Kenya’s election wrestling match: Dynasties v Hustlers

By Evelyne Musambi
BBC News, Nairobi

  • Published
Image source, AFP

In a move akin to a Trump backing a Clinton in a US election, Kenya's outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta wants to hand the political crown to his foe-turned-friend Raila Odinga - only to see his deputy William Ruto trying to snatch it in the 9 August election.

It has led to a political drama that has seen Mr Ruto cast himself as a "hustler", fighting what he regards as an attempt by two of Kenya's biggest dynasties - the Kenyattas and Odingas - to hang on to power.

Trying to evoke the sympathy of Kenyans, he has prayed, wept and made the incendiary claim that President Kenyatta was threatening him.

"As long as you don't kill my children I shall face you but please let's respect each other," Mr Ruto said, at one of his final campaign rallies as a crowd cheered him on.

Rebutting his allegation, Mr Kenyatta said: "You have insulted me for close to three years. Has anyone touched you?"

Their exchange showed how personal and bitter Kenya's election campaign has become, as Mr Kenyatta came out in support of Mr Odinga as his successor.

"The president has diverted the focus of Ruto, to exchange words with him, and to forget about his competitor," Kenyan political analyst Prof Masibo Lumala told the BBC.

"The president has managed to bring out a side of his deputy that shows his anger, which is not a good thing," he added.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Deputy President William Ruto fell out with President Kenyatta during their second term

Another analyst, Prof Macharia Munene said these sharp exchanges made Mr Odinga "look like the sober one" during the campaign, though he also landed some blows on Mr Ruto, questioning his hustler claim by labelling him "a man of lands" - a reference to the long-running controversy over how the deputy president became a big landowner in Kenya. He denies acquiring land illegally.

President Kenyatta's move to back Mr Odinga has been seen as an attempt by him to secure his legacy by reuniting two families that jointly fought British colonial rule - only to fall out in 1966, three years after independence, and to remain at loggerheads until his second and final term.

It meant ditching Mr Ruto, with whom he formed an alliance in the 2013 election to fight off charges they faced at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the deadly violence that hit Kenya after the 2007 poll.

"What had united them disappeared," Prof Munene said, adding: "Now Ruto wants to be elected and Uhuru wants his legacy so their interests have collided."

Mr Kenyatta first made overtures to Mr Odinga after the disputed 2017 polls. Rejecting the results, Mr Odinga had called for a boycott of several companies, including one associated with the Kenyatta family, and declared himself the "people's president" at a huge rally in the capital, Nairobi.

"Uhuru had to accommodate Raila because he was able to create instant trouble and hamper his work," Prof Munene said, adding that the 77-year-old veteran politician accepted Mr Kenyatta's olive branch as it bolstered his chances of becoming president after four failed attempts.

"Mr Odinga is appearing to be more desperate because of age, and this appears to be his last chance," Prof Munene said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Raila Odinga has chosen ex-Justice Minister Martha Karua as his running-mate

The Kenyatta and Odinga families are extremely rich. What their fortunes are worth is unclear, but the public got a glimpse of the Kenyattas' wealth when the Pandora Papers linked them to offshore investments, including a company with stocks and bonds worth $30m (£22m).

Mr Ruto is also wealthy, but he has portrayed himself as someone who - having once sold chickens and groundnuts by the roadside - understands the plight of the poor, and will champion their interests if elected.

"While we are busy planning how the lowest Kenyan will be uplifted, some other operatives are busy in hotels planning how to install a puppet president who they will control, as they want, so that their selfish interests continue being served," Mr Ruto once said at a rally - lines that he often repeated and which were dismissed as untrue by his opponents.

With women making up nearly half the number of registered voters, Mr Odinga, unlike Mr Ruto, has chosen a female running-mate, former Justice Minister Martha Karua.

Prof Lumala described her as a breath of fresh in a male-dominated campaign, and said she had given Kenyans their "Kamala Harris" moment on the campaign trail.

"We could see an element of motherhood [in her]. She maintained her sanity and even when hitting, she was measured in her language," he added, though she too attacked Mr Ruto in the final days of the campaign by saying he should "stop trying to be Deputy Jesus" by crying at prayer meetings.

Mr Ruto has focused heavily on winning over the youth - not surprising as the official rate of unemployment among those aged between 18 and 34 years is nearly 40%, and the economy is not creating enough jobs to absorb the 800,000 young people joining the workforce every year.

Mr Ruto has therefore coined the phrase "Hustler Nation" to refer to the young people struggling to make ends meet, and has promised a "bottom-up approach" to the economy, saying it will benefit the poor.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Unemployment is a major crisis in Kenya

Mr Odinga's manifesto is relying on manufacturing and industrialisation to create jobs.

He has also promised two million needy households a monthly stipend of 6,000 Kenyan shillings ($50; £40) from a new social protection fund if he is elected president.

Two lawyers are also running for the presidency:

  • George Wajackoyah, whose central pledge has been to create jobs through the production of marijuana for industrial use and
  • David Mwaure, who has campaigned on a platform of tackling corruption in government.

Both the front-runners spent huge amounts of cash on the four-month-long official campaign period, crisscrossing the country in their convoys - including luxury choppers - to win over voters.

"It's a show of might and in the midst of rising poverty - it looks like mocking people," Prof Munene said.

But, he added, the crowds did not mind as they were often paid to attend rallies, giving them an opportunity to make some money.

No-one knows whether they will double-cross their paymasters by secretly voting for another candidate on Tuesday.

But what is almost certain is that Tuesday's vote will not end the political drama involving Mr Kenyatta, Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Odinga is hoping that his choice of a female running-mate will make many women vote for him

Some pundits predict that neither candidate will cross the magical 50% mark, forcing a run-off.

Others believe that a clear winner will emerge, but the result will be challenged by the defeated candidate.

The 2017 election was so marred by irregularities, including rigging, that Kenya's highest court annulled the result - and ordered a fresh one that Mr Kenyatta won after Mr Odinga boycotted it.

This time around the electoral commission says it is better prepared to ensure a free and fair poll, which will see Mr Kenyatta handing the reins of power to either his foe-turned-friend, or friend-turned foe.

Who is in the race to run Kenya?

Learn more about Kenya’s presidential candidates

Choose a candidate to view their bio

Raila Amollo Odinga

Azimio la Umoja Coalition

  • Age: 77
  • Nicknamed “Baba”
  • Son of former vice-president
  • Trained as an engineer in what was then East Germany
  • Prime minister from 2008 to 2013 in the unity government created after post-election violence
  • Formed alliance with ex-political enemy President Uhuru Kenyatta
  • Four-time unsuccessful presidential candidate
  • Championed multiparty democracy in the one-party era.
  • Detained twice (1982-88 and 1989-91) as a political prisoner.
  • Seen as a formidable campaigner able to draw large crowds.
  • Achieve double-digit economic growth through investment in small business and manufacturing sector.
  • Provide affordable quality healthcare for all.
  • Disburse $50 (£42) a month to two million needy households.

William Samoei Ruto

Kenya Kwanza Alliance

  • Age: 55
  • Worked as a street trader as a teenager.
  • Has a PhD in plant ecology from the University of Nairobi.
  • Served as deputy president since 2013 but fell out with boss President Uhuru Kenyatta.
  • One of Kenya’s biggest maize farmers.
  • Charged by the International Criminal Court over post-election violence – charges later dropped.
  • Portrays himself as champion of the downtrodden.
  • Coined phrase “hustler nation”
  • Owns huge parcels of land but the source of his wealth is a subject of speculation.
  • Praised as an effective agriculture minister from 2008-2010.
  • Seen as a powerful orator and robust media interviewee
  • Give all Kenyans subsidised health insurance cover and a fee waiver for poor households.
  • Allocate $420m annually to support small and medium-sized enterprises.
  • Appoint a gender-balanced cabinet.

George Wajackoyah

Roots Party

  • Age: 63
  • Holds a masters in international development law from the UK’s University of Warwick.
  • Says he has 17 university degrees
  • Worked in police intelligence before he fled the country in 1990 to escape from torture
  • Gained notoriety with eye-catching policies
  • Lived on the streets of the capital as a child and was rescued by Hare Krishna worshippers
  • Partner in a law firm he established in 2018
  • Campaigns wearing a tracksuit, T-shirt and headscarf rather than a smart suit
  • Legalise the farming and production of marijuana for industrial and medical use
  • Switch to a four-day working week from Monday to Thursday
  • Invest in snake farming to extract the venom which can be exported

David Mwaure Waihiga

Agano Party

  • Age: 65
  • Practised law for more than three decades
  • Also an ordained reverend
  • Previously ran for MP, senator and county governor – losing each time
  • Founded Agano Party in 2006
  • Says he brings a “breath of fresh air” to the top of politics
  • First expressed an interest in running for president in 2013
  • Set up an asset recovery agency under the presidency to recover stolen funds
  • Slash income tax by half and get rid of it altogether for medics and police
  • Give incentives to manufacturers and entrepreneurs to create jobs

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