As a boy, William Kipchirchir Samoei arap Ruto hawked chickens to truck drivers along the Great North Road. Today, he owns thousands of imported chickens from which he collects more than 2,500 eggs a day. The self-proclaimed ‘hustler’ who once called a mud-walled house home, today lives in a multi-million shilling mansion complete with a private airstrip. So much opulence surrounds the house that one of his friends once remarked, “It is such a big house… It is like a hotel.”
But then the man who has often reminded Kenyans that he was once one of them – a jostler who had to shove his way to the table – is no longer counted among the ranks of the ordinary. Today he is the Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya and no longer refers to himself, or others, as hustlers. They are now “my friends”, a phrase he popularised so much that during election campaigns it was on the lips of the President as well as primary school children.
Born in 1966, Ruto would start serious hustling as soon as he graduated from the University of Nairobi, where he attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany and Zoology in 1990. He started a company known as African Venture Tours and Hotels, and today owns the Weston Hotel in Nairobi’s Langata Estate. He then taught for a while at Sirgoi and Kamagut primary schools before arriving at his destination: elective politics.
As the re-introduction of multiparty politics took effect, it appeared that the opposition movement – led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba – was gaining traction and was ready to oust President Daniel arap Moi in the 1992 General Election. One of the strategies that the President devised to defend his seat was the formation of a youth group named Youth for KANU ’92 (YK92) to drum up support for him. Ruto was the group’s Organising Secretary; from then on, he would become a household name.
The idea behind YK92 was partly to counter the perception that the ruling party, KANU, had lost the hearts and minds of young middle and upper-class Kenyans to the emergent opposition. The group, headed by Cyrus Jirongo, was therefore designed to be an elitist unit composed of polished young businessmen and political activists with close ties to Moi’s sons. At first, the ‘hustler’ was not part of the group because he did not quite ‘fit in’.
While most of the group’s leaders lived in the fast lane – ‘hitting’ companies and parastatals ostensibly to support Moi’s re-election campaign – they needed something to show for their existence, and found in the struggling Ruto a godsend for their Secretariat. He took on the role of Organising Secretary and worked so hard that the powers that be soon took notice of him.
There would be a fallout between Moi and the group after the 1992 elections, and YK92 gradually crumbled as individuals and organisations accused the members of corruption and underhand deals. Due to his minimal role, Ruto was spared the fallout and even found a voice to criticise bigwigs in Moi’s administration, including Vice President George Saitoti and the powerful Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott, for not adequately rewarding the youths following KANU’s win in 1992.
The efficient, hard-working and committed Ruto was able to use his time in YK92 to build his political network, getting close to Moi’s confidants including the presidential Private Secretary, Joshua Kulei, and Mark Too. It was implied that if you were not in Kulei’s good books, you could not survive in the Cabinet let alone get close to the President. Too, on the other hand, was often referred to by the media as “Mr Fix It” or “Bwana Dawa” (medicine man) for the role he played in brokering political deals for the President. Ruto’s proximity to Kulei and Too was not explicitly reported, but was obvious from public appearances.
At the same time, he continued campaigning in Eldoret North for the parliamentary seat then occupied by the wealthy Reuben Chesire. During the 1997 General Election, Ruto surprised friend and foe alike when he dislodged Chesire from the seat. Even Moi, who had dismissed him as an immature noisemaker during previous campaigns, noticed the young man and appointed him Assistant Minister in the Office of the President in 1998. The hustler was on his way up. He would hold the Eldoret North seat until 2012, when he joined Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns for the presidency as his running mate.
As Moi prepared to hand over the mantle to the younger generation in 2002, he promoted the young politician to Minister for Home Affairs. Although his tenure lasted a very short time (from August to December), Ruto was a first among equals in Moi’s ‘Project Uhuru’, a campaign intended to endorse Uhuru as his successor.
When Moi announced Uhuru as his preferred successor, those who had been angling for the ‘anointment’, including Raila Odinga (who had merged his National Democratic Party with KANU in 2001), Kalonzo Musyoka and George Saitoti, rebelled and joined the opposition. However, Musalia Mudavadi (who was serving as Vice President for that period) and Ruto stayed with Moi and supported his decision. For the time he was Minister for Home Affairs, Ruto’s major occupation was to rally support for Moi’s decision and campaign for Uhuru. Little in terms of his Cabinet duties is recorded or known.
‘Project Uhuru’ was, however, scuttled when Odinga joined the opposition led by Mwai Kibaki. Uhuru and KANU lost the presidential election to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) under Kibaki and Odinga. Ruto was by Uhuru’s side when he conceded defeat. For several years, he stayed close to Uhuru and continued to support him even after MPs from Uhuru’s back yard in Kiambu District (now Kiambu County) decamped to Kibaki’s side and some were appointed to government positions.
“The incorporation of some of our members into government has impacted negatively on democracy as it is unthinkable that somebody can belong to the official opposition party and be a member of the Cabinet at the same time. The so-called defection of the Kiambu MPs to government significantly affects our party and impacts more negatively on our party Chairman, Uhuru Kenyatta. (However) Uhuru still commands national respect across the political divide and community lines as he has cut his own image as Uhuru and not as a tribal but a national leader,” Ruto told the press in September 2004.
When Kibaki was overwhelmingly elected as the third President of Kenya in 2002, he was expected to form a coalition government in which Odinga would become Prime Minister. The ‘KANU rebels’ were also expected to get half of the Cabinet posts. This, however, did not materialise and Odinga’s supporters started to oppose the government from within. In this, they were joined by the opposition, KANU, led by Uhuru.
During the campaigns for a referendum on a new Constitution in 2005, Ruto joined Odinga in opposing the draft document and caused its defeat. Kibaki sacked his entire Cabinet following this embarrassment and denied ministers from the Liberal Democratic Party wing that had fought the draft slots in the subsequent appointments. He instead invited influential KANU figures to join his government.
Meanwhile, Odinga, Mudavadi and Ruto spearheaded the formation of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which would become a political party to face Kibaki in the 2007 General Election. A consummate public speaker, Ruto joined Odinga – himself a crowd-puller – in creating a support base that went full out against Kibaki.
Even after Kibaki was announced winner of the 2007 presidential election, the two influenced their supporters to reject the results. This led to unprecedented election-related violence in which close to 1,500 Kenyans were killed and about half a million displaced. The chaos forced the Kibaki administration to compromise and, through the intervention of the international community, a Government of National Unity was formed with Odinga as Prime Minister.
A fierce ODM supporter with a sharp mind, Ruto was instrumental in the dialogue that led to the formation of the Government of National Unity and was subsequently rewarded by Odinga with an appointment as Minister for Agriculture. On the other side of the political divide, his former KANU Chairman, Uhuru, was named Deputy Prime Minister by Kibaki.
Ruto would later be implicated in a maize scandal where the Ikolomani MP, Boni Khalwale, accused him in Parliament of selling subsidised maize to well-connected and undeserving individuals and companies. The imported maize had been introduced to stabilise prices after the 2007-2008 election violence, but the individuals and companies that exploited the scheme purportedly skimmed off money running into billions of shillings.
Although a no-confidence motion brought against him failed, controversy continued to dog Ruto and he was transferred from Agriculture to Higher Education in April 2010. In 2011, he was suspended from the Cabinet after the High Court ruled that he had a case to answer in connection with an alleged payment of millions of shillings arising from deals involving the Kenya Pipeline Company.
During the campaigns leading to the referendum for the 2010 Constitution, Ruto and the Clergy rooted for the ‘No’ side that was opposed to the draft document. He argued that some sections of the draft were unsuitable and should have been tackled before the draft went to the referendum. Although they agreed that 20 per cent of the document was not good enough, Kibaki and Odinga campaigned for its adoption, saying amendments could always be made once the Constitution had been enacted.
Towards the end of 2010, Ruto and Uhuru were cited by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and the duo, which was on opposite sides during the mayhem, would face the charges even after they were elected Deputy President and President respectively in the 2013 General Election. The court would, however, abandon Ruto’s prosecution in April 2016. Charges against Uhuru had similarly been dropped a few months earlier.
During public rallies, Ruto is known for throwing spikes at his political enemies. For example, when Jubilee Party delegates nominated him and Uhuru in May 2017 to run for the presidency, he told the delegates at the Bomas of Kenya, “Hustlers are among the delegates here present. There are also cooks and shoe-shiners amongst us and so are gardeners and watchmen. These men and women have been elected because they have visions and are ready to work with you (Uhuru) to change this country. So I want to tell my ‘friends’ on the other side that now cooks are here and so are watchmen and designers. They believe in power sharing, we believe in empowerment of our citizens. We are telling them that this country belongs to us all. Wata-do (what can they do)?”
Between 5 and 8 October 2014, when Uhuru was required to personally attend a session at the ICC in The Hague, he appointed Ruto Acting President, an action that raised eyebrows in some quarters but brought to the fore the chemistry between the two leaders. Back in 2012, under the umbrella of the Jubilee coalition made up of Uhuru’s The National Alliance (TNA) party and Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP), the two had mounted a spirited campaign for the presidency.
Their campaign was mainly hinged on the ICC trials and the unity of Kenyans, especially their Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities, which had engaged in tribal clashes every election cycle since 1992. The tyranny of the numbers of their two communities combined with swing votes from other parts of the country brought to nought – for the third time – Odinga’s hopes of becoming President. They won the presidency in March 2013.
Many view Ruto as a hard go-getter who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, but the Deputy President is also a very religious and emotional man. A day after the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission confirmed that Uhuru and Ruto were the President and Deputy President, Ruto and his family attended a church service in Karen, Nairobi, and he wept uncontrollably as he addressed the congregation, apparently overwhelmed by the victory.
In his acceptance speech later, he admitted, “I am lost for words… For us to get where we are today, God, and I say God, did it for us. God turned every hurdle into a bridge. He turned every roadblock into a stepping stone and turned every challenge into an opportunity. Our victory today is, in all manner of definition, a miracle.”
Uhuru and Ruto won the presidency for a second time in August 2017, this time under a unified Jubilee Party, but their victory was overturned by the Supreme Court of Kenya. However, in a repeat presidential election a few months later, they won again. Ruto has announced that he will vie for the presidency when Uhuru’s second and final term expires in 2022.