Kenyan 'Hustler' President Ruto Faces Uphill Fight for Internal and External Stability, Experts Say
© AP Photo / Brian IngangaKenya's new president William Ruto holds up a ceremonial sword as he is sworn in to office at a ceremony held at Kasarani stadium in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. William Ruto was sworn in as Kenya's president on Tuesday after narrowly winning the Aug. 9 election and after the Supreme Court last week rejected a challenge to the official results by losing candidate Raila Odinga.
Kenyan President William Ruto took his oath of office on Tuesday, following the high court’s ruling that his election victory last month was legitimate. Now, he faces challenges of maintaining internal stability amid continuing economic woes - and promises to assuage them - and Kenya’s reputation as a neutral problem-solver in a precarious region.
On Ruto’s first full day in office, regional experts told Sputnik Ruto has risen to the presidency on a wave of big expectations, based on promises that he would tackle heavy economic issues and maintain Kenya’s reputation as a stable country and trustworthy regional broker, while also tacking reasonably close to the path set by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta.
‘Issues of Bread-and-Butter’
“I don't think there is a fundamental shift in the policies that he's going to pursue or that Kenya is going to pursue,” David Kiwuwa, an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham, said about Ruto.
“I think internationally, I suspect that Ruto would hold costs as the previous government,” he said, noting that “The key thing about Kenya, something positive about Kenya is it is seen more as a neutral arbiter. And therefore, because of that, there is a lot of goodwill for Kenya's role in regional and continental crises.”
Some of those could include Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kiwuwa said. However, he noted that Ruto had already indicated he would end Kenya’s support for the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) that has been declared in Western Sahara, and would recognize Morocco’s claims to sovereignty over the territory.
Domestically, Kiwuwa predicted Ruto would deviate more from the path plotted by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, under whom Ruto served as Deputy President.
“As a politician, he has branded himself as a rags-to-riches kind of politician, because he believes that he worked his way up to being one of the richest people, a very rich person, a millionaire in Kenya, but also that he's worked his way up the political ladder,” Kiwuwa explained.
“So he's a self-made man, and that's why he calls himself ‘the hustler.’ And in that way, he tries to show that he has a lot of connections with the regular folks in Kenya, the regular people that are striving to make ends meet. And I think he was trying to contrast himself between the Kenyatta's and [election rival Raila] Odinga's people who come from very well-connected, almost dynastic families. And that he's trying to say, ‘look, there is a very clear distinction between me, who has made myself what I am, who is calm, who has worked hard to be what I am compared to Kenyatta or Odinga who have the fortunes of their family.’ So he's that kind of politician.”
“Ruto is a populist politician who deploys his excellent oratory skills and eloquence to woe supporters. He is also very calculative and manipulative. Above all he is a go-getter who prides in not losing any election he has ever contested, including the just concluded presidential election,” Philip Nying'uro, a lecturer of political science at the University of Nairobi, told Sputnik.
© AP Photo / Mosa'ab ElshamySupporters of Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto push a wheelbarrow, a symbol used by the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, as they celebrate at his party headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.
Supporters of Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto push a wheelbarrow, a symbol used by the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, as they celebrate at his party headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.
“A teetotaler who takes no alcohol nor smokes, Ruto has styled himself as a ‘hustler’ and campaigned as the leader of the ‘Hustler Nation.’ He wants the jobless youth and poor Kenyans to see in him the hope that it is possible for a person born and raised in poverty to rise and become rich and important in society. Indeed, he has promised to establish a ‘Hustler Fund’ to assist small scale traders to start and grow their businesses” Nying’uro said.
Kiwuwa said Ruto would focus on ”issues of bread and butter” because “he's very much aware of the economic distress that the youth are suffering and that he would like to see a lot of attention that is placed on almost turbocharging the economy.”
“I think this is one of his core priorities and a very important challenge, but it's also an important core priority for him to grow the economy in order for him to be able to alleviate the economic distress that a lot of young people who voted for him find themselves in. So in that way, you can see him moving towards strengthening the economy, putting a lot of emphasis on the economy. But also he said something about, for instance, creating a lot of autonomy, for instance, [for] the police.”
He added that Ruto intended to create autonomy for the judicial sector of the government “ to make sure that there's increased freedom for people to criticize the government without fear of repercussions, as he calls it, because I think this was a criticism to the Kenyatta regime that when you criticize the government, the government retaliated by targeting you in one way or another.”
However, Ruto has notably removed the subsidies on food and fuel that had protected Kenyans from the global increase in petroleum prices over the last year, causing a sharp spike in the cost of petrol. “This because he claims these distort the market dynamics,” Kiwuwa noted.
Big Promises, Big Problems
“Like most politicians, Mr. Ruto promised a lot to the poor masses,” Said John Mukum Mbaku, a senior fellow with the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative, a Brady Presidential Distinguished professor of economics and John S. Hinckley Fellow at Weber State University.
“As president, he may be willing to ‘hustle’ for poor Kenyans but he might be constrained by forces beyond his control - climate change, rising fuel prices and high inflation; rampant corruption; food shortages; and a fast increasing population.”
“Ruto is taking over as President of the Republic of Kenya at a time when the country is facing a lot of economic problems. Although Kenya is East Africa’s most stable and peaceful democracy, with a robust economy that is the envy of its neighbors, it is facing significant challenges," including:
1.massive droughts, which have been exacerbated by climate change. As determined by the government, more than 3 million people do not currently have access to clean drinking water.
2.food inflation is on the rise, as over 4 million people are facing starvation. Third, corruption remains a major challenge for the new government.
3.close to 9 million Kenyans (about 17%) are living in extreme poverty. Although this is a reduction from a high of 20% in 2020, it is still going to be a challenge for the new government.
4.unemployment remains a major issue, especially for young Kenyans, many of whom do not have the skills to function effectively in a knowledge-based and technologically advanced economy. Unemployment is particularly severe among girls and young female adults. These problems were exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns, which caused the loss of many jobs. The pandemic created havoc to Kenya’s significantly large tourism sector and the country is still struggling to recover.
5.underemployment: rising unemployment, some of it caused by the loss of jobs due to pandemic lockdowns, has forced many highly skilled Kenyans to seek jobs (e.g., cleaning streets, unclogging drains, washing dishes in restaurants) that underutilize their skills.
6.rising debt, which is expected to surpass $87 billion by the end of 2024. The cost of servicing such skyrocketing debt could undermine the new government’s ability to provide basic services to citizens.
Kenya’s ‘First Evangelical President’?
However, Mbaku cautioned that Ruto will face other challenges, such as lingering concerns over his possible connection to ethnic violence that flared after the 2007 elections, and his evangelical Christian faith, which has inspired him to quote scripture and rail against LGBTQ rights and abortion.
“He must understand that Kenya’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, prohibits government establishment of religion, as well as religious discrimination. It is unfortunate that some of his followers are already referring to him as Kenya’s “first evangelical Christian president” and that he is likely to ‘put religion center-stage while in office.’”
The danger of ignoring these facts, he warned, could be seen in Zambia, where former President Frederick Chiluba declared a Christian nation, which emboldened xenophobic attitudes about other religions and saw “ the country’s politics became infected by ‘born again’ Christian ideologies.”
“The government was no longer willing to take action against corrupt politicians, contractors and entrepreneurs, and other individuals who had joined the ‘born again’ movement,” he noted. “Consequently, when he left office in 2002, he left behind an extremely corrupt and dysfunctional government. Mr. Ruto might want to learn something from Mr. Chiluba, an evangelical Christian who took his religion into the presidency and ended up undermining the very principles that he was trying to promote.”
“William Somei Ruto is a self-made politician born and raised by poor parents in the Rift Valley in Western Kenya. He portrays the image of a staunch Christian, always quoting the Bible in political rallies. At the university, he was a leader in the University Christian union. His perceived Christian mien has drawn the church , especially the evangelical Christian groups towards him. In the just concluded 2022 elections which he won, he drew huge support from the church,” he said.
Nying'uro told Sputnik that this was in some ways already beginning to manifest.
© AP Photo / Ben CurtisPresidential candidate Raila Odinga waves to supporters as he leaves the Supreme Court in Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.
Presidential candidate Raila Odinga waves to supporters as he leaves the Supreme Court in Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.
Nying'uro noted that Ruto also faces the problem that, due to rival Raila Odinga’s challenging of the vote results, which went up to the Supreme Court, many of his followers continue to see Ruto’s victory as illegitimate.
“Many of those who voted for his main challenger, Raila Odinga, still openly claim that Ruto's victory was the result of election rigging. They claim that Ruto ‘bought’ both the chairman of IEBC, the electoral body and the judges of the supreme court who unanimously upheld his win. With a vote difference of only two hundred thousand, the country seems to be divided in the middle and a lot needs to be done to reconcile Kenyans,” he said.
“Ruto's critics also claim that Ruto's team with which he has entered government comprise those perceived to be corrupt with his Deputy and a host of others facing charges of graft in court. The political will to fight corruption which is a major problem may not be there in his administration, critics claim.”
Mbaku added that Kenya could teach regional countries “a lot about the rule of law and constitutionalism,” noting that, while challenges to election results have often been challenged in the courts, those challenges stay within the realm of accepted political structures, and the candidates accept the results of the process.
“Since Kenya adopted its new Constitution in 2010, it has enjoyed significant levels of stability, characterized by peaceful and constitutional changes of government. Although there were challenges to election results in 2017 and 2022, those conflicts were resolved peacefully through judicial intervention,” Mbaku said. “It is noteworthy that losing parties in these elections took their petitions to the courts, as mandated by the Constitution. After the courts delivered their rulings, the parties accepted the court decisions bringing finality to the elections.”