President Uhuru Kenyatta is yet to name his full second term cabinet, 52 days since being sworn in for his second term. According to news reports, the delay might be due to internal wrangles within the Jubilee Party over specific cabinet appointments. While Kenyatta is keen on putting together a cabinet that will help him implement his ambitious legacy projects, Deputy President William Ruto wants a cabinet that keeps the path clear for his stab at the presidency in 2022 when Kenyatta will be term limited.
It seems, at least for now, that the two goals are in conflict.
Formed ahead of the 2017 election, the Jubilee Party was supposed to be a commitment device binding Kenyatta and his supporters to Ruto’s planned bid for the presidency in 2022. The idea was to make the party strong enough at the grassroots to make it impossible for anyone to run and win without pledging loyalty to the party leaders — Kenyatta and Ruto.
This raises the question, how robust is Ruto’s plan to succeed Kenyatta? In my view, four factors make the plan almost ironclad:
- Kenyatta needs Ruto for the rest of his presidency: Ruto cannot be fired (see the Kenyan constitution). His legislative point man, Aden Duale, is the Majority Leader in the National Assembly. And he has enough votes in the legislature to control the agenda (mainly through veto threats), and to frustrate Kenyatta should the two fall out. That means that even if Ruto loses the fight over specific cabinet appointments, he would likely get a substantial side payment that leaves him financially potent ahead of 2022. Furthermore, while he may not be able to sway every single voter in his core base, there is no reason to believe that Kenyatta would renege on the promise to back Ruto in 2022. No former president wants a successor with an axe to grind.
- Ruto has amassed an insurmountable financial lead relative to potential competitors: Besides Raila Odinga, there is no other Kenyan politician with the same level of national appeal and grassroots loyalty to rival Ruto. Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho comes close, but there are structural constraints to his candidacy (he would be a great running mate to Ruto, though). And on top of all this, Ruto has amassed an incredible amount of wealth (or access to it) that will make him the runaway frontrunner in the competition for elite endorsements ahead of 2022. What this means is that Ruto can run in 2022 even without Kenyatta’s support and still win.
- Running in 2022 as a victim of Central Kenyan perfidy would likely win Ruto sympathy votes: A constant (and potentially powerful) narrative in Kenyan politics is that voters in Central Kenya (Kenyatta’s backyard) never vote for anyone but their own. If Central Kenyan elites were to spurn Ruto, he could go to the wider Kenyan electorate and make the case that he entered into an agreement in 2013 in good faith but got burned — just like Raila Odinga was burned by Mwai Kibaki, and his father before him by Matiba and Kibaki. With such a strategy, Ruto could engineer a coalition similar to Odinga’s 41 vs 1 coalition of 2007 and easily win the presidency.
- If all else fails, Ruto can blackmail Central Kenyan elites by threatening to destabilize the Rift Valley: This is not a far-fetched idea. It is not a surprise that recent pronouncements challenging Ruto’s 2022 candidacy were met with disquiet in Uasin Gishu and Nakuru counties along the same cleavages that defined the post-election violence in 2007-08. It is common knowledge that the alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto in 2013 was one of political expedience, and did not address the economic and social root causes of the violence that erupted in the Rift Valley following the disputed 2007 election. It would only take a few careless statements from people like Gov. Jackson Mandago of Uasin Gishu to cause significant instability in the Rift Valley.
Overall, despite the current impasse over cabinet appointments, Ruto’s political position remains very strong. To weaken him, Kenyatta would have to take overt steps — such as allowing his elite allies to form a different party than Jubilee — which would come with immense political costs (especially in parliament). Kenyatta’s hands are tied on this matter. Furthermore, why would he spend the next five years building a legacy that would be jeopardized by his failure to honor the 2013 deal with Ruto?
People often compare Ruto to former President Daniel arap Moi who remained loyal to Jomo Kenyatta and quietly waited in line until Kenyatta died in 1978. I disagree. On the specific matter of succession politics, I like to think of Ruto as a latter day Tom Mboya, the overtly ambitious KANU Secretary General who was murdered ahead of the 1969 General Election after which he would have been in pole position to succeed Kenyatta. Like Mboya, Ruto has, from the beginning, been very clear about what he wants and what he is willing to do to achieve it. And all indications are that this time will be different.