Kenya – President Kenyatta and the succession dilemma

President Uhuru Kenyatta cannot go anywhere these days without being asked about who he would like to be his successor. Although he is only a year in to his second term, the Kenyan media is full of stories of rifts within his government as rival leaders jockey for position. To some extent this is nothing new. Ever since Kenyatta and William Ruto – the current Deputy President – entered into the negotiations in the late 2000s that would lead to the formation of the Jubilee Alliance, commentators have been predicting the breakdown of their relationship.

However, in recent weeks this speculation has reached fever pitch. On 4 July, the Jubilee vice chairman, David Murathe, became the latest in a long line of Kenyatta allies to bemoan the fact that Ruto has effectively started campaigning for the next election, even though it is still three years away, complaining that:

“When you go to an area and all you speak about is 2022, it is upsetting some of us because it will distract the President from achieving his promises to Kenyans.”

True to form, though, the president has been keeping his cards very close to his chest.

When Kenyatta and Ruto joined forces in the wake of the Kenya crisis – the flawed election of 2007 and its aftermath – it was widely interpreted as a marriage of convenience. Under threat of prosecution by the International Criminal Court for the part that they played in the post-election violence, the two leaders worked together to protect themselves and their allies. One part of this strategy was to block domestic prosecutions on a range of issues including corruption. Another was to secure power in the 2013 general elections by forming a common political vehicle, and then to use their control of the state to effectively undermine the ICC investigation.

Unsurprisingly, the underpinning logic of the Jubilee Alliance led many to question its longevity. The poor relations between Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community and Ruto’s Kalenjin community – which were involved in some of the worst ethnic clashes of 2008 – meant that the Alliance has always rested on shaky foundations. Without always saying so in public, a number of prominent Kenyatta allies have made it clear that they see the relationship with Ruto as a necessary evil rather than a binding promise. Not only do they blame the Kalenjin leader for bringing the country to the brink of civil war in 2007/8, but they do not believe that he is the right kind of leader from the right kind of background to rule the country. The cleavage between the Ruto and Kenyatta camps is therefore rooted in both ethnicity and class.

Given this, and country’s history of short-lived and fractious coalitions, there were good grounds to think that the two men would go their separate ways once the threat of the ICC receded. Taken together, these considerations led to a constant stream of speculation that at some point or another Ruto’s critics within the Kenyatta camp would try to throw the Deputy President “under the bus”.

What these forecasts tended to overlook were the personal and strategic motivations that bound Ruto and Kenyatta together. On the one hand, Kenyatta depended on Ruto and his United Republican Party (URP) to maintain a majority in the legislature and control over a majority of county governments. On the other hand, Kenyatta is known to be loyal to those close to him – sometimes to a fault – and the two men have a long history, having worked together closely on Kenyatta’s unsuccessful presidential campaign as the candidate of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) in 2002.

As a result, the UhuRuto project has proved to be much more stable than many people predicted. Not only did the two men manage to sustain their relationship into the 2017 general elections, but the Jubilee Alliance was turned from a loose coalition into a more streamlined and efficient political party. During the campaign, Kenyatta’s rallies even celebrated Ruto as the party’s next presidential candidate.

But now that the succession race has moved in to top gear, that glue that has so far held the two leaders together has started to break down.

There are three main drivers of this.

First, Ruto is determined to make good on Kenyatta’s pledge to facilitate his rise to the presidency in return for his support in 2013 and 2017. With less resources than those who seek to block his way, he has set out to make up for his disadvantage by pushing his supporters into party positions where they can look out for his interests and raise funds for his campaign. In turn, this has generated greater tensions around cabinet appointments and other positions, whose distribution is viewed not through the lens of the public good but the balance of power heading into the next campaign.

Second, Kenyatta has expanded his options in a way that has made Ruto more vulnerable. By bringing on board Gideon Moi – son of second president Daniel arap Moi – ahead of the 2017 elections, and subsequently making peace with the country’s most prominent opposition leader, Raila Odinga, in the wake of the poll dispute, Kenyatta has created a route through which the Kikuyu clique within Jubilee could win the election without Ruto. Most obviously, while ethnicity does not completely determine political behaviour in Kenya, a combination of the Kikuyu (Kenyatta), Luo (Odinga) and Kalenjin (Moi) communities would represent a powerful voting bloc, especially if it could retain support in parts of the country like the former North-Eastern province.

Unsurprisingly, this has unsettled the Deputy President. At present, Kenyatta’s government still relies on Ruto to deliver support at the legislative and county levels. But this imperative reduces exponentially as the country gets closer to the 2021 election: at the point when the legislative agenda grinds to a halt ahead of the next campaign it will not just be the president that is a lame duck. Following the collapse of the ICC cases, the longer into the parliamentary term we get the more Ruto’s future within Jubilee will depend on Kenyatta’s good will.

Third, the combination of Ruto’s personal ambition and his greater insecurity has led the Deputy President to go into overdrive, criss-crossing the country in a bid to shore up his support in some places and to form new alliances in others. Such open campaigning so far ahead of the next polls has angered the Kenyatta camp, who argue that it has distracted attention from the business of running the government and establishing the president’s legacy. According to Murathe, “The fight against corruption, law and order, discipline and uniting will be the President’s legacy. He is determined and no noise from any quarter will stop or derail him. Watch this space.”

Of course, Murathe’s statement only tells half the story. In reality, Ruto’s rivals within the government are more concerned about his energy, focus, and organizational, acumen than the Kenyatta’s policy agenda. The threat of losing access to power is a much more serious than losing the fight against corruption, which is only being waged in a half-hearted manner in any case.

That said, there is some evidence that Kenyatta himself is genuinely annoyed. Having rarely commented on the consistent sniping between the members of the two camps, the president recently appeared to criticise Ruto when he quipped disparagingly about the Deputy President’s kutangatanga (“roaming”). Given that power is so much more weighty than policy in Kenyan political considerations, there are two plausible interpretations of this. The first is that the president has taken it as a personal sleight that Ruto did not heed his request to desist campaigning, and wanted this to be known. The second is that Kenyatta plans to withdraw his support from Ruto’s bid for the presidency, and does not want him to be able to use his position to secure an advantage over others.

However, as has been so often the case over the last few years, Kenyatta has not said enough for anybody to be able to fully read his intentions one way or another.

So what happens next?

Unsurprisingly, the Ruto camp has not taken the criticism of their man lying down. Why should Ruto not campaign, they argue, given that he has effectively already been endorsed as the party’s candidate? Why would his efforts not be celebrated by others unless members of the party were lying when they said that they would back his political ambitions in 2022? For example, Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata has argued that building support for Ruto is only fulfilling Kenyatta’s own pledge, and has suggested that criticisms of the Deputy President by the likes of Murathe are motivated by sectional, rather than national considerations:

“We have ethnic nationalists and people who are exclusionary in their viewpoints. They may want certain hegemony to be maintained and I think I foresee a situation where some people want to perpetuate a certain supremacy, which is not good”.

It is possible that this war of words will continue to escalate until a point where the cold war within the government becomes so hot that the government falls apart. One development that could trigger this process is the president’s anti-corruption drive, which some Ruto supporters have argued is deliberately being used to disadvantage the Deputy President’s allies, weakening his grip in the party. If the flow of funds dries up, Ruto will become increasingly desperate, and that could provoke a more open confrontation.

A second option is that the current feud rumbles on without a clear resolution until the next election, rendering parts of the government dysfunctional, and leading to a final implosion on the eve of the next campaign. Given that Jubilee would struggle to command authority in its current form without Ruto, this seems more likely. It would also fit with what we know about the president. If Kenyatta’s history is anything to go by, he is unlikely to throw a close colleague under the bus a long time before he needs to. A much more sensible option, and one that fits better with his sense of loyalty, would be to continue to pledge his support to Ruto personally while doing little to further the Deputy President’s campaign and allowing his allies in the party to direct their funding to rival Jubilee candidates.

The third option, of course, is that the president stays true to his word and not only publicly endorses Ruto but also cajoles his allies into backing him. In this context, the main question that would need to be answered would be whether or not Kenyatta has the personal authority to persuade some of the country’s most powerful individuals to do something that they don’t want to do, and which many believe is not in their interests. The balance of probabilities suggests that now that relations between the Kenyatta and Ruto camps have deteriorated to such a great extent, a small proportion of leaders and voters in Central Province may follow their leader, but many more will not. Should that comes to pass, the political system is unlikely to quickly coalesce into the two broad coalitions that have characterised the last few elections, and Kenya will be on course for one of most complex and intriguing polls that it has ever held.

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