William Ruto: The complex politico with a split personality

William Ruto

Jua Kali Group chairman Matthias Mwarabu (left) receives Sh53,000 from Mr William Ruto, the former National Secretary of the Youth for Kanu ‘92,  in August 1993. The YK ‘92, a lobby for the then ruling party, was headed by Cyrus Jirongo and Ruto. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In 1997, when William Ruto used the connections and money he had amassed from the Youth for Kanu ‘92 to position himself within Nandi politics, few noticed the ambitions of the 31-year-old. Ruto was coming of age.

When in stress and anxious, Dr Ruto occasionally bites his lower lip and will speak methodically, choosing his words and never dropping any hint of a man who is not in control. And he is a master of public engagement.

Having interned at the Kanu headquarters during University of Nairobi semester breaks, and in the hectic late 1980s, he watched political skulduggery and backstabbing at work.

From the Kanu mills, Dr Ruto is the last man standing. After 25 years in competitive politics, he will be taking his nomination papers to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission today as he seeks to become Kenya’s fifth president.

Should he emerge victorious, it will be the first time a deputy president will take over the presidency in a direct competitive transition. If he loses, he will need the resilience of a cat to survive opposition politics.

Dr Ruto’s rise is the classic case of the “man from nowhere”. In his early years, he was often underrated but slowly emerged as a smooth operator – the outsider who took a front seat.

With the help of Nandi Kanu supremo Mark Too, Ruto was to take on veteran politician Reuben Chesire, a President Daniel Moi ally, for the Eldoret North seat. His aggressive character was noted early. Once, in the corridors of State House, Ruto and Chesire met and a near scuffle ensued. Chesire claimed he was punched by Ruto, while the later described it as a loud argument.

For four years, Dr Ruto has been building a well-oiled campaign machine, surprising those who thought he would slow down towards the end. But he is not a weakling or a neophyte.

His bottom-up political agenda has resonated with a large section of the proletariat, too, promising jobs and freebies to the unemployed. The populist millionaire has projected himself as an ill self-made politician and victim of a thankless President Uhuru Kenyatta who has shoved him aside and picked Raila Odinga as heir. He staged an anti-Uhuru campaign, disguised as an attack on Mr Odinga, and upstaged the President in Mt Kenya to the surprise of the barons who bankroll politics in the region.

Sidelined, ignored and with the writing on the wall, Dr Ruto had last year formed the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) – though had hoped to still fight for space in the ruling Jubilee Party, which he and President Kenyatta had formed, first as an alliance between his United Republican Party and Mr Kenyatta’s The National Alliance.

Because of his background, Dr Ruto is still regarded as the poster boy of the grand old Kanu regime– and a perfect match of his running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, a former District Officer. Both are joined at the hip by deep pockets and truculence.

A dollar millionaire whose fortunes have multiplied in the last 10 years, Dr Ruto dodges questions on his riches, which range from farms, real estate and investments in hospitality, insurance, energy and aviation.

Known properties include the 117-bed Weston Hotel in Nairobi and the 102-bed Dolphin Hotel in Mombasa. He also owns the 976-acre former Murumbi farm and recently admitted owning a 2,536-acre farm in Taita Taveta. He has helicopters – thought to be at least five – stationed at Wilson Airport through his Kwae Island Development Ltd besides residences in Karen, Nairobi and Eldoret. He also owns a farm in Uasin Gishu.

Dr Ruto scoffs at opponents questioning the source of his wealth. He wants to be seen as a hustler who rose from selling chickens to a multi-millionaire, informing the hustler narrative in his campaigns. For a man who never came from an affluent background, Dr Ruto previously attacked the rise of plutocracy in Kenya, a line he seems to have abandoned after co-opting the likes of ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi into his team.

By picking Mr Gachagua, a man facing corruption cases in court as a running mate, Dr Ruto downplayed the integrity card as part of his campaign. He says the cases instigated by the current administration are political and that the war on corruption targets his supporters.

The Ruto-Gachagua ticket is interesting since both grew from the Kanu machination of student politics in the mid-1980s at the University of Nairobi where they served as listening posts. But unlike Gachagua, who was rowdy and boisterous to a fault, Ruto was a master of contradictions in that he carried his Bible and camera and hobnobbed with Nandi and Uasin Gishu district power brokers as a student mobiliser.

 It was within student politics that Ruto got to interact with President Moi – and he caught his eye due to his masterly of the Bible. In one of these meetings, as Dr Ruto said during a Citizen TV interview in February 2020, four student leaders asked the President for land. They were allocated prime land in Eldoret town which they sold and shared the loot.

“I bought my first car. These were pieces of land that were being given for development,” he said.

With that, Ruto had been inducted into a political world where land could be exchanged for loyalty.

KICC, where he interned at the Kanu Women and Youth Office – then under Dr Julia Ojiambo – was the perfect, perhaps imperfect, place to learn politics. But that he has survived this far and built an institution that outwitted Kanu is an indicator of the mobilisation skills he learnt.

Mr Gachagua also understands the art of mobilisation. Money was the other most important factor that saw him snatch the running mate ticket from Prof Kithure Kindiki, who was the favourite of Mt Kenya UDA-affiliated lawmakers.

Dr Ruto has always admitted that his politics was shaped by Moi. He and Mr Gachagua do not hide their admiration of the president who bestrode Kenya’s political landscape with an iron fist for 24 years.

Last month, Mr Gachagua evoked memories of Moi’s meetings with villagers at Sagana State Lodge and asked Dr Ruto, if elected, to open the doors for people to eat “meat and rice”.

That Moism runs in Dr Ruto and Mr Gachagua’s veins has never been lost to many. It was during the run-up to the first multi-party elections in 1992 that Dr Ruto emerged as the YK92 Executive Officer as the lobby, led by Mr Cyrus Jirongo, and whose insiders included Ms June Moi, Mr Sam Nyamweya , Mr Joe Kimkung, Mr Fred Kiptanui, Mr Joe Mwangale, Mr Sammy Kogo and Mr Victor Kebenei, spearheaded the destabilisation of the opposition.

YK’92 was awash with political mischief and cash – and the new Sh500 note was nicknamed “Jirongo”, a reference to the group’s practice of dispensing cash like an ATM.

Democratic Party chairman Mwai Kibaki told a rally the group was a Kanu militia.

At his KICC office, Ruto would arrive early and leave late as he learnt  the art of youth mobilisation and formation of campaign cells.

As a teetotaller, he is a political workhorse, a night owl, who is always on the move and crafting strategies.

As an MP, Ruto turned to be an informed debater. That he would become a thorn in the flesh was seen in 1998 when, as a result of the Nandi anger over the sale of East African Tanning Extract Company Ltd farms and the collapse of Kenya Co-operative Creameries, he joined hands with Mr Kipruto arap Kirwa, Mr Jirongo and Mr John Sambu to form the United Democratic Movement (UDM).

While the party was first denied registration, Moi broke it up and made a deal with Jirongo and Ruto. He appointed Jirongo into the Cabinet, with Ruto becoming an assistant minister. The president had stopped the ethnic nationalism that was emerging among the young Nandi politicians – Ruto and Kirwa.

However, Dr Ruto’s frustrations were connected with the rise of the “Kabisa” team in Kanu which wanted the Moi succession to revolve around Mr Joseph Kamotho, Mr Nicholas Biwott and Prof George Saitoti from whose surnames the name was coined. The Kabisa group was opposed to Mr Odinga replacing Mr Kamotho as Kanu Secretary General in a plot that saw Prof Mr Saitoti’s plan to succeed Moi fail.

But Mr Odinga would also be shortchanged, with Moi favouring the Uhuru-Ruto-Mudavadi axis.

Another member of this team was Cabinet Minister Julius Sunkuli. By then, Dr Ruto was director of elections, which gave have him a chance to place his group’s nominees on the ballot. Whether he is a democrat or benevolent despot is seen by the way he handles power.

Like Moi, Dr Ruto is religious and popular in churches. He has  for the last 10 years presided over more harambees than any other politician.

His rivals doubt his wealth  but Dr Ruto argues that they are opposed to the expansion of Christianity and profess witchcraft.

Kabisa team

When he joined hands with Mr Kenyatta to succeed Mwai Kibaki, the marriage of convenience crafted by power broker Jimi Wanjigi was more to save their skins against the International Criminal Court which had indicted them as the main suspects in the 2008 post-election chaos.

The other intention was to stop Mr Odinga from taking power – thanks to the feud that grew when the latter destroyed Kanu.

Though his ICC case and those of other suspects collapsed, Dr Ruto is still not out of the woods. He features  in the Paul Gicheru case – a lawyer who was accused with tampering with witnesses to help aid the collapse of the Ruto suit.

His critics accuse him of land grabbing and point to the 2004 case in which he was charged with Commissioner of Lands Sammy Mwaita over sale of government parcels. His company also faces a case for building Weston Hotel on public land.

For a man who wants to become president, Dr Ruto’s candidacy is partly a personality war with Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta.

Depending on occasion, he takes capital on the success of the Jubilee government and blame its failures on Mr Odinga, following the March 2018 handshake with President Kenyatta.

It is a tricky contradiction but Dr Ruto, the family man, the politician, the scholar and the businessman is a complex character – a man with a split personality.