Kenya: Ruto Dithers as Church, Politicians and Civil Society Push Him to Lead 'No' Camp

22 November 2020

When, in January 2017, he famously claimed that "in this election we face a clueless, rudderless, leaderless and disorganised opposition," Deputy President William Ruto may not have envisaged a situation where he would be confronted by an equally jumbled-up grouping, just three years later.

Today, church leaders, members of the civil society, politicians and other groups, who dissatisfied with contents of the recently unveiled Building Bridges Initiative report, are beckoning him.

And, despite repeated goading by ODM leader Raila Odinga to lead the dissenting voices against the BBI, the DP continues to emit mixed signals, even as a leaderless and swelling 'No' camp begs for his attention.

For a man who has lately been itching for a political contest with the former prime minister, the impression that he is shying away from a political duel over the BBI is baffling to many. But the DP is only being cautious and calculative because the time for battle is not ripe just yet.

His key political backers are nonetheless watching with glee at how opposition to the BBI "project" is morphing into an underground force with the church, members of the civil society and a section of legislators now reading from the same script.

No' campaign

"The DP has not called the bluff yet to those who are urging him to lead the 'No' campaign. And, as a politician, I can tell you that we are good at reading the mood of those we represent and when the situation becomes too demanding, I will not be surprised to see the DP yielding to the demands of Kenyans," says Dr Boni Khalwale, a close ally of Dr Ruto.

Noting that there are many political bigwigs with reservations over the product, including former vice presidents Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi - both who are advocating for a non-contested referendum - the former Kakamega senator claims that once the "No" campaign gains ground, even Kalonzo and Mudavadi will get on board.

Reached for comment, the Wiper and Amani National Congress (ANC) party leaders declined to comment on the matter with Mudavadi promising to open up "at a later stage".

An ANC allied politician, however, expressed his party leaders' discomfort of teaming up with the DP in the plebiscite campaigns "because it could be turned into a Tangatanga affair for drumming up Ruto's presidential bid".

Because of his political clout as DP, coupled with his experience in spearheading the 2010 referendum campaign and financial muscle, the DP is the natural choice to lead the 'No' campaign. The former Eldoret North MP and one-time party leader of the United Republican Party (URP), also boasts of political networks countrywide.

However, retired Presbyterian Church of East Africa Minister, Dr Rev Timothy Njoya, says politicians cannot be trusted to drive a people's cause like the BBI: "Neither Kenyatta nor Raila can lead the BBI process with a clean intention. Even for those opposed to the implementation of BBI proposals, Ruto is the wrong man to be the face of that opposition. Politicians are in it simply for the selfish interests in the Kenyatta succession."

The vocal prelate similarly dismisses fellow clergymen as incapable of leading the "No" campaign. The church, he says, needs a powerful set of "post-Uhuru prophets". He claims the current crop of church leaders is a tainted lot that is in bed with politicians in pursuit of physical infrastructural development like church buildings instead of human and spiritual development.

Although he has expressed reservations over the BBI process and even criticised some of its proposals on inclusivity, the DP maintains that consensus should be adapted to avoid a divisive "us versus them" referendum.

And the DP, concedes Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruyiot, is particularly in a very difficult position: "On one hand he must do the job Kenyans gave him, which is to deputise President Kenyatta. But he is also aware that the direction the country is taking is not good and has to call on his boss to steady the ship. He must persuade the President not to be misled but partisan voices whose interests are personal and not patriotic".

Political popularity

Yet other analysts opine that it is politically imprudent for Ruto to test his political popularity by going against his boss' wish. With just 21 months to the presidential poll, the move could prove a costly venture both financially and loss of support from the President's backyard.

But Khalwale claims it is the Odinga-led ODM "that is dying for a contested referendum". The politician, however, says the Ruto-allied team will not play into the former PM's net: "His political fortunes have terribly dwindled and he wants to use the referendum to resuscitate his career. We shall however not hand him a rope with which to pull himself from his current mess, instead we shall hand him a rope later to politically hang himself with."

ODM secretary-general Edwin Sifuna, however claims the DP has declined to pick up the gauntlet because he will be the exposed one without numbers: "He is simply scared of a headcount. He has always lied about number, including in Parliament, but when the President initiated a purge of MPs allied to Ruto from parliamentary leadership, his side lost terribly."

According to Cheruyiot, however, rejection of the BBI report is in the air: "None of the issues they (proponents of BBI) purport to address are sufficiently responded to. Instead, very sacrosanct institutions like the Judiciary and the electoral body are being mutilated. Unless amended, Kenyans on their own - without leadership of any politician - will shoot down BBI as currently drawn".

Appreciating the symbolic handshake between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga calmed political temperatures and restored harmony among communities across the country, following the highly divisive and disputed 2017 presidential polls, political scientist Fredrick Wanyama maintains political competition cannot be avoided over BBI because it is a political process.

"BBI has since metamorphosed into something else around which some fear the next political coalition is being crafted. So naturally those who feel they are not part of it, must fight it and where possible misinform the public for personal political interest," explains the professor of political scientist.

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