Ruto: Why I tasked Uhuru to lead regional peace efforts

William Ruto

President William Ruto during the interview with Al Jazeera’s James Bays in New York on September 24, 2022.

Photo credit: Courtesy

President William Ruto has explained why he let his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, continue leading peace initiatives in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) despite having received no support from the him.

Dr Ruto, while speaking to Al Jazeera, said he chose to rise above the political strife between the two that saw them fall out bitterly.

“I am now the President of Kenya. I’m the big brother now. It is in my place to work with him. I think it’s the right thing to do. I will not allow negative energy to be built around our country,” said Dr Ruto.

“It was a competition. President Kenyatta had a candidate, his candidate did not win, I beat his candidate. That’s a democratic process. That’s behind us. We now have a country to govern, and we have a region to look after. And I believe President Kenyatta can bring value,” he added.

The interview with Al Jazeera’s James Bays, which was held in New York, touched on a wide range of issues and tested Dr Ruto’s grasp of issues affecting Kenya's neighbours.

Dr Ruto played safe on a number of global issues, especially those affecting East African countries. He said the maritime border dispute with Somalia won’t be a priority – that making peace comes first.

The President also refused to ask Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to resign, he refused to associate Rwanda with the M23 rebels in DRC and he declined to condemn any of the parties in the Ukraine war.

Below is the full transcript of the interview that first aired on Saturday 7.30am Kenyan time.

BAYS:Let’s look at the election. It was peaceful, but it was also extremely close. Fourteen million votes were cast. There were just, I believe, 200,000 votes between you and the other candidate, the veteran politician Raila Odinga. A disputed election, but then the Supreme Court backed the result and backed your victory. But you’ve got a country divided almost 50-50. How do you bridge that divide now?

RUTO: I think to say the country is divided is not the right (way to put it). What we are saying is: everybody has a role to play. There will be those of us that I lead who will be leading the executive. My competitors will be doing an equally important responsibility for the people of Kenya by providing oversight over the government that I will set up. So, they too will be participating in the governance of our country. And the government of Kenya is a government for all people. Whichever way they voted, whoever they voted for, they have a government that will serve them equally.

B:I’ve been reading lots of profiles about you. They all say you are very hard working and determined, but also tough and sometimes uncompromising. And you’ve read the same things I’ve read: some people are speculating that you might have an authoritarian streak. So, are you the right man to build consensus?

R: I think I have a history of building consensus, and a majority of the people who have worked with me have come to appreciate that, yes, I am firm; I am determined; I am focused. And it’s the only reason I have got myself here; by being resolute, determined and focused; because unless you are that firm, you can get nothing done. But the consensus I have built to win this election should confirm to you and all that I am a consensus person. I wouldn’t have put together the team that gave me the opportunity to win this election.

B:We said the election was largely peaceful, but you remember 2007; a very bloody election. Over 1,000 people were killed. And I don’t have to remind you that after the violence you were indicted by the International Criminal Court. We have to say those charges of crimes against humanity were all later vacated. But I’m asking you now whether you worry that that affects in some way the way members of the international community might view you now.

R: Well, the members of the international community are knowledgeable people, or so I expect. And the law in Kenya -- and I guess it’s the universal law -- is that allegations can be made about anybody. And allegations are allegations unless they are proven. And if allegations are not proven, then it means they just remain rumours and insinuations. The people of Kenya, I didn’t get here by any other means but by choice. The people of Kenya went to the ballot in 2013, chose President Uhuru and myself as his deputy. The same thing in 2017. I ran in this election; the people of Kenya know me that well to make a choice as to what kind of a person I am. I know the international community may carry a bit of that baggage. But I think, over the years, many of them have come to realise that I am not the person that was being described in those charges.

B: In your election campaign, you differentiated yourself from other political figures in Kenya. The former president, Kenyatta, who is the son of Kenya’s founding president; and your opponent Raila Odinga who is the son of Kenya’s first vice president. And you made the point that you came from a very humble background, you were selling chickens as a child. I think I read that you got your first pair of shoes at the age of 15. How does this background, how is it going to affect the way you’re going to govern?

R: My background gives me the world-view understanding, if I may say it, of what the issues are. And, by virtue of the opportunity -- I have gone through leadership as a Member of Parliament, as minister before, as a deputy president. It also gives me a vantage point on solutions to the challenges that face our country. 

B:Your campaign clearly cut through. It was a great success. But now perhaps the difficult bit. You were riding a wave of high expectations. Now you’ve got to deliver. And you have come to power when the economy -- not just in your country but around the world -- is in dire straits. You are facing a global fuel crisis. President Kenyatta put subsidies when he was president to try and support with food and fuel. Are those sustainable economically, much longer?

R: They are not. And that’s why I removed them. In fact, the whole subsidy regime was a drain on our development resources. Over the last three or four months alone, we spent Sh140 billion on subsidies.

When I came into office, the first assignment I had was with the energy sector. And I looked them in the eye and asked them whether this was going to go on. Because we were spending Sh16 billion, money we didn’t have, every month on fuel subsidy. I put a stop to it and the people of Kenya understood that it wasn’t in their best interest to continue with fuel subsidies.

There are a couple of other things. I made a commitment, for example, that we are going to enhance the financial independence of our Judiciary so that we can better place the country at a vantage position for investment where commercial disputes could be decided upon in the shortest time possible. I appointed six judges that were outstanding. I have had a discussion with our Judiciary, and we intend to expand the scope of independence of our Judiciary so that they can do more with the resources that they have and now they don’t have to depend on the executive. They have their own independent budget. I did the same with the police. For a long time, the police were dependent on the Office of the President. And what officials did was, if they didn’t want a certain case to be investigated, they didn’t provide resources for it. I have now, in the last two weeks, removed the budget of the police from my office and now they run an independent budget, an independent mandate. 

They can investigate whatever cases they want, they have to deal with security in the manner in which they figure out, and my government will be there to support them. We are making changes, some of which do not even require financial resources. There is a lot that we want to change. I have just told you: next week, we are going to rework the whole credit rating system because the current one is all-or-nothing: you are in, or out. And we have 15 million Kenyans stranded because of a simple decision that can be made to change, to keep the credit reference bureaus but change the scoring mechanism so that it’s not all-or-nothing. There is a lot that we are going to achieve just by changing policy, not necessarily even going to look for additional resources. Re-engineering the use of the resources we are already using so that we can get the best value out of it.

B:As you know, the region is facing a very serious humanitarian situation; which is the drought, the worst drought for 40 years. There is talk of famine in Somalia, Ethiopia. What about northern Kenya? Are you worried?

R: We have 3.1 million Kenyans in northern Kenya that are in dire need. In fact, we have had to reorganise our budget so that we can deploy resources for food relief in those areas. They have not harvested the last four years. They’ve had failed rains for the last four seasons. They have lost 70 percent of their livestock. And therefore, it’s a real serious situation. That is why Kenya is championing and is providing leadership on matters to do with climate change, because we are living it every day. We can see it on our faces every day, the effects of climate change. And that’s why Kenya will be looking at COP27 to provide the framework where financing for climate adaptation, for climate mitigation. Thirteen years ago, pledges were made for $100 billion every year. Nothing has been forthcoming. I think it’s time for us to have a candid conversation with our partners, with the international community, especially those of us from the continent of Africa where we are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change without any support. I was asking the multilateral financial institutions to rethink, because many countries are reorganising their budgets to provide for climate change effects rather than their development. Even areas like education and health are beginning to suffer because you have to direct resources to keep people alive; to provide food, to provide water. And so, that’s no longer a very simple matter. That’s why those of us from the global south, specifically from Africa, want a real, candid conversation on climate change and how we can deal with the people that are affected, how we can deal with the situations that are emerging, and the reality that we have to live with every day of people who are in dire need.

B:Let’s talk about Kenya’s relations with other countries in the region. And just across the border in Somalia, the effects of the drought are really severe. There, they’ve had a peaceful transfer of power. I think many in the international community weren’t expecting that. And you have Hassan Sheikh Mohamed back as the president there. He’s done the job before. He’s ruled out talking to al-Shabaab and wants to defeat them on the battlefield. Your country had lots of involvement. They had lots of trips in Amisom, the African Union force there, but you also had really tense relations with Somalia at various points. You had a maritime dispute. Is the new president someone you can do business with?

R: I have already had two meetings with President Hassan Sheikh. I think he is a much more progressive, much more positive person. And he’s much more committed to fighting terrorism. And he has our full support. We are asking other partners that are with us in Somalia, we have a huge contingent of Kenyan soldiers and other personnel. And it’s not a simple thing because we are paying a huge price for the war against terrorism that is going on in Somalia, and the fact that we don’t have a functional government in Somalia. And therefore, it’s in our best interest, in our economic interest, in our security interest, to make sure Somalia works. And I think President Hassan gives us the best possible chance and the maritime dispute and all that aside, those are not existential. We can always sort out our maritime boundary dispute in a peaceful environment. What is of priority to Kenya now is not the maritime dispute. It is stabilising Somalia, making sure that Somalia is functional, having functional security arrangements so that we can pull out our troops, manage our own country and then we can do what neighbours do: we can always engage and find solutions to the challenges that face us as neighbours.

B:Another country facing real trouble, drought but also more conflict, is Ethiopia. You appointed your predecessor, President Kenyatta, to continue in his role as a mediator. That’s interesting. I mean, he didn’t even support you to be President. Why do you think he should stay in that role?

R: I am now the President of Kenya. I’m the big brother now. It is in my place to work with him. I think it’s the right thing to do. I will not allow negative energy to be built around our country. I do not want any... It was a competition. President Kenyatta had a candidate, his candidate did not win, I beat his candidate. That’s a democratic process. That’s behind us. We now have a country to govern, and we have a region to look after. And I believe President Kenyatta can bring value.

B:(Prime Minister) Abiy Ahmed of course won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but he gave up on peace efforts and he’s been commanding a war now in recent years. Do you think, for lasting peace, he should perhaps step aside now?

R: I think that’s not a decision that can be made in a place like here. I think, matters of governance are much more complicated. They are not as straightforward as people look, or as people watch from a distance. I think (Prime Minister) Abiy will still play a major role and will be a stabilising factor in that region. And I think we need to work with him, work with his teams for the eventual resolution of that conflict in that region.

B:I’d like to quickly also touch on the Democratic Republic of Congo because President Kenyatta is going to have a role there. You have got this East African Standby Force which is going to go there, I’m told as many as potentially 12,000 troops and Kenya is leading that. And yet there is already a UN force there. Isn’t there a danger of confusion, duplication and alienating the local population by putting this new force in there?

R: I think the decision to have the East African Standby Force was made in consultation with the UN. So, there wouldn’t be any possibility of any conflict. Kenya is contributing troops to the UN force in DRC, but we are also contributing troops to the East African Standby Force.

B: As you start your job, you are committing your soldiers to a new war. They’ve fought for so long in Somalia. Does that, in any way, worry you?

R: It is our neighbourhood. We have no choice. We wished this could be done by somebody else, but if we don’t get involved, it will get worse. The conflict in Somalia is a Kenyan conflict by and large. The challenges we have in eastern DRC are Kenyan challenges by and large. Eastern DRC is served out of Mombasa Port. I think 50 percent of all imports, exports go through our country. We have a commercial relationship, we are neighbours. These are not responsibilities we can run away from. And therefore, peace in DRC Congo, peace in Somalia, equals peace in Kenya.

In any case, it is said no one is safe until we are all safe. On that principle, Kenya will always be available to deploy support, including troops, in our region to keep our neighbourhood safe.

B:There are so many armed groups fighting in eastern DRC. But the one that’s come back is M23 in the last year or so. You know that the government of DRC is blaming Rwanda. They say Rwanda is backing M23. Have you looked at those claims? Do you think it’s true?

R: I’ve had occasion to have a discussion with President Tshisekedi. And I’ve also had an occasion to speak to President Kagame. President Kagame has been forthright that they have nothing to do with M23. There are other people who think otherwise, but we do not want to engage ourselves in blame games and finger-pointing. We have to get our hands on it and sort out the issues. And the good thing is that both President Kagame and FelixTshisekedi are committed to making sure that we sort out that problem as a region. And that’s why all our countries are contributing troops to stabilise that region.

The Nairobi process, chaired by President Uhuru, has made a lot of progress in making sure that this process is brought to the table, actors in that conflict are brought to the table, and my government will ensure that that process comes out with results. We are going to commit resources, we are going to commit personnel, we are going to ensure that that process, working with other partners -- I have already had a discussion with Secretary (Antony ) Blinken -- and we are in consultations on how to move those processes forward so that we can stabilise that region so that we can also deal with the challenge of terrorism and extremism that comes with instability in our neighbourhood.

B:We’ve discussed issues in Kenya, issues in your region. But currently, Kenya serves on the UN Security Council. So, to end the interview, I’d like to ask you about the one issue that’s dominating international affairs, and that’s the war in Ukraine. There seems to be a difference in opinion. There are some in the Global South who say it’s now time to stop this; it’s time for a peace deal. And there are others, particularly Western countries, who say you can’t compromise now because Russia is breaking the basic rule of the UN charter -- which is that one country cannot invade another country. Where do you stand?

R: Whatever the proposition, we must bring the conflict to an end.

B:Even if Russia benefits from the aggression?

R: The position of Kenya is that we need a peaceful resolution, a mechanism that will bring the war to a stop. Because whatever it is, we are all bearing the brunt of what that conflict portends for us: high food prices, we cannot access fertiliser, we cannot pay for fertiliser, transport for commodities, cereals, fertiliser is all clogged up with the sanctions around it and with everything else that comes with it. Our position is that in a war, there is no winner. And there is no right or wrong. I think the most important thing is for us to stop the war. Let us get ourselves first to peace, then the other processes can follow. We can then discuss who did what, what was right, what was wrong. But I think, in the context where we are today, with high food prices, with global challenges of fertiliser supply, with global challenges of cereal supply, with people faced with drought and famine in many areas, with the challenges of climate change, we do not have the luxury to be pious, you know; to say why I am right, he’s wrong, and this and that. I think we need first things first: let’s find a mechanism to stop the war. We can do other things later.

B:President WIlliam Ruto, thank you for talking to Al Jazeera.

R: Thank you very much, my brother