It was the question on everyone’s mind, but when he stepped out of his Karen office to address the media, Deputy President William Ruto left Kenyans puzzled.
Dr Ruto has since the ban on public gatherings maintained a studious silence as Kenyans battle coronavirus.
Apart from tweets, Dr Ruto appears to have turned – or been turned – into a lone ranger and is not part of the communications team on the pandemic.
He is not a member of the Dr Fred Matiang’i-led National Co-ordination Committee on Coronavirus Pandemic, which reports directly to President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Of late, Dr Ruto has not attended meetings of the nine-member National Security Council.
Chaired by the president, the council has the DP, Cabinet secretaries in charge of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Internal Security or Interior as is designated, Attorney-General, Chief of Kenya Defence Forces, National Intelligence Service head and the Inspector-General of Police.
The security council, the Constitution says, has the mandate to see and appraise the objectives, commitments and risks to Kenya. It is this council that has been making key decisions on Covid-19.
With Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i leading the team, it is apparent that Dr Ruto – despite his denials – has been sidelined.
At Thursday’s press conference, he offered a possible explanation by directing journalists to think about the “designated survivor” principle – the keeping aside of one key member of an administration who can step in just in case a calamity befalls the ruler.
“You may want to ask yourselves why the president and his deputy cannot travel in the same equipment at any one time,” he said.
In effect, that means Dr Ruto has been missing in action as a matter of arrangement than being sidelined.
“For the record, we consult... almost daily, with the president and the ministers carrying out various tasks in the management of this pandemic. And that is the position of the Jubilee administration,” he said.
Dr Ruto was not flanked by any member of the several committees on Covid-19. Paradoxically, the Health Ministry was at the time of his briefing preparing for a separate press conference.
That seemed to confirm that President Kenyatta has solidified the working of the administrative state, with the political wing taking a back bench.
The Covid-19 disease appears to have given Dr Ruto a political challenge and President Kenyatta a chance to finally test the administrative state – an experiment that has been in the works.
Already, Dr Matiang’i’s committee has been given sweeping powers to form ad-hoc committees to fight the virus.
Why President Kenyatta’s principal assistant and a key member of the powerful NSC has been missing in action was on his supporters’ lips.
Dr Ruto insisted that while he had not been seen in the meetings with the president or being on the frontline in the battle against the virus, he is in the know.
He said in the interest of keeping the physical distance being advocated as a measure against the virus, the government has started making use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing.
“The operation of the government is a preserve of the people in government; how we decide to communicate. We took the decision that this being a pandemic, all of us are going to read from one script. The president is going to take the lead and the Cabinet ministers in those dockets will do their jobs,” Dr Ruto said, evading the question about his role.
Before the emergence of Covid-19, Dr Ruto was out of the centre of power following the camaraderie between President Kenyatta and Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga.
The president then asked politicians to concentrate on development instead of rallies, but Dr Ruto used tours guised as inspection of projects to sell his agenda with one message: “I am loyal to the president; it is Raila who has come to rock our boat”.
The press conference which, to a large extent did not reveal any new government programme in the Covid-19 war, appeared like a fresh attempt by the DP to come back to the headlines at a time eyes are on fast-rising Dr Matiang’i and Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe.
“To understand Uhuru Kenyatta, read his eyes; to understand ‘Deputy President William Ruto’, read his body language. Today, it is combative and defiant. He has appointed himself co-president and is giving a statement from his co-government. This is bold!” political analyst Mutahi Ngunyi tweeted shortly after the address.
Dr Ruto said the government has equipped hospitals, including the 600-bed capacity Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital, in the war on the virus.
He said counties have been asked to do the same. Dr Ruto added that 1,000 more health workers would be recruited, with the advertisements going out this week.
He said the 1,000 are in addition to the 5,400 whose jobs have already been advertised by the Public Service Commission.