Dynasties vs. Hustlers in Kenya’s Election Wrestling Match

In a move akin to a Trump backing a Clinton in a US election, Kenya’s outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta wants to hand the political crown to his foe-turned-friend Raila Odinga – only to see his deputy William Ruto trying to snatch it in the 9 August election.

It has led to a political drama that has seen Mr Ruto cast himself as a “hustler”, fighting what he regards as an attempt by two of Kenya’s biggest dynasties – the Kenyattas and Odingas – to hang on to power. 

Trying to evoke the sympathy of Kenyans, he has prayed, wept and made the incendiary claim that President Kenyatta was threatening him. 

“As long as you don’t kill my children I shall face you but please let’s respect each other,” Mr Ruto said, at one of his final campaign rallies as a crowd cheered him on.

Rebutting his allegation, Mr Kenyatta said: “You have insulted me for close to three years. Has anyone touched you?”

Their exchange showed how personal and bitter Kenya’s election campaign has become, as Mr Kenyatta came out in support of Mr Odinga as his successor. 

“The president has diverted the focus of Ruto, to exchange words with him, and to forget about his competitor,” Kenyan political analyst Prof Masibo Lumala told the BBC.

“The president has managed to bring out a side of his deputy that shows his anger, which is not a good thing,” he added.

Another analyst, Prof Macharia Munene said these sharp exchanges made Mr Odinga “look like the sober one” during the campaign, though he also landed some blows on Mr Ruto, questioning his hustler claim by labelling him “a man of lands” – a reference to the long-running controversy over how the deputy president became a big landowner in Kenya. He denies acquiring land illegally. 

President Kenyatta’s move to back Mr Odinga has been seen as an attempt by him to secure his legacy by reuniting two families that jointly fought British colonial rule – only to fall out in 1966, three years after independence, and to remain at loggerheads until his second and final term.

It meant ditching Mr Ruto, with whom he formed an alliance in the 2013 election to fight off charges they faced at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the deadly violence that hit Kenya after the 2007 poll.

“What had united them disappeared,” Prof Munene said, adding: “Now Ruto wants to be elected and Uhuru wants his legacy so their interests have collided.”

Mr Kenyatta first made overtures to Mr Odinga after the disputed 2017 polls. Rejecting the results, Mr Odinga had called for a boycott of several companies, including one associated with the Kenyatta family, and declared himself the “people’s president” at a huge rally in the capital, Nairobi.

“Uhuru had to accommodate Raila because he was able to create instant trouble and hamper his work,” Prof Munene said, adding that the 77-year-old veteran politician accepted Mr Kenyatta’s olive branch as it bolstered his chances of becoming president after four failed attempts. 

“Mr Odinga is appearing to be more desperate because of age, and this appears to be his last chance,” Prof Munene said. 

The Kenyatta and Odinga families are extremely rich. What their fortunes are worth is unclear, but the public got a glimpse of the Kenyattas’ wealth when the Pandora Papers linked them to offshore investments, including a company with stocks and bonds worth $30m (£22m).

Mr Ruto is also wealthy, but he has portrayed himself as someone who – having once sold chickens and groundnuts by the roadside – understands the plight of the poor, and will champion their interests if elected. 

“While we are busy planning how the lowest Kenyan will be uplifted, some other operatives are busy in hotels planning how to install a puppet president who they will control, as they want, so that their selfish interests continue being served,” Mr Ruto once said at a rally – lines that he often repeated and which were dismissed as untrue by his opponents. 

With women making up nearly half the number of registered voters, Mr Odinga, unlike Mr Ruto, has chosen a female running-mate, former Justice Minister Martha Karua.

Prof Lumala described her as a breath of fresh in a male-dominated campaign, and said she had given Kenyans their “Kamala Harris” moment on the campaign trail. 

“We could see an element of motherhood [in her]. She maintained her sanity and even when hitting, she was measured in her language,” he added, though she too attacked Mr Ruto in the final days of the campaign by saying he should “stop trying to be Deputy Jesus” by crying at prayer meetings.

Mr Ruto has focused heavily on winning over the youth – not surprising as the official rate of unemployment among those aged between 18 and 34 years is nearly 40%, and the economy is not creating enough jobs to absorb the 800,000 young people joining the workforce every year.

Mr Ruto has therefore coined the phrase “Hustler Nation” to refer to the young people struggling to make ends meet, and has promised a “bottom-up approach” to the economy, saying it will benefit the poor.

Mr Odinga’s manifesto is relying on manufacturing and industrialisation to create jobs.

He has also promised two million needy households a monthly stipend of 6,000 Kenyan shillings ($50; £40) from a new social protection fund if he is elected president.