Don't underestimate DP Ruto, you'll live to regret it

A careful examination of his political career reveals an extraordinary capacity to rise from setbacks that would have destroyed lesser men

In Summary

• Although Ruto is yet to ascend to the presidency or serve as Prime Minister, he is a man with many formidable political assets, making it very likely that in time he will get to the top.

• His recent setbacks in by-elections count for very little. He has faced far bigger setbacks and overcome them.

Deputy President William Ruto
Deputy President William Ruto

Who would you say are the most successful politicians in Kenya, ever since the return to multiparty democracy introduced truly competitive elections?

Well, if judged by their ability to clamber to the top of what one British Prime Minister referred to as “the greasy pole” of competitive politics, we can only name four such politicians: Former presidents Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki, former PM Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The second question then would be, ‘What do these men have in common? What does a close examination of their political careers reveal as being the essential traits that made their success possible?


They all had three essential traits:

First, a core unquestioning support of about one million voters who remain in their corner irrespective of any electoral outcome.

Second, the ability to build coalitions beyond this regional bedrock, including coalitions with former sworn enemies.

And third, a capacity to stage a dramatic comeback each time they lost (or were close to losing).

That first quality is the reason presidential politics has always been a 'big tribe' affair. Even the most impressive and qualified presidential candidates, if they lacked strong and dedicated support from within their own tribes, did not get very far.

But that community had to be big enough to start the candidate off with about a million votes in the 1990s, and at least 1.5 million votes by the 2017 General Election.



Fortunately for Kenyan political stability, no tribe is big enough to deliver the presidency on its own. After starting off with those core votes from the candidate’s backyard, it's necessary to build dedicated coalitions. And that requires serious political skills and a head for electoral maths.

There is no easy path to the presidency. No matter the candidate, they will face major setbacks. That is why they need that core regional support that will not desert them when the going gets tough. And they also need the personal resilience and political cunning to stage a major comeback from their misfortunes.

This analysis is not about who 'deserves' to be president or the moral failings of one candidate or another. Rather, it's about who's got what it takes to rise to the top.

Consider President Moi. This fabled political maestro holds the record for the longest service in Parliament going back all the way from the colonial era Legislative Council of the 1950s up to 2002, when he retired. All through, he retained an unbroken record of electoral victories.

When, while serving as president, he was compelled to allow for a return to competitive presidential elections in 1991, many took this as a sign that his political career was over.

The assumption was that a man who had ruled with such dictatorial ruthlessness for 15 years could hardly hope to get any support outside his Rift Valley base. The observers who came to this conclusion underestimated Moi’s capacity for staging a comeback, just when he appeared to be down and out.

Moi was able to craft a political coalition that gave him votes from his native Rift Valley, the Coast, Northeastern, and from within the Kamba, the Luyha and the Gusii,  giving him just about enough votes to win. But his stroke of genius was in ensuring that what had appeared to be an all-conquering opposition coalition divided its votes among three strong candidates.

At that time, most Kenyans thought the disunity in the opposition ranks was due to selfish ambitions by the key opposition chiefs. But long after the election, Moi’s inner circle of advisers boasted that they had worked diligently to ensure the opposition remained divided.


Kibaki also showed exceptional resilience in his journey to the presidency. He only achieved his goal after two gruelling and very expensive defeats at the hands of Moi (in 1992 and 1997). What made this resilience possible was that — despite cries from some quarters after he lost in 2007, for him to give way to a younger candidate from his electoral base in Central Kenya — his core regional supporters did not desert him.

In 2002, he was at last able to address his key failings in the previous two presidential elections, which was that he may have had very strong support in Central Kenya but he had only scattered support elsewhere. When in 2002 he finally crafted an alliance with other strong opposition chiefs  — Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Michael Wamalwa, and Charity Ngilu — he cruised to a landslide victory against the storied 'Independence party', Kanu, which Moi vowed would “rule for 100 years.”

Kibaki also showed his capacity for coalition building because in each presidential election, vote tally kept rising. This meant that even when he lost, he was all along growing stronger and becoming a more credible presidential candidate.

These broad principles having been established, it is easy enough to see why Raila and Uhuru are the only other two presidential candidates to have ticked all the requisite boxes for electoral victory.

Who can claim to have suffered more political setbacks than Raila, going back to his multiple politically inspired detentions and periods of living in exile when his life was threatened by the Moi-era security forces? And who has known more ups and downs in the pursuit of the presidency? And who has shown a greater capacity for building bridges to link him to former implacable enemies? And who has the greatest support— fixed and unmoveable support — beyond his own tribal community?

But when it comes to setbacks, even Raila’s famous capacity for political comebacks, cannot compete with Uhuru’s record in that sphere.

We recently read of Bosco Ntaganda, spoken of in DR Congo with fear and loathing as The Terminator, who once exercised ruthless life-and-death control over part of the Eastern DRC. Now he is a convicted criminal set to serve 30 years in a foreign jail, his days of eminence gone for good.

Uhuru, too, once faced the same charges as The Terminator, when he faced 'crimes against humanity'charges at the ICC.

Very likely, even 50 years from now, Uhuru will remain the only African political leader to run and win the presidency with the weight of an ICC indictment weighing him down.


From his pariah status in 2012, he not only ascended to the presidency but is now in his second term. More remarkable, he has — not once but twice — revealed a capacity to reconcile with the very rivals who had previously seemed to be least likely to ever wish for any such reconciliation.

Indeed, it could be said that Uhuru has a gift for effecting reconciliation, even under the most unexpected circumstances.

First was his reconciliation with his current deputy, William Ruto, who in the tragically violent 2007 General Election was in the ODM team that opposed Kibaki’s re-election, while Uhuru was by then clearly his heir apparent. The two then went on to win the 2013 presidential race. We saw their bitter rivals, Raila and Kalonzo, turn up at State House to congratulate them and shake hands with the broadest of smiles — at a time when Uhuru and Ruto still faced ICC cases.

Then even more dramatically, Uhuru reconciled with his most bitter rival in recent years, Raila, who refused to participate in the repeat presidential election of 2017, arguing the IEBC was sure to rig the outcome just he said it had done in the nullified presidential election.

This political fluidity — the capacity to reach out and make new friends — is key among the qualities that made Uhuru’s rise to the presidency possible. And it is also what very likely guarantees that he will continue to exert influence beyond his presidency.


All this leads us to the remarkable career of Deputy President William Ruto. Although he has yet to ascend to the presidency or serve as Prime Minister, he is a man with many political assets at his disposal, making it likely that in time he too will get to the top.

In 2002, Ruto was a key campaigner for the doomed Uhuru presidential bid (which he lost to Kibaki by a memorable landslide). But come 2007, while in ODM, he was to be found working even harder to see Raila defeat Kibaki (Raila had fallen out with Kibaki by then).

Although Raila controversially lost in that election, Ruto ended up holding a key Cabinet portfolio (Agriculture),  which is more or less the best he could have hoped for even if Raila had won.

But then came the ICC. And many by then wrote off Ruto as a political force. Only Ruto’s core supporters in the Rift Valley did not desert him, and subsequently, he then managed to make a pact with Uhuru that made him his running mate.

This led him to secure the slot of Deputy President under the 2010 Constitution, which was in effect by the 2013 election. Unlike previous vice presidents who served “at the pleasure of the president”, Ruto cannot be dismissed from his post.

A careful examination of his political career reveals an extraordinary capacity to rise from setbacks that would have destroyed the careers of lesser men. He is also very good (and extremely flexible) when it comes to creating political coalitions that stand a good chance of victory in presidential elections. And his support base in the Rift Valley (so far as we know at this point) remains remarkably intact.

If we consider Ruto’s political career from such a historical viewpoint, then his recent setbacks in by-elections count for very little. He has overcome far bigger setbacks.

Admittedly his many attempts to spread his personal influence beyond his Rift Valley base, have thus far failed. His candidates were rejected in the Ganda MCA by-election in Malindi. More recently in Kibra, not even the combination of McDonald Mariga’s celebrity as a former international football star and Ruto’s resources and logistic capacity could prevail against Raila and ODM.

Those celebrating these recent events as signs of Ruto’s decline and fall, need to reassess their conclusions.

Over the years, very many political players, as well as political pundits, have underestimated William Ruto — and lived to regret it.