Who takes it? How Ruto, Raila have crossed paths for 30 years

Raila Odinga

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition party presidential candidate Raila Odinga (left) and his Kenya Kwanza counterpart William Ruto.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

As Dr William Ruto and Mr Raila Odinga await the outcome of a marathon and hotly-contested presidential campaign, both will also have time to reflect on lifetimes in politics where their paths have crossed and criss-crossed on numerous occasions.

The two are the only contenders with a fighting chance to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta, the other two spaces on the ballot paper being filled by Dr George Wajackoyah and Mr David Waihiga, who between them will struggle to get two per cent of the total vote.

Deputy President Ruto for the Kenya Kwanza Alliance and former Prime Minister Odinga are as different as can be in terms of age, background, career, political inclinations and ideological leanings, but in this campaign the two rivals become almost indistinguishable as each moved into turf occupied by the other.

With almost an entire working career in politics, Dr Ruto, a youthful 55-year-old and on his first presidential campaign, still radiates the vigour and energy first witnessed when he made his entry into politics while still a fresh-faced University of Nairobi graduate at the dawn of multipartyism in 1992. He was an enthusiastic supporter of President Daniel arap Moi’s Kanu regime, and all along retained the conservative, even reactionary, bent that resisted the transition to democratisation in the early years, and adoption of the progressive new constitutional order in 2010.


More than 20 years older, Mr Odinga is a grizzled veteran of the campaigns for democracy and human rights, with three stints as a political prisoner of the Moi regime under his belt. He takes credit for the struggle that heralded the new era of a multi-party system and adoption of the new constitution, but with four unsuccessful presidential bids, he is at 77 almost certainly on his final attempt on a pursuit that started with his father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice President at independence and thereafter of the multi-party struggle in Kenya.

Things have turned full-circle as Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga, sometime allies turned bitter foes, go head-to-head for the first time with the former having many more years in the arena and the latter preparing his final hurrah.

The Deputy President and quintessential system man is running as the outsider, his having successfully repackaged himself as the ‘change’ candidate running an insurgency against the very same establishment he has served as second in command for two terms. He is the protest candidate whipping up emotions against the government ‘system’, the political and economic elite, and skillfully exploiting public discontent with the economic hardships blamed on the Jubilee government.

On the other side, a veteran opposition leader and quintessential outsider and icon of protest politics finds himself in the unusual position of establishment candidate. He has secured the support of outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta who has dumped his own deputy of two terms, and hence finds himself defending the record of the Jubilee government and pledging continuity if elected.

When he called a press conference last Thursday to angrily accuse the President of using the government administrative and security machinery to frustrate his campaign, Dr Ruto was only completing his unabashed stealing of the patented playbook that Mr Odinga has employed at every election since the return of multipartyism: Crying foul in advance and setting ground for rejection of the election results if defeated.

Mr Odinga’s campaign has also been busy raising the alarm on possible election shenanigans, but pointing the finger at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission rather than the government.

Protest politics have kept Mr Odinga relevant and impossible to ignore as champion of the angry and resentful poor and dispossessed through decades of struggle since launch of the multiparty campaign more than three decades ago, through four unsuccessful presidential campaigns and stints in government as Cabinet minister and one term as Prime Minister.

From his normal perch, it is Mr Odinga who should be complaining about the ‘Deep State’ and machinations to rig him out. It is Mr Odinga who should be the one whipping up resentment against the mighty and powerful; the ‘change’ candidate running on the platform of economic revolution intended to take the monopoly of wealth from the elite and redistribute resources to advantage of the poor.

There is no doubt that Dr Ruto’s ‘Hustler Nation’ movement, ‘Bottom Up’ economic programme, populist rhetoric and exploitation of the victim card has struck a chord with the masses, and allowed him to make significant inroads into the natural Odinga constituencies in both socio-economic classes and regional blocs.

Ancient regime

The politician completing two terms as Deputy President came into office on the back of a career built on faithful service of Ancient Regime, but has magically transformed himself into the champion of the poor and voiceless, with his crusade against the ‘dynasties’ he so loyally served and partnered turning the form book upside down.

Dr Ruto has not only stolen Mr Odinga’s outsider ideology and rhetoric, but for much of the past three or four years has had his principal rival on the defensive and forced him to play catch-up.

Mr Odinga used to be master of the game on populism and catchy sloganeering, but that is now Ruto territory.

The Azimio tag probably resonates more than Kenya Kwanza, but Dr Ruto’s Bottom up and Hustler Nation narratives have become probably the most marketable campaign tools seen in recent times, and the euphoria that greets the Ruto campaign trail wherever he goes, particularly from the young and the poor, cannot be ignored.

Dr Ruto has not only borrowed the usual rhetoric and standpoints of the veteran opposition chief and stolen part of his base, but also cloned himself as a spitting image of the vintage Odinga in terms of policy and platforms.

Mr Odinga has been trying to counter Dr Ruto’s gains by unveiling his own economic policy blueprints, the highlights being a social support in cash disbursements to vulnerable families, enhanced support for the jua kali or medium and small enterprise sector, a universal health insurance programme dubbed ‘Baba Care’, and pledge of free education up to university level.

Those are indeed important proposals, but they have not resonated and generated anywhere near the same level of excitement the rival campaign has.

In many ways, Dr Ruto has managed to package himself as the forward-looking candidate promising fresh new ideas and a break from the past; despite his own dodgy past as a cheerleader for the one-party regime and reactionary opposition to the fight for democracy and the new liberal constitution.

By contrast, Mr Odinga seems stuck in history, recounting, to a young generation that has little interest in heroes of the past, his stellar record as a liberation hero through the fight against one-party dictatorship and champion of the new constitutional order.

However, the alliance with President Kenyatta has robbed Mr Odinga of one of his key traditional planks as champion of the reform and change agenda; as well his base amongst civil society and intelligentsia that has always formed the core of his policy think tanks.

However, one key decision may have energised Azimio. Selection of former Justice minister Martha Karua as running-mate may at first have seemed a risky move if she brought no votes with her from the populous Mr Kenya basket that seemed locked by Dr Ruto. However, Ms Karua turned out daring and inspired choice, breathing life into the campaign and exciting a populace that yearned for a break from a contest of the usual suspects.

Ms Karua’s impact was not just because of her being the first ever prospective woman Deputy President, but her own stellar record in ‘liberation’ politics dating back to the struggle for multiparty democracy.

Her selection rejuvenated the Azimio campaign, and also started winning hearts and minds among a key voting bloc that had previously been dead-set against an Odinga presidency.

The ticket also managed to win back the face of a reformist agenda, in contrast to Dr Ruto’s choice of Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, also from Mt Kenya but hardly a popular choice even within the Kenya Kwanza Alliance. The former District Officer came with a mountain of baggage, particularly ethical issues, and in that way brought back memories of a history that Dr Ruto had successfully managed to overcome.

As they face-off in what could be the most closely contested presidential election in Kenya, Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga might be looking at chequered pasts and various occasions when their paths have crossed.

Thirty years ago, Mr Odinga, then 47, was stalwart of the Young Turks; the activists, lawyers and intellectuals driving the multi-party campaign that had President Moi on the ropes.

Dr Ruto, then just 25, was still trying to find his feet teaching secondary school at some rural outpost after completing university, and making his way up the amorphous Youth for Kanu ’92 organisation, an outfit formed by Moi and given access to unlimited public funds in an attempt to woo back the young generation.

At the first multiparty elections in 1992, Mr Odinga won the Lang’ata parliamentary seat in Nairobi on the Ford Kenya ticket, while Dr Ruto was busy navigating the murky world of infighting within YK ’92 and trying to catch President Moi’s eye.

Moi, courtesy of a split opposition featuring three major challengers—Kenneth Matiba of Ford Asili, Mwai Kibaki of DP and Raila Odinga of Ford Kenya—retained the presidency on a minority vote.

Soon after the elections, YK ’92 was scattered as chairman Cyrus Jirongo was accused of plotting against the government.

Some key members led by secretary Sam Nyamweya remained loyal to Moi, while Mr Jirongo and his supporters went into insurgency mode and started flirting with the opposition. Dr Ruto, a minor YK official, adroitly played both sides, cultivating close links with power brokers in the Moi administration such as favourite son Gideon Moi, wheeler-dealer Mark Too and State House aide and business proxy Joshua Kulei.

Come the 1997 election, and Dr Ruto handily won the Eldoret North seat. Mr Odinga also retained the Lang’ata seat, but on the NDP ticket after having ditched Ford Kenya midstream on losing a power struggle to Kijana Wamalwa following the death of Jaramogi in 1994.

Mr Odinga had also stood for president, but again in a crowded opposition field that included Kibaki (DP), Wamalwa (Ford-K) and Charity Ngilu (SPD).

As the others protested Moi’s victory, Mr Odinga changed tack and started a policy of cooperation with the long-serving incumbent seeing out his final term under multiparty constitution.

The cooperation resulted in the eventual swallowing of NDP by Kanu, with Mr Odinga emerging as secretary-general of the ‘Independence’ party that had ruled Kenya since 1963.

The merger was also part of Moi’s succession plan as he served out his final term under the multiparty constitution, bringing in a crop of youthful leaders to replace his old guard.

Among the key players in the scheme was Dr Ruto, who also brought in his old YK colleague Jirongo, who earned a cabinet slot.

Other beneficiaries were newcomer Uhuru Kenyatta, brought in as one of the four vice chairmen alongside Noah Katana Ngala, Mr Kalonzo Musyoka and Mr Musalia Mudavadi in a new power structure that ejected then Vice President George Saitoti.

Dr Ruto settled for the post of Director of Elections, and with Mr Gideon Moi became the key players behind a plan to hand Mr Uhuru Kenyatta the succession keys.

With Saitoti out of the way, the biggest threat to the plan was Mr Mudavadi, whom Moi had held in high regard since elevating him to the cabinet at the age of 29. Mr Jirongo’s role was to keep a check on Mr Mudavadi in western Kenya.

But the group did not reckon with Mr Odinga, who also reckoned he deserved the succession slot after having folded his NDP to join Kanu.

When Moi finally named Mr Kenyatta as his chosen successor, it was Mr Odinga who mustered the guile and courage to lead a rebellion that ultimately resulted in mass defection by a whole galaxy of powerful figures to back the Kibaki’s third presidential bid under the newly-crafted National Alliance of Kenya, a triumvirate of Kibaki, Wamalwa and Ms Ngilu.

When Mr Odinga, Saitoti, Mr Musyoka and others crossed over, the bigger opposition alliance was christened National Rainbow Coalition (Narc).

Dr Ruto remained in Kanu to back Mr Kenyatta’s presidential bid, while Mr Mudavadi dithered before finally agreeing to stay on being named Vice President to replace Saitoti just a few weeks to the polls.

Kibaki easily won the 2002 presidential elections, with Mr Odinga becoming a powerful minister for Public Works, Roads and Housing.

Mr Kenyatta took up his role as leader of the opposition, with Dr Ruto a key figure in Kanu.

Things turned around in 2005 when Mr Odinga and other key figures in the Kibaki government who had crossed over from Kanu in 2002 rejected a proposed new constitution.

They teamed up with Mr Kenyatta and Dr Ruto in a movement driving ‘Orange’ No campaign against the ‘Banana’  Yes in the referendum.

Once constitutional proposals backed by President Kibaki were defeated in the referendum, he reconstituted his Cabinet by dropping Mr Odinga and leading No campaigners.

The changes led to the Orange campaign morphing into the Orange Democratic Movement led by Mr Odinga, with Dr Ruto and Mr Mudavadi coming is as key lieutenants.

Meanwhile, Mr Kenyatta took what remained of Kanu into an alliance with Kibaki, looking to inherit the large Kikuyu vote that would be up for grabs when the president exited.

At the 2007 elections, it was straight fight between Kibaki and Mr Odinga, the former retaining his seat on a disputed election that led to widespread violence.

The peace settlement brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan saw Mr Odinga join the Kibaki government as Prime Minister. Mr Kenyatta and Mr Mudavadi came in deputy premiers for respective sides of the grand coalition, while Dr Ruto came in as Agriculture minister on the ODM slate.

But within a short time, relations between Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto plummeted. From the word go, Dr Ruto had resented that Mr Mudavadi had been named Deputy PM ahead of him, while he felt he had contributed more to the Odinga campaign.

First, Mr Odinga provoked Dr Ruto by backing ejection of settlers in the Mau forest. Then he accused him of corruption in the Ministry of Agriculture and announced his suspension, which was countermanded by President Kibaki.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was intervention of International Criminal Court into the 2007 post-election violence.

When ICC Prosecutor Luis Ocampo released his list of suspects, Mr Odinga initially defended Dr Ruto, saying he was a victim rather than a perpetrator.

However, he finally came to support the ICC cases against Dr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta, who were netted as the leading ‘commanders’ on either side of the 2007 divide.

The ICC trials were a seminal moment in Kenyan history. Mr Odinga might have calculated that his path to the presidency would be easier with two key foes out of the way, but everything rebounded when Mr Kenyatta and Dr Ruto reunited to not only fight the charges jointly, but exploit the cases to craft a powerful new political movement ahead of the 2013 elections.

Their Jubilee coalition won the polls, and Mr Odinga was out of luck for the third time.

Jubilee won again in 2017 and it was fourth time unlucky.

But then came the famous handshake the following year, that eventually led to President Kenyatta switching support to Mr Odinga and ditching Dr Ruto.

The rest, as they say, is history.