatest exercise among the masses.

"It was early October 2007 in Iowa, the drying stalks still stood in cornfields grown more precious in the age of ethanol, and far away, in the moneyed precincts of both coasts, Barack Obama’s top donors were anxious.

Despite having raised heaps of cash, he was trailing Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the national polls...

For the worriers, it was getting late. But for Iowa voters, it was early enough that many barely knew what to make of this biracial rookie senator and still muffed his exotic name…

At the Buchanan County fairgrounds in Independence, it was ‘Hi, Obama,’ from a nervous Geri Punteney, ‘I have a brother who’s dying of cancer,’ she said, and as soon as it was out she had broken into sobs, and then apologies for her sobs, and more sobs…Obama took her hand… he stood still and said in a level voice, ‘First of all, we’re all praying for you.’ He then told her that he had lost his mother to cancer in her early fifties.”

I thought of this story about former American President Barack Obama by American journalist Alec MacGillis on September 5, 2022, after the Supreme Court declared that Dr William Ruto had been validly elected the fifth President of Kenya.

Critics would argue that comparing Barack Obama with President-elect Dr William Ruto is an overkill.

Granted, some critics have raised questions about Dr Ruto’s rise in politics. Life arranges itself in conventional and unconventional tableaux, sometimes with juxtapositions and paradoxes.

Parallels

President-elect Ruto, like most leaders, could be a complex man of many paradoxes and contradictions. However, there are some parallels between him and former President Barack Obama.

Both men are born leaders and kings of men. They are talismanic, fantastically picturesque and admirably shrewd— conjuring flamboyant adjectives and images—the stuff of which history is made that leaves one with a confounding sense of awe.

Their dramatic lives feed our obsession with royalty and rags-to-riches stories.

They are endowed with that irresistible fascination that only the greatest exercise among the masses.

Both men embarked on journeys to the unknown. When they started, each man was on an improbable quest, teetering between long shot and lost cause and against overwhelming odds.

Like Obama, Ruto is a consummate political maverick against the status quo, solidly anchored, unflappable and unmoving.

And like Obama, Ruto won in a stunning upset, taking the prize from a grizzled and beloved hero.

If political resistance were a beast, Ruto would have fractured its jaws and broken its teeth — breaking millions of hearts in the process.

From the earlier opening story, it’s clear that Obama is a master at forming bonds with the common man as he interacted with voters, answered their questions and addressed their concerns.

MacGillis quotes a voter describing Obama, “I don’t know where he’s come from, but he speaks on a whole other level… We’ve been waiting for a guy like this”.

Connection with ordinary citizens

In that aspect, Ruto is like Obama: he connected with ordinary Kenyans (“hustlers”) and spoke to their hearts.

Ruto made Kenyan voters see themselves in his life story and feel part of it as he dubbed himself “Chief Hustler”.

Critics have pointed out that as hypocritical, but it was a masterstroke and it worked.

According to MacGillis, “Obama claimed that ‘this is not about me’... Not about what he had done… but about the man and the qualities he appeared to possess — eloquence, self-possession, charisma…”.

Ruto, a singular raconteur, made similar claims during the campaigns that it was “not about him” but that his win would be for all “hustlers”.

Both Obama and Ruto are eloquent and witty orators with the ability to lift people into the loftier regions of utopia.

They convinced their countrymen to give them opportunities as leaders of humble origin. They leapt from the darkness of obscurity with sudden splendour.

Of Ruto, Rigathi Gachagua, the deputy president-elect, put it succinctly after the Supreme Court ruling: “Today, the son of an ordinary Kenyan whose father and mother are not known is the President-elect of the Republic of Kenya”.

Another interesting similarity between Obama and Ruto is that they were both “candidates of hope”.

“Barack Obama was running not on a record of past achievement… but instead on the simple promise of thoughtfulness… on the prospect of applying to the nation’s problems one man’s singularly well-tempered intelligence,” writes MacGillis.

Kenyans may not remember anything concrete that Ruto has done in the past but he is a suave lyricist and merchant of hope.

And lastly, of course, Obama and Ruto had to confront “dynasties”.

Obama ran against the “Clinton dynasty” because for him to be nominated by the Democratic Party to run for president, he had to contend with Hillary Clinton.

Obama dismantled the revered Clinton juggernaut and brought it to a screeching stop.

Ruto also had to confront what he dubbed “dynasties”. It was a David and Goliath duel, but Goliath met his match.

If Goliath was ready to leave blood on the carpet, Ruto went all nuclear to break all eggs to make an omelette.

He ran roughshod over all obstacles when a surge of voter discontent led by hustlers, ranked in battle array, swept him all the way to State House.

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