In the early afternoon of 29th December 2002, Uhuru Kenyatta read a concession speech in a packed hall, at the Serena Hotel, a few minutes from State House Nairobi. It was a formal, written acceptance of a resounding loss at the polls as KANU’s flagbearer, to Mwai Kibaki, then an opposition veteran who had gotten third time lucky after losses in 1992 and 1997. Inside, the atmosphere in the hall was numb, (this was KANU’s first loss at the polls in 39 years), outside, the police struggled to contain the joyous voters who held high hopes that they had finally voted out KANU and all it stood for.

Alongside a crestfallen Uhuru was William Ruto, then Eldoret North MP and one of the few KANU national officials that had not yet jumped ship. A few months before they were gathered in the room, while the country was headed for what would be a historic election, Ruto had been appointed Home Affairs minister. If things had gone differently at the polls, he would have had a bigger, better office than the one he had occupied at Treasury Building. But things had gone badly for KANU, they were not only in the opposition, but they had lost the majority status in Parliament, another arm of government they had a vice-like grip on since 1963. Now he, William, and they, KANU, had to adjust to life in the deeply unfamiliar role of opposition.

Lucky for him, and irritatingly for his adversaries, adversity was something he had faced all his life. He was born William Samoei Ruto, on 21st December 1966 in Kamagut, a village located thirty minutes away from Eldoret, into a typical rural homestead. Ruto had smelled, tasted, and endured poverty and disappointment early in his formative years. He has stated numerously that as he grew up, he sold chicken on the roadside to travellers, a workstation where he became exceptional at selling; farm-bred chicken to the travellers seeking tender chicken meat as a boy in the late 70s, and the dreams, hopes, ambitions, and aspirations that his electorate craves for in present-day Kenya. He grew up a poor, ambitious young man, and fighting for his lofty dreams came with the territory. But he always wanted more than living hand to mouth throughout his schooling at Wareng Secondary and Kapsabet Boys in Nandi.

He got that in 1992.

YK92 was most likely the first outfit that drastically changed Ruto’s financial life. In public, it was billed as a platform to rally the youth behind KANU in the face of mounting public opposition to KANU’s autocratic, inept, and corrupt rule. In reality, it was more of a front for the young, well-connected members to raid government parastatals for cash to finance Moi and KANU’s election victory. With nobody to provide checks and balances, the young leaders’ egos and greed led to heist after heist in the accounts section at different state agencies. It was white-collar crime on steroids.

 The money from the state-sanctioned looting made wealthy those willing to trade in their vocal criticism of the government for silence or praise, while those that pulled the purse strings got even wealthier. Imagine having such influence, and money, that a currency is named after you. They didn’t have to imagine it, because so bottomless were their pockets that the newly-minted Ksh 500 denomination note was nicknamed ‘Jirongo’ after the leader of the collective.

At the time, influence and riches were distant ideas to Ruto, who was fresh off his graduation in 1990, from University of Nairobi’s Botany and Zoology College. Aged 26, a young Ruto found that because he was charismatic, could work a farm as well as he could a gathering and didn’t shun hard work, he was very useful to the YK92 top brass. While they rolled around in prim suits and sleek cars and were the project’s public face, he ran their errands for them, at a fee of course. His bank accounts, social and political capital grew massively, and in a few months, he was only a chicken seller at heart given the notorious levels of extortion jobs they did on state agencies.

After KANU beat off the challenge of a fragmented opposition, YK92 was as expected, disbanded, and every member of the outfit had to fend for themselves. With his eye on more than being a cog in the KANU wheel, Ruto would set his sights on the Eldoret North MP’s seat, and he spent his time getting the social and financial networks he had made from YK92 to work. Relatively unknown to the national public in the build-up to the 1997 election, his shock win over the older, more experienced, and moneyed Reuben Chesire in the Eldoret North parliamentary race ensured that even President Moi and his inner circle took notice, and he was rewarded with an Assistant Minister’s role in 1998.

Not bad for a political newbie who was practically unknown before the 1997 polls.

He had earned his spot at the press conference, and the videos that show a rattled but still defiant look, are proof that he was as ambitious as he was charismatic. Rising from a glorified errand boy to the flashier, blue-blooded officials that made up Youth For Kanu 1992 (YK92), he had now forged his stature as a young hungry politician who wanted more than the cameos, crumbs and placeholder positions that younger politicians like him were given by the establishment.

In the years that preceded that press conference in the early noughties, William Ruto has loomed large over the Kenyan political scene. He was a central figure in a constitutional referendum that handed an embarrassing loss to the government in 2005, and an election two years later that sent the country into a short-lived state of anarchy and teetering on the brink of civil war. He has battled, and won, a crimes against humanity case at the International Criminal Court, won three highly-charged and controversial general elections against his old ally Raila Odinga and created a maniacally-loyal support base in his quest to be Kenya’s fifth president.

In the first act, he was a diligent, loyal servant to the party that remains to the older generation of Kenyans as a symbol of repression and stagnation. He studied the system, worked it and amassed fabulous material and social wealth. However, to crucify him for doing so would be to crucify almost every member of the coalitions that want to lead Kenya. When he and his competitors came into politics, KANU was the only way to avoid cold nights in police cells or worse, months in Nyayo torture chambers; Kibaki did it, Raila did it, Mudavadi did it, Uhuru did it, Kalonzo did it. They all enjoyed the trappings of power that came with state protection; money, influence and GoK turning a blind eye to any of their financial indiscretions.

To his supporters, he is a necessary, even indispensable personification of their fight against the old, moneyed deep forces that have held back their dreams and ambitions and now threaten those of their children as well. Dreams and ambitions of a Kenya that works for all; tarmacked, well-lit roads, jobs for the youth, running taps, fair and fast courts and stocked public chemists.

To his detractors he is a perfect example of everything evil about Kenyan political leadership. The graft allegations, the land grabbing cases and the fact that he might have set in motion a series of events that can lead to a class war with his hustler vs dynasty rhetoric. His opponents, who hate him as much as his supporters love him, say that he is not the saviour the country needs, but is a representation of everything that progressive Kenyans need to stay away from.

Our society made Ruto. We provided all the platforms, fraudulent or honest, for him, and others like him, to thrive. We provided all the offices for him and his ilk to succeed in Kenya, make fabulous amounts of wealth and use it to consolidate a power base that threatens the very people that propped him up as an errand boy. Kenyan society is a peculiar, hypocritical society. We are mostly okay with using immoral, even illegal, means to get our way as long as it doesn’t complicate our utopian idea of what Kenya is.  

The second coming of Ruto is complex.

He comes back as a vocal defender of the poor and downtrodden. After nine years of heading a government that has borrowed and misappropriated more money than any other government in Kenyan history, he’s asking to right those wrongs. Last year, a picture surfaced of Ruto on a donkey, headed into Lamu, a peaceful, prayerful, generous man who comes in peace, to ostensibly free the Kenyan population from the shackles of an oppressive government that he created, and remains a part of. To keen observers, it was an ironic scene, like Sepp Blatter asking FIFA to take away this year’s World Cup from Qatar, when he gave it to them. It might have been a spur-of-the-moment decision to ride into Lamu like that, but the irony wasn’t lost. Whatever we make of his grand entrance, or his pursuit of the highest office in the land, it remains a fact that it is on our pulpits, on our radios, in our classrooms, offices, streets and in our homes, that we cultivated the conditions that got us here; a country that has more poor people than it has stable ones.

Now, the poor, whom the governments of Kenyatta, Moi, and Kibaki created and ignored for decades, make up a sizeable number in the IEBC registry. JM Kariuki would have something smart to say about a country that is creating 47 new billionaires every five years, and impoverishing millions in the same timeframe. Ruto, like that child that your father had and hid from the family and is now grown and wants their cut, is here to stay. We created him, we egged him on, we gave him an audience, we let him make his money and now he, and others like him, are redefining what is required, and what it means to succeed in Kenya.

Like an ice pop in Nairobi’s January sun, the days to the election are shrinking. For candidate Ruto, is he is a reflection of everything that society condemns in public but rewards in private or is he a smart, defiant man who only wants to leave this country better than he found it?  The next three months in Kenya will be when the chickens are finally coming home to roost, where we have looked into the mirror and recoiled in disgust at what we saw. Disgusted or pleasantly surprised, we created this Kenya. We made our bed, and now we must lie in it.



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