William Samoei Ruto – Strange bedfellows

William Samoei Ruto’s entry into Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet is one more instance proving that politics in Kenya is a spectacle of continuous experiments with various combinations and permutations of strange bedfellows. Indeed, as strange bedfellows go, none could be stranger, at first blush, than Kibaki and Ruto.

In his first term, Kibaki presided over a formidable coalition of heavyweights with whom he had swept into power with a commanding mandate. The coalition itself included a huge bough that had splintered from the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the ruling party that was subsequently handed a humiliating election defeat. This Cabinet therefore boasted a collection of newly-minted progressives who had, until recently, been KANU bigwigs.

Ruto’s path into ODM perhaps set the tone for his political performance for the ensuing decade

The remnants of KANU’s Parliamentary leadership found themselves in unfamiliar territory and did their best to serve as the Official Opposition, with William Ruto taking on an increasingly visible role alongside Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta had the unenviable role of holding a well-regarded veteran from his backyard to account while leading the much-reviled KANU.

Predictably, matters got off to a feisty start, when the Official Opposition faced off with the government side over the plight of landless people in Mochongoi, Nakuru County. KANU leaders held demonstrations to protest eviction and tasted the bizarre experience of being forcefully dispersed by armed policemen, who lobbed teargas canisters at them. Not long afterwards, Ruto would be hauled before Nairobi Chief Magistrate, Uniter Kidulla, to face charges related to KANU’s unconventional fundraising scheme that involved privatising public land and selling it to a well-endowed parastatal to produce money for its ill-fated campaign. These experiences and hostility from several National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ministers hardened Ruto as an intrepid oppositionist.

Conflict soon arose within NARC over a memorandum of understanding on power sharing that was agreed upon before the elections. While Raila Odinga and his team insisted that it be upheld, Kibaki’s side was happy to deny its existence. To counter the denial Odinga began a dalliance with KANU, whom he had been only too eager to jilt in the run up to the election, to deny Kibaki the ability to deliver a new Constitution.

At this point, Kenyatta was heavily conflicted and had begun to drift NARC-wards even as Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) drifted KANU-wards. Ruto was left leading the charge for the Opposition, and was only too glad for the reinforcement arising from Odinga’s grievances. The government Draft Constitution was defeated at the referendum, leading to a parting of ways between Kibaki and Odinga.

Kibaki summarily ejected Odinga and his allies from government and formed a broad-based government of national unity. KANU embraced the NARC outcasts and similarly formed an opposition of national unity, which was christened the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) after the designated symbol of the ‘no’ side in the referendum. The next two years were a political contest waged between Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), which Kenyatta’s KANU joined, and ODM. Odinga won the ODM nomination to contest the Presidency against Kibaki and Ruto came into his own as a legitimate political heavyweight with presidential potential.

Ruto’s path into ODM perhaps set the tone for his political performance for the ensuing decade. He had witnessed what goes into national presidential politics from close quarters and he felt that he was ready to mount his inaugural bid for national political leadership. The ODM needed a plan to ensure the interests of its members were taken into account so that they party wouldn’t collapse before the 2007 General Election. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the original giant of insurgent politics, had all the potential to run KANU out of State House and out of Nairobi, but was hobbled by fractious pursuit of undisciplined ambitions, leading to its division which ensured that none of the FORD splinter units could ever make a credible stab for power. NARC itself was a mélange of strange bedfellows, united only be the need to overthrow KANU and inspired by the fear of what happened to FORD.

Nomination to contest the Presidency is usually a key tipping point for many parties. ODM managed presidential ambitions by allowing each luminary to lobby delegates through nationwide campaigns in the run up to a nomination exercise. It also managed to secure commitments that each candidate would support the winner. Despite murmurs about serious irregularities, Odinga secured the first place finish, followed by Musalia Mudavadi. Ruto was third. He publicly committed to campaign hard for Odinga. Najib Balala and Joe Nyagah made similar commitments; this is how the ODM Pentagon was born.

The rivalry between ODM and PNU escalated during and after the elections in 2007, leading to civil unrest and widespread breakdown in law and order. Violent clashes between various communities led to over 1,000 deaths. Tens of thousands were injured and nearly one million people were displaced from their homes. Most of these casualties were victims of conflict between members of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes living in various parts of the Rift Valley.

The US led the international community in coercing reluctant political foes to make peace and share political power. Ruto was nominated to represent the ODM during the negotiations alongside Sally Kosgey, Mudavadi and James Orengo. Ruto quickly distinguished himself as an astute negotiator, and formidable articulator of claims. Ultimately, PNU and ODM agreed to form a Government of National Unity.

These are the circumstances under which Ruto ended up in Cabinet, serving in the challenging and highly visible Agriculture portfolio. He found himself challenged to serve and please Kibaki.

Ruto hit the ground running, taking advantage of the decisional and operational leeway Kibaki accorded his ministers to register a succession of visible quick wins which endeared him to Kenyans and to the President. One of his first field tours as Minister was to Gatundu to address disenchanted tea farmers. Owing to a collapse in tea prices and mismanagement of tea factories, farmers in the district had angrily mobilised and were uprooting tea bushes in protest. The risk of a contagion effect would have denied Kenya a principal catchment of premium leaf. Such angry political mobilisation, likewise, could have presented serious problems to the government on many fronts. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of political optics, Ruto was the last person expected to step into the fray. The embers of a near-genocide had hardly cooled in the Rift Valley and emotions still ran high.

Yet go he did, and his tour was successful. He managed to pacify the growers, buying time for dispute resolution to be undertaken. More importantly, his plea for a chance to serve them as their servant on behalf of Kibaki and his clarity in addressing their issues elicited respect in Central Province. This intervention was the keynote of Ruto’s ministerial legacy in Agriculture.

In his approach to policy implementation, Ruto preferred to pursue combinations of interventions aimed at quickly achieving and sustaining specific programmes and policy goals. It was his stated aim to lead the agriculture sector to surplus production within his tenure. More emphatically, he vowed repeatedly that no Kenyans would face the indignity of famine and starvation while he was Minister. This explicitness naturally framed the challenge for his ministry and underscores both the urgency and standard of delivery. He also pursued pragmatic collaborations with his Cabinet colleagues to create the necessary institutional environment for the achievement of ambitious policy targets.

The entire agriculture sector required funding to restore and expand farm extension and mechanisation services, subsidies to lower farm input costs, refurbishment and revival of irrigation systems and agro-industrial processing mills. It was his great fortune that he had retained productive alliance with the Minister for Finance, Kenyatta. Ruto therefore turned to his old friend to secure necessary concessions and provisions to ensure that his programmes took off. He also enlisted Kenyatta’s good offices to secure audience with Kibaki in order to sign off on significant decisions and, more importantly, to preside over critical occasions in his docket.

Seed and fertiliser arrived on time each planting season, signifying a tremendous logistical undertaking. Diesel was subsidised to increase farmer margins and create incentives for farmers to expand area under production. More rice and cotton were grown under irrigation. In 2009 the Minister for Agriculture visited a farm in Hola, Tana River County, where he drove a tractor evacuating the inaugural delivery of maize to the local cereals depot, the first harvest in nearly a decade. In terms of the politics of delivery, this was by no means an insignificant milestone.

Ruto’s approach to ministerial delivery had paid off. Agriculture was the most visible and highly acclaimed government department. The results spoke for themselves. Famously reticent with his compliments, Kibaki made a singular exception of Ruto, signifying his approval of his performance. Not only did he publicly state his delight at working with Ruto, he made a point of presiding over the ministry’s gala events: the Agricultural Society of Kenya’s (ASK) annual shows in various regions of the country, including the Nairobi International Trade Fair. So close did Ruto become with his chief that in March 2010 at the Eldoret ASK Show, Kibaki invited Ruto to ride with him in the Commander-in-Chief’s parade mobile, an unprecedented display of approval. Ruto had exceeded highly exacting expectations, in the unlikeliest of places. This rapport caused discomfort in ODM, especially as Ruto had a role to play in key activities of great interest to the party, including serving in the Parliamentary Select Committee.

It was now time to contend with embedded and politically influential cartels in the food and agriculture sector in order to assure farmers of the best prices. By interposing themselves between the farmer and the market, these vicious cartels escalated input prices on one end and suppressed produce prices on the other, choking the farmer in a perpetual stranglehold of futile labour. Ruto deemed reforms overdue in nearly every subsector, and proceeded with zeal to implement them. The first target was the sugar industry, where the sugar regulations were bitterly contested through intense litigation and political mobilisation.

Less than a year after his appointment, Ruto’s approval ratings as Minister were high throughout the country. As his stock in Kibaki’s court rose, he began to fall out of favour with his party leader, Odinga, the man he had propelled to within touching distance of the Presidency. When the ‘maize scandal’ broke in 2010, Odinga emerged as Ruto’s most unrelenting critic, demanding that he ‘take political responsibility’ and step aside as Minister. Teaming up with Ruto’s political adversaries, Odinga rallied his troops to support a censure motion introduced in Parliament by FORD-Kenya’s Boni Khalwale. From a ‘blue-eyed boy’ and ‘rising star’ in government, Ruto was now a fallen angel, saddled with bad publicity and the acidic condemnation of his party boss. The fallout from the campaign against him culminated in Ruto’s redeployment to the Higher Education Ministry and the first signals of impending political realignment.

Ruto, committed as he was to the politics of high performance in service delivery, was certainly a target of several of his colleagues. In particular, he had a complicated relationship with Odinga, his party leader. As a result, Ruto’s position in government went from that of a potent technocratic favourite to one simultaneously embattled and besieged.

By late 2009 Ruto’s many enemies were sufficiently emboldened by his fraught relationship with Odinga to launch a subversive coalition. The maize scandal was used as an excuse to call for Ruto’s resignation and a censure motion in Parliament. When the censure motion was finally put to vote, it was defeated.

The fallout from the campaign against him culminated in Ruto’s redeployment to the Higher Education Ministry and the first signals of impending political realignment

In moving to swiftly and clinically dispatch Ruto from high-level politics and rallying a coalition of Ruto’s momentary enemies, Odinga had shown his hand. In defying his boss and obstinately resisting calls to resign, then mobilising a motley coalition of Odinga’s rivals and enemies, Ruto had also shown his. There would be no turning back, and a vicious contest was on that both parties would prosecute ruthlessly for the next decade, with Ruto scoring successive wins against Odinga, and inflicting significant damage to a once invincible march to power. Ruto established his credentials as a resilient survivor and scrappy contender in the wild terrain of Kenya’s politics.

Odinga’s next move, was to remove Ruto from government, citing powers granted to him as Prime Minister by the National Accord. This backfired, when Kibaki reversed Odinga’s action using his exclusive executive mandate.

The only concession for Odinga was the transfer of Ruto to Higher Education. In his new ministry, Ruto thrived, quickly setting in motion reforms that had been hampered by lack of political will. By collaborating with the academic community, he transformed the higher education sector, eliminating the waiting period for university entry, increasing the capitalisation of the Higher Education Loans Board to enable it expand the eligible categories of students and increase the loans available. This enabled unprecedented numbers of students to enrol for and complete their higher education and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Under his watch, the academic institutions intensified collaborations with government institutions, especially in research and innovation. It was at this time also that his engagement with what was to become a pet project would start. The village polytechnics and all technical, vocational and industrial education and training institutions attracted unprecedented government attention, in time completely overhauling the sector. Both as alternative paths to higher education and as training ground for artisans, craftsmen and technicians, the profile of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions steadily rose to reclaim, then surpass their stature in the pre-structural adjustment programme era.

Ruto’s delivery strategy acquired impetus with the advent of the Kenya National Vision 2030, a transformative roadmap which he quickly embraced. As a long-term economic reform blueprint, this roadmap enabled Kibaki to align government activity for efficiency and to exploit strategic complementarities across sectors.
The key propositions of Vision 2030 were affirmed by the socio-political and economic implosion that rocked the country following the post-election crisis. The National Accord and Reconciliation Act in its Agenda Four mandated the effective resolution of ‘long-standing constitutional, legal and institutional reforms’ including the passage of a new Constitution. Ruto was destined to play a significant role as a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform where he put his superior negotiating skills to good use. He distinguished himself as a relentless pragmatist, able to do a deal with his sworn enemies.

After intense bargaining at the Parliamentary Select Committee, the document was transmitted to the Committee of experts, who produced the Harmonised Draft for approval by the National Assembly as the Referendum Bill. When the referendum was launched, Ruto spearheaded a coalition of mainly conservative interest groups who had sought changes to the draft in vain, to oppose the passage of the proposed Constitution. Ultimately, it was a lost cause, as on 4 August 2010, a total of 68.55% of voters approved the document. Ruto’s effort garnered 2,795,059 votes, representing 31.45%. In this lost cause, Ruto emerged as a towering politician, his mobilisation credentials now properly established.

Two months later, President Kibaki announced that after consultations with Prime Minister Odinga, he had decided to suspend Ruto as Higher Education Minister after he lost a constitutional petition seeking to bar the magistrate’s court from trying him for fraud connected to the 2003 Ngong Forest land case.

Another two months later, Ruto was named alongside Cabinet colleagues Henry Kosgey, Francis Muthaura and Kenyatta, former Commissioner of Police Hussein Ali, and journalist Joshua Sang as the ‘Ocampo 6’, Kenyans alleged to have masterminded the post-election violence and thus, arraigned to face trial at the International Criminal Court for international crimes and crimes against humanity. His tour of service as a star turn in Kibaki’s Cabinet had come to a less than desirable end.

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