It’s the year of the Ruto Suit. If there is one defining change as President William Ruto completes his first year in office, it must be in his regularly discarding the conservative business suits for distinctive, and often colourful, tunics that are as much ideological as they are fashion statements.
The outfits in mauve, orange, green, maroon, burgundy, turquoise, mustard and everything in between have added a dash of colour and panache to the President’s official functions. President Uhuru Kenyatta had also largely discarded the suit and tie for colourful silk shirts of the type made famous by former South African President Nelson Mandela, but it is Ruto who has made a clear statement by going beyond the casual and making his collarless suits part of his formal attire.
It has been a refreshing change from the dull grey suits, but adopting his own variation of what from the early years of African independence was the trademark for President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius Nyerere is than sartorial elegance. It is a statement that can almost definitely be viewed against Ruto’s increasingly visible campaign for an Africa that stresses its sovereignty in regard to western economic and cultural dominance.
The Ruto Suit thus sends a message in much the same way the Kaunda Suit and the Nyerere Suit did. And further afield, as the Mao suit did from Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong. It is a statement of defiance, an affirmation of nationalism and freedom against western hegemony; and also demonstration of an ideological stance in favour the common man.
The outfit is thus a natural progression of Ruto’s Bottom-Up platform which stresses economic policies that prioritise the needs of the lower strata of society. And here lies the contradiction. Until he launched his 2022 presidential campaign around the Bottom-Up slogan and the Hustler Nation rhetoric, Ruto was not known for any ideological, and particularly not leftist or socialist, posturing.
He rose in politics as the quintessential system man, and the system was the unabashed capitalism that Kenya was one of the most unequal societies in the world. It was the system where a tiny elite in the political and merchant classes took advantage of their positions to amass unparalleled wealth, while the masses toiled in poverty. He was a beneficiary of the politics of patronage that concentrated resources at the top of the pyramid, leaving the poor to their own devices.
It was also the system where the wealthy and powerful were cloistered in ‘Little London’ protected from the masses by high stone walls, electric fences, razor wire and private security guards, while the rest of the country suffered starvation, neglect and marginalisation. Ruto campaigned on the promise to tear down those walls. To bring down the dynasties who since independence had dominated the political and economic landscape; and put in place a revolutionary new system where interests of the neglected Hustler would rise to the top of the government agenda.
Ruto never was a socialist ideologue, but he unashamedly stole a winning formula from veteran opposition chief Raila Odinga, and ran with it all the way to State House. Once in office, however, he did not stop there, but adapted his attire to match the ideological shift.
However, it is clear at any glance that the Ruto Suits are not from homespun cotton stitched together by the local tailor. They are measured, cut and stitched to the highest standards quite at par with the high-priced designer suits from the exclusive design houses in Rome and London he otherwise sports.
A WhatsApp enquiry last week on where his suits are made and who his fashion stylist is was not favoured with a response. But it is clear even without the answer that in his year in office, Ruto has come to stand head and shoulders above his predecessor on the style and fashion department.
Those with knowledge of such things effortlessly point out his Brioni and other designer suits, and the accessories in shoes, ties and wristwatches that could make serious dents in the budget of any county. The African-inspired Ruto Suits also certainly do not come cheap. For Ruto, however, it is not just about dressing expensive, but dressing well.
Away from formal attire, the President will usually be in casual polo shirts or sweaters and perfectly fitted chinos, footwear of choice being comfortable designer loafers; all expertly colour coordinated with light tans predominant. If Ruto’s dress sense shows a person both at ease with himself and also conscious of his appearance, so does his general demeanour.
The presidency has not taken away that easy smile, or the glint in his eye. Ruto in public still presents the picture of a confident, friendly personality eager to exchange hugs and backslaps and quick to break into uproarious laughter. But one also sees the prickly personage, one often lashing out in anger at provocation from his opposition nemesis, and ever ready to go on the offensive with unrestrained verbal tirades. It has not been an easy first year for President Ruto. He promised to hit the ground running, but one often gets the impression he got onto a treadmill that was already at top speed and he has no way to slow it down or jump off.
The poise and self-confidence does not disguise the fact that Ruto must be under a great deal of pressure. If it is not public protests and other provocations from the opposition, it is from an economy that stubbornly refuses to obey his commands. It can be no comfort that he is an unprecedented spike in petroleum prices put a big damper on his first year celebrations, with political impact likely to felt for some time to come.
The government communications machinery can trumpet many achievements and fulfilled promises, but Ruto is smart enough to know to know that no amount of propaganda or pointing the finger of blame at Raila and Uhuru will deflect growing public discontent over the cost of living and unmet expectations.
The rise in international oil prices is out of his control, but finer details of global issues will often not matter much to a Hustler who voted in expectation of instant reductions in costs of basic goods. Oil prices, coupled with a shilling in free fall and rising interest rates will greatly undermine Ruto’s economic recovery strategy. He may in his first year established himself as master of the game on the political front by winning over a large number of opposition legislators to neutralise Raila in Parliament, but the economy often defies political dictates and the bully pulpit.
The presidency changes anybody. The pressures and stresses of high office will be visible within a short time in temperament and mood, as well as physical appearances. Rapid weight gain or weight loss, greying hair, crow’s feet and forehead lines are clear manifestations observed with figures who rose to the presidency at a relatively young age. From Uhuru Kenyatta to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, change became visible within a short time. Uhuru bloated and is face puffed up, possibly reflection of lifestyle accentuated by the need to escape office pressures. Clinton lost considerable weight and his hair turned completely gray. Obama retuned his lithe bearing but greyed too and developed lines on his face.
Dress aside, Ruto in appearance has fluctuated between rapid weight loss and gains. At one time he had lost so much weight that alarm was openly expressed about his health. It was later let out, unofficially, that the ascetic president sometimes subjects himself to severe fasting. This was what caused Raila to claim, without offering any evidence, that all State House staff were forced to fast irrespective of their religious observances.
While listening to a speech or watching some presentation or sports events, Ruto will often pay rapt attention, following events with his eyes, face, mouth hands and full body. He will laugh, cheer, clap, groan and put on a full display of emotions. But at times one will detect a distant, faraway look. He will cradle his chin between thumb and forefinger, and his eyes will go into a squint and be diverted from events on stage to some no-man’s land somewhere into the clouds.
That is probably when he is battling all the demons that come with the awesome responsibilities thrust on his young shoulders. In those moments one sees a vulnerable, lonely man, seemingly at a loss where to turn next.
Such are the pressures of office. If Ruto cannot early in his second year begin to solve the intractable economic problems around which the fate of his young presidency lies, then we can expect to see more in his demeanour and mood; and probably actions such as lashing out in anger and desperations at whatever his identifies as obstacles to the realisation of his agenda.