Why Ruto won in presidential ‘debate’ skipped by Raila, Azimio team

Deputy President William Ruto during Presidential Debate CUEA.

UDA Party presidential candidate and Deputy President William Ruto during the presidential debate at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa on July 26, 2021.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The Kenya Kwanza candidate gave a composed and assured performance alone on stage, but he did not have it all his own way.
  • There were so many questions that were not aggressively followed up or were left hanging.

Deputy President William Ruto was the winner of a presidential debate in which he was the only participant.

His main rival Raila Odinga was the loser in a debate he chose to skip.

That is the only conclusion one can draw from the final presidential debate ahead of the August 9 elections at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa auditorium on Tuesday night.

In a reversal of the 2017 situation when Mr Odinga stood on stage alone after President Uhuru Kenyatta evaded the encounter, this time he was the one who shied away leaving Dr Ruto, the one who had initially threatened to stay away, to hog the limelight. 

The Kenya Kwanza candidate gave a composed and assured performance alone on stage, but he did not have it all his own way as moderators Yvonne Okwara and Eric Latiff peppered him with probing questions.

Still, there were so many questions that were not aggressively followed up or were left hanging, that Mr Odinga’s strategists should be ruing the missed opportunity to call out the DP on various issues.

Agenda issues

The debate was dominated by agenda issues, but on some key questions, Dr Ruto still managed to trot out the Kenya Kwanza talking points, deflecting hard questions by pointing the finger at President Uhuru Kenyatta and firing jabs at the absent Azimio la Umoja coalition flag bearer.

These included questions on issues such as the high cost of living, petroleum and maize flour prices, agriculture and food security, external debt, and the secrecy of the SGR contract.

On his Achilles heel, corruption, starting with Mr Odinga’s reason for boycotting the debate on grounds that he could not share the stage with a person lacking in ethics, Dr Ruto came out both barrels blazing.

“Do you sincerely believe that’s the reason he’s not here?” he posed, “I don’t think so. It’s because he doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t have an agenda. He doesn’t want to answer difficult questions. He’s been part of the ‘handshake administration’ and things went wrong, including Kemsa”.

He went on to charge that Mr Odinga was “not the real candidate, but a project”.

On the direct questions he faces about land grabbing, Dr Ruto insisted that all his land is legally acquired, blaming court cases and other accusations on politics.

On the specific case of a 100-acre farm he was found by the courts to have irregularly acquired from a victim of land clashes in the Rift Valley, Adrian Muteshi, he claimed he was himself an innocent victim of fraudsters.

He insisted the court never found him guilty of grabbing, but only ordered him to compensate Mr Muteshi for the three years he had farmed the land.

“Those who sold it to me are in court for fraud.”

Faced with a list of land issues that have generated controversy, Dr Ruto insisted that all his land holdings have been properly acquired.

Pressed on whether the public perception that he is a land grabber worries him, his answer was that he is clean in his dealings. 

“Acquisition of property is a legitimate endeavour. I’ve paid value for every property I have,” he insisted before going on to point the finger at his absent rival.

“We hear all manner of allegations, on my competitor we have heard about Dominion Farms and the Kisumu Molasses,” he ventured in reference to land issues that have dogged Mr Odinga.

He went on to emphasise the principle of presumption of innocence until otherwise proven, concluding, “I can stand up to scrutiny. I am probably the politician in Kenya most audited, audited from the left, from the right, upside down”.

His view was that if he’d kept his head down and not risen “beyond what some people think I should, I would not have been subjected to this”.

Subsidies 

An early question was on the high prices of petrol, maize meal and fertiliser.

Dr Ruto was in agreement that recent subsidies, which he has publicly criticised as political gimmicks, were necessary, but insisted that the situation would not have become this bad had President Kenyatta not dumped him, teamed up with opposition chief Odinga and abandoned the Jubilee Big Four agenda to instead pursue the Building Bridges Initiative.

“We had Big Four because we foresaw this situation on food security. Unfortunately, the plan fell apart, it was sabotage.”

Dr Ruto throughout the debate sought to draw a distinction between the first five years of the Jubilee government when he says, he worked closely with the president, and the second term when he was cast aside.

He in fact went back to the period he served as Agriculture minister in the Mwai Kibaki government, claiming he was the one who introduced subsidies on fertiliser, seeds, pesticides and other agricultural inputs, which lasted through the first term of the Jubilee government only to be dropped in the second term.

Pressed on why he didn’t speak out as DP, he said: “I tried to support my boss and tried to push Big Four to the extent that my boss said he wanted to do things differently, and he wanted to assemble a different set of people to help him deliver legacy projects for the fourth president.”

He also blamed the failure of the giant one million-acre Galana Kulalu project on President Kenyatta’s change of direction, pointing out that it was part of a much more ambitious project on food security involving dams in all parts of the country that would transform Kenyan agriculture from dependence on the unpredictable and irregular rain-fed model to irrigation.

Deputy President William Ruto when he arrived at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa for the Presidential Debate.

UDA Party presidential candidate and Deputy President William Ruto when he arrived at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa for the Presidential Debate on July 26, 2022.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

That brought the debate to the controversial Arror and Kimwarer dams, which were abandoned amid allegations of massive corruption touching on his allies.

Dr Ruto insisted that the dams were abandoned as part of a scheme to undermine him politically by punishing his supporters, pledging to revive them if elected.

He wondered why of over 50 dam projects, only the ones in his northern Rift Valley constituencies were scrapped, maintaining that they were vital to food security, energy production and also peace and security in the volatile region.

Insecurity

In one of the most captivating episodes of the debate, the Deputy President said insecurity in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Baringo, West Pokot, Turkana, Samburu, Marsabit and adjacent regions were deliberately driven by the Jubilee government to undermine him.

He was hard-pressed, however, to explain that in the context where banditry, cattle rustling and ethnic militias have been endemic in those regions of northern Kenya for generations, from well before Jubilee even came to power, and back to the Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, and certainly before President Kenyatta teamed up with Mr Odinga.

His answer was that when he exercised influence as DP before the handshake, he had initiated dialogue with political leaders from the region, sponsored peace drives and ensured security was beefed up with the recruitment of over 5,000 police reservists, the establishment of police camps and even deployment of armoured cars.

Later, he claimed, the initiative was scrapped amid whispers that he was a political beneficiary.

The police reservists were disarmed as allegations went around that he was building a private militia.

“The withdrawal of police reservists was very reckless,” he insisted, “the situation went south.”

The history of police reservists in such conflict zones using government-issued firearms to wage ethnic wars and conduct cattle raids was not pursued.

Fuel prices

On the Kenya Kwanza pledge to reduce fuel prices, Dr Ruto offered that the first thing would be to look at the taxation regime, pointing out that 50 per cent of the petrol retail price is taxes and levies.

He, however, could not point out which specific levies would be scrapped other than a rethink of VAT.

But he had supported the imposition of VAT in 2015, so why should anyone take him seriously now?

“Why not?” he responded. “We live in a dynamic country, only fools don’t change their minds”.

Deputy President William Ruto when he arrived at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa for the Presidential Debate.

UDA Party presidential candidate and Deputy President William Ruto when he arrived at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa for the Presidential Debate on July 26, 2022.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

In Kenya then and now under pressure from the International Monetary Fund against reducing petrol taxes, Dr Ruto was adamant that there was room for going back to the IMF.

“What’s wrong with negotiations? he posed, “It takes a courageous government to sit down with development partners and have a discussion”.

But when asked about Mr Odinga’s plan for similar discussions on external debt, he was adamant that Kenya Kwanza would not seek debt renegotiation.

“No. It’s reckless to say we won’t pay our debts, we have the capacity ... it would send the wrong signals to say we can’t service our debts.”

The solution, he said, would lie in putting brakes on borrowing and unbudgeted projects, and finding other ways to raise revenue. 

“We are not sitting pretty. we are living beyond our means, we have to stop this borrowing spree,” he said.

On the unbudgeted expenditure, the one that came easily to his mind was one of President Kenyatta’s pet projects, the Uhuru Gardens Mashujaa Museum, which he claimed did not exist anywhere in the Treasury books.

He was hazy on other specific projects to be scrapped and the expected savings but mentioned something in the region of Sh100 billion.

The moderators did not go into whether that included other projects he has publicly pledged to shut down such as the Nairobi and Mombasa internal container depots that serve the standard gauge railway.

And that indeed raised questions on why as DP he did not raise issues about the secrecy surrounding the SGR financing contracts.

Limited powers

He pointed out that the Kenya Kwanza manifesto pledges all government contracts will be made public, but initially was evasive on his specific stand while in government.

Pressed by the moderators, he finally claimed that he had all along been telling President Kenyatta to abide by the laws and the Constitution on government contracts, but had been ignored.

He pleaded that a DP had limited powers, giving the example of President Kibaki.

“Many did not see the mettle of Kibaki until he was president. All along everyone thought he was lacklustre until he became president. Give me the chance to be president and things will be different in Kenya,” he said.

That was not quite accurate as President Kibaki was elected on his stellar record as a Finance minister going back to the Jomo Kenyatta era.

But why hadn’t he ever spoken out as DP?

“I cannot divulge what happens in the cabinet. But whenever it was available for me to take a position I’ve taken a position. I have taken very firm positions in Cabinet and in public. People of Kenya know me not as a coward. I’ve said every contract signed by the government of Kenya should be made public”.

“As Deputy President, there’s only so much you can do. l took an oath of office swearing allegiance to the people of Kenya, and to advise, ‘whenever required’ the president. I have discharged that responsibility to the best of my ability. I have made my position very well known to the right offices, but that’s not a matter I’d want to take to the public.”

He did with those words make it public that he’d shared his reservations with President Kenyatta or in Cabinet meetings.

Role of moderators

President Kenyatta was not there to respond, and that brings into focus the role of moderators in a one-man debate.

In such a scenario Ms Okwaro and Mr Latiff should probably have attracted as much attention as the man on the stage.

Although moderators play a critical role in actually framing the questions and directing the tone of the conversation, in reality, they are just part of the supporting cast in a show starring the presidential candidates facing off on the podium.

When the candidates do confront each other, the debate takes on a life of its own.

On the stage, all their attention is riveted on each other rather than on the moderators.

Their answers to any questions will be determined by how they think their competitor will react, and will often contain a jibe aimed across the room.

It’s a different ball game when one of the participants in a cast of two doesn’t turn up.

It gives the solo debater all the opportunity to dominate the stage without being challenged by an opponent.

He can give long-winded replies that don’t actually answer the question, employ evasion and diversionary tactics to tricky questions, and hurl accusations at the absent foe without risk of stinging rebuttals.

In such a situation the moderators face a much more difficult challenge than in a conventional debate.

They have to take it upon themselves to keep the opponent in check by ensuring the debate rules are observed, that questions are answered without undue evasion and that no statements are allowed to pass without scrutiny.

The two moderators performed pretty well in keeping Dr Ruto in check, cutting him short when need be and asking the follow-up questions that should have been raised in rebuttals if there was an actual opponent.

It helped that Dr Ruto was on his best behaviour.

He is usually very aggressive with interviewers, dominating conversations and even bullying them and showing flashes of temper.

On stage at the Catholic University, he was courteous and respectful and was quick to pause his spiel when interrupted by either Ms Okwaro or Mr Latiff.

However, there are matters the moderators did not venture into.

One was whether the Kenya Kwanza promise to establish an inquiry on so-called state capture means going after the Kenyatta family if they take power.

Another related issue is the implicit pledge to halt corruption cases facing top Kenya Kwanza leaders, which would mean interfering with the independence of the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial branches.

It was also important to probe Dr Ruto on his political background and history, and how that would shape his thinking if in power.

That would include his role in the defunct YK ’92 in service of former President Moi’s one-party machinery and his opposition to the new Constitution which eliminated the last vestiges of the ancient regime.

The Kenya Kwanza manifesto was also due interrogation on many of its ambitious policy proposals, particularly the costings of education, health and economic empowerment programmes.

The bottom-up economic model, particularly, still cried out for a more cogent explanation beyond the slogan and the promise to dish out cash to small enterprises.

Other issues high on the Ruto agenda include incentives for agriculture and employment creation; and the land buyout and redistribution programme.

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