Opinion Politics

Why Uhuru dumped Ruto


It seems like aeons ago. In those days – long, long ago – Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were inseparable. Siamese twins. White starched shirts, matching red “power” ties. Sleeves rolled up. Camaraderie. Simpatico. Mr Ruto, the eager and scheming understudy, would stand deferentially behind his boss, hands clasped in decorum. Every now and then Mr Ruto would crack a smile. Studious. The king-in-waiting.

Seven years later – as Irish poet William Butler Yates wrote in ‘The Second Coming’ – we’ve all witnessed “Things Fall Apart”. Indeed, “the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Mr Ruto’s carefully crafted succession plan is adrift – his ship listing, taking on water. Why did the scion of Jomo dump him?

Back then, Mr Kenyatta told fanatical Jubilee hoi polloi that he would serve for a decade, and hand the baton to Mr Ruto for “his own 10”. But as they say, a day – let alone a year – is a long time in politics. After the 2017 elections, Mr Kenyatta turned his back on his precociously ambitious deputy.

At one point, Mr Kenyatta rebuked Mr Ruto in public, saying that the “principal assistant” had forcibly grabbed the “succession baton” and was running backwards. It was an extraordinary statement. Mr Ruto pretended to smile as he shifted and squirmed in his seat. Mr Kenyatta’s punch had landed with a loud report. Their relationship had irretrievably entered the Door of No Return.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto were both “Moi-Kanu boys”. But they weren’t a natural fit, especially after the 2008 post-election violence. The worst of it was between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. For that, both gentlemen ended up at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. 

Ironically, it was the ICC that united them – and their communities – even after people lustily butchered each other. It was an uncertain truce born of fear and ambition, not principle. The biblical house built on sand. Was their divorce inevitable after Mr Kenyatta secured a second term? Many thought so. But that wasn’t the real reason. Fear, I suggest, is the reason. Fear of Mr Ruto.

Central Kenya elite

If we understand politics as the conquest of state power without violence, then it all makes sense. 

Political power is the medium through which economic power is captured, and then husbanded. 

Methinks that the Central Kenya elite learnt from the Moi-Kanu era that the presidency was the indispensable tool for taking, and keeping, the commanding heights of the economy. Lose political power and you face economic Armageddon. 


Dictator Daniel arap Moi decimated the Central Kenya business elite. The détente reached between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto – and by implication the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites – in the wake of the ICC cases couldn’t survive the distrust between the two. Mr Ruto can’t be trusted to protect the Central Kenya elite hold on economic power. 

More importantly, Mr Kenyatta and his larger clan don’t want to find out what Mr Ruto could do to them if he captures state power. There are signs of what animates Mr Ruto. Like Donald Trump, Mr Ruto seems to be enamoured with dictators. His close relationship with the regime of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who’s facing charges at the ICC, is a matter of public record. More concerning is Mr Ruto’s admiration of – and dalliance – with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. 

Mr Museveni is an African Vladimir Putin who’s essentially abolished term limits. He rules with the fiercest iron fist. All we need to know is that Mr Ruto is under Mr Museveni’s political pupillage. 

Scandal after scandal

That’s not all. Mr Ruto is dogged by allegations of scandal after scandal. Is he the sort of person to whom a wise nation would entrust its democracy? And would any elite – including those around Mr Kenyatta – be comfortable under his reign?

Kenya is a fledgling democracy. It can be reversed easily. Mr Kenyatta himself has taken an axe to Kenya’s democratic experiment. Often, he’s torn through democratic norms, laws, even the Constitution. He’s set a terrible example for his successors.

But if we think Mr Kenyatta is illiberal and often dictatorial, then as they say, we ain’t seen nutin’ yet. Mr Ruto’s anti-democratic proclivities will probably make Mr Kenyatta’s ham-handedness look like a walk in the park.

It’s clear that Mr Kenyatta wants no part of Mr Ruto in the next administration. Which means he must back someone who can beat Mr Ruto. Mr Ruto has a right to run, and Mr Kenyatta has an equal right to stop him within the strictures of the Constitution and Kenya’s laws. But as a political matter, Mr Kenyatta owes Kenyans a candid explanation – without obfuscation – as to why he’s dumped Mr Ruto. 

Come out and say it straight, and let the chips fall where they may. On the other hand, Mr Ruto needs to speak publicly on why he thinks he’s been dumped. This is critical information for the electorate.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua

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