Civil society’s Damascus moment in relations with Ruto

Once he seemed their saviour, groups now say President has become a tyrant.

In Summary

•Civil society was a crucial ally to Ruto during the 2022 election camapiagn

•Interviews with multiple sector players reveals a deep discontent and a lot that is raring for a fight.

Police Reforms Working Group representative Peter Kiama during a press conference by the civil society groups on July 21, 2023.
DISCONTENTED: Police Reforms Working Group representative Peter Kiama during a press conference by the civil society groups on July 21, 2023.

Though the civil society and faith-based entities became natural allies of Deputy President William Ruto in the anti-BBI agitation and the 2022 polls, the groups seem to have had a Damascus moment, now delivering withering criticism against him and his policies.

In the heydays of their association with Ruto, the entities even cobbled up the Linda Katiba Forum — as confirmed by the President’s economic Czar David Ndii — to agitate against the former President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM boss Raila Odinga-backed amendment drive against the Ruto’s armour.

Besides inflating the discontent among the masses amid the biting cost of living crisis, civil society became a crucial cog in Ruto’s political wheel, helping to style him as the man of the suffering folk. This translated into a broad coalition that included faith-based entities and professional groups like the Law Society of Kenya, whose then-president Nelson Havi led a team of advocates to promote the Ruto campaign.

However, a section of the civil society groups and figures like Open Society Foundation’s George Kegoro, KHRC’s Makau Mutua, Inuka Trust’s John Githongo and Suba Churchill, among others, remained behind Azimio leader Raila Odinga whom they considered a traditional ally.

Activist Boniface Mwangi also backed the Azimio campaign saying Raila’s nomination of Martha Karua as his deputy swayed him. Githongo became a key witness in Raila’s unsuccessful presidential petition at the Supreme Court.

But among the groups and faith-based entities that backed Ruto, there seems to have been an epiphany, as they are now directing their most blistering criticism at the President’s administration barely one year on.

Interviews with multiple sector players reveal a deep discontent and a lot that is raring for a fight. This posture is confirmed by hard-hitting statements that a group of them, including the law society and the church, have been lately directed at the Ruto regime.

The majority of the activists have not hesitated to make their views known, from court cases against crucial government initiatives and appointments to organising public protests to mincing no words in pointing out the regime’s ills and errors.

For example, on Tuesday, the LSK led by its president Eric Theuri convened a press event involving Amnesty International executive director Houghton Irungu and Haki Africa’s Hussein Khalid as well as Martin Mavenjina from KHRC holding forth on the state of the country’s human rights.

Nothing but withering criticism can describe their sentiments, taking Ruto head-on over his roadside declaration a day earlier about fighting against corruption cartels.

Ruto had declared he will stop at nothing in seeking to release the sugar sector from the grip of people he called cartels, saying they only had three options: move out of Kenya, go to jail or go to heaven, a euphemism for death. The latter has been interpreted by pundits as a death threat.

“We have already told all these people to leave! This company [Mumias Sugar Company] belongs to the people, and we plan to revive it as we entertain nobody. I have already given them three options: they either leave the country, I jail them, or they travel and go to heaven,” Ruto said.

But the LSK-led presser at Gitanga Road was not amused, with the group characterising the stance of the President as the official seal authorising the return of extrajudicial killings.

They also took issues with the abduction of sugar baron Jaswant Rai last Friday by people his family alleged to be police officers. He was released by his abductors on Tuesday.

“It is regrettable the utterances by the President seem to suggest he can disregard constitutionally guaranteed rights, at whim,” Theuri said. He added the declaration by the President, therefore, “appears to suspend the Constitution and substitute the rule and wishes of the Executive for the rule of law.”

On the woes of trader Rai, the group said in a statement: “While the circumstances of his public abduction remain unknown, such statements [by Ruto] lend credence to reports that his abduction must be related to the issues surrounding Mumias Sugar Company.”

Speaking to the Star on Wednesday, Haki Africa boss Khalid acknowledged that civil society is disaffected with the President because “he has betrayed us.”

The first instance of this betrayal, he said, was the high-handed police response to unarmed citizens expressing their political views through public protests, with administration figures appearing to mock the deaths and the injuries visited upon the civilians.

Khalid said, “Ruto campaigned on the platform of rule of law and constitutionalism. Now in power, he has turned his back on that, issuing daylight death threats to people he has roundly adjudged as corrupt and cartels, depriving them of any due process rights,” he said.

He went on: “This is a President who told his supporters the criminal justice system was skewed and used arbitrarily to target people. Also, his regime has diminished the civil space, and it’s not a reduction, it is a total shutdown of the space, like a fall from the cliff.”

“Then after the protests, no one, including the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior or even the President himself mocked and downplayed the deathly brutality meted out to protesters, yet earlier in his presidency he had vowed to stop extrajudicial killings. His inspector general of police even claimed that morgues were hiring out bodies to politicians. This is unforgivable,” Khalid said.

Murugu Wangure, another senior activist who was key in mobilising and strategising for the Ruto campaign, told the Star that besides the President’s apparent shift away from condemning police brutality, civil society is concerned by this blatant endorsement of the unofficial change to the Constitution, yet a rebellion to a similar course was the origin of his victory momentum.

“It is baffling that we coalesced around the [Deputy] President during the BBI agitations because we felt he was speaking our language and was an ally in defending the Constitution and rule of law. But now, he is the one initiating and directly pushing for amending the

Constitution through a similar route. What hypocrisy is this?” he asked.

For veteran activist Suba Churchill, the discontent by a group that backed the President was no shock to him, he expected it. “It does not surprise me at all some of my colleagues have burnt their fingers and are enraged. I told them then the Deputy President did not mean whatever platitudes he was saying. We know his life, his history and how he has conducted his politics as well as his attitude towards the issues that civil societies campaign about,” he said.

Churchill added, “I didn’t expect him to change, in any case, no one changes past age 50.”

Catholic bishops have also ramped up the pressure in criticising the President, even siding with the opposition during the violent crackdown on protests and calling for the repealing of the controversial Finance Act 2023.

Nyeri Archbishop Anthony Muheria in July described Ruto’s leadership style as imperious and offensive. “Leadership needs to be humane, empathetic and compassionate but currently the leader is rough, insulting, arrogant, and imposing. We are going into a very wrong leadership, which is why religious leaders want to talk,” he said.

“We have instrumentalised misery and poverty and many times weaponised tragedy; when we see something that has gone wrong, we go out with our swords to find a battleground for fighting our opponents in a vicious, inhumane way. We need to recover our humanity,” Muheria said.

Last Friday during a mass to mark the 23 years since the murder of father John Kaiser, the prelates ratcheted up the pressure, mocking the President’s commitment before his inauguration that he will ensure the cost-of-living slides down once he downs the Bible.

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