KANGARI, Kenya. The helicopter flew over blooming tea and coffee fields on both sides of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak, and landed near a small mountain town from which William Ruto, the self-proclaimed leader of Kenya’s “nation of businessmen,” emerged.
Ruto, the frontrunner in next Tuesday’s presidential election, is pinning his hopes on what he calls the Kenyan “hustlers” – swarms of frustrated young people, most of them poor, who just want to succeed. He delights supporters with his account of how he was once so poor that he sold chickens on the side of the road, and with his vigorous attacks on rivals, he portrays an elitist and out of touch with the world.
“I grew up wearing second-hand clothes,” he boasted to a roaring crowd in Kangari, where farmers and merchants crowded around his campaign vehicle, a canary-yellow stretched SUV. “Every Hustle Matters,” read a slogan on his door.
Strangely, Mr. Ruto has been in office for the past nine years as Vice President of Kenya. And he became a very wealthy man, owning land, luxury hotels, and possibly a large chicken processing plant.
This election in Kenya is rife with controversy, a bitter and unpredictable rivalry between Mr Ruto, 55, and Raila Odinga, a seasoned 77-year-old opposition politician who is making his fifth bid for the presidency after failing his first four. But the perpetual outsider has now become an insider after forging an alliance with the man who has been his nemesis for years: outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In the days leading up to the vote, the race becomes increasingly intense, in stark contrast to many other African countries such as Uganda and Mali, where once-high democratic hopes have given way to fake ballots and military coups. For its Western allies, this highlights why Kenya matters more than ever. Since its first competitive multi-party elections 20 years ago, the East African nation has emerged as an emerging technology powerhouse, a key partner in the fight against terrorism, a source of world-class athletes, and an anchor of stability in a region torn by famine and unrest.
Kenyans are enthusiastic voters: turnout was 80 percent in the 2017 election (compared to 52 percent in the US presidential election a year earlier); on Tuesday, 22.1 million registered voters will choose candidates for six races, including the president, parliament and local governments.
The vote comes at a worrying time for weary Kenyans. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have dealt a severe blow to their economy, which is straining with billions of dollars in debt from China-built road and rail projects. In the north, a devastating four-year drought threatens to starve 4 million people.
But this race is less about problems and more about a titanic clash of personalities, age and ambition, spiced with a constant stream of personal attacks.
Mr. Ruto, a charismatic and ambitious leader with a ruthless personality, mocks Mr. Odinga as a “man of mystery”, ridiculing his tendency to quote folk proverbs and riddles, and as a “project” of his ally Mr. Kenyatta. .
Mr. Odinga, a veteran leftist who believes corruption is costing Kenya millions every day, has one more word for his opponent. – Thief? he asked the crowd during a rally in Machakos, 40 miles from Nairobi, on a recent afternoon.
“Ruto!” his supporters responded.
Allegations that Mr Ruto’s team is prone to bribery (or at least more prone to bribery than its opponents) were backed up by the courts last week when the High Court ordered his running mate Rigati Gachagua to seize 1.7 million dollars from illegally obtained public funds. . Mr Gachagua, whose bank accounts were frozen by the state anti-corruption agency in 2020, is appealing the decision, which he dismissed as politically motivated.
Mr. Odinga also faces accusations of dubious compromise. The son of the first vice president of Kenya, he spent most of his career on the bench of the opposition. He represents resentment among his fellow Luo, Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group, who have never had a president.
After weeks of polling, the latest figures give Mr. Odinga a clear lead. He is supported by the buzz surrounding his running mate, Martha Karua, who is seen as a principled politician with a long history of activism who, if elected, would become Kenya’s first female Vice President.
One wildcard is a third candidate, George Vajakoya, who received a small but stormy protest vote over his proposals to legalize marijuana and, more ridiculously, export hyena testicles to China (where they are said to have medicinal value). ).
If Mr. Vajakoya can hold his share of the vote, as much as 3 percent in the polls, he could deprive Mr. Ruto or Mr. Rail of the 50 percent majority needed to win and trigger a second round of voting in 30 days. .
One of the biggest forces in the race is not on the ticket. The current president, Mr Kenyatta, turned politics on its head in 2018 when he struck a political deal known as the “handshake” with Mr Odinga.
The alliance ended a feud between Kenya’s two great political dynasties that dates back to 1969, when Mr. Kenyatta’s father, then president, jailed the father of Mr. Odinga, an opposition leader, for 18 months.
But for many Kenyans, the handshake was nothing more than “children of kings” making a deal for their own benefit, says Njoki Wamai, assistant professor of international relations at the US Africa International University in Nairobi.
Mr. Ruto, stung by the perceived betrayal, built his own base in Mr. Kenyatta’s political backyard in Mount Kenya, an area dominated by the ethnic Kikuyu, who account for about a quarter of the Kenyan electorate.
The vitriol between two men is never far from the surface. “You have enough money, security and cars,” Mr. Ruto recently told the president at a rally. “Now go home.
“Don’t vote for thieves,” Mr. Kenyatta told his supporters a few days later. Or you will regret it.
One of the obstacles that both candidates face is apathy. Young Kenyans, in particular, say they are turned off by the Byzantine feuds, alliances and backroom deals that keep their leaders busy.
Evans Atika, a barber from the southern region of Nairobi, fits the description of a typical “hustler”. But having voted in 2017, this time he intends to stay at home. “They’re all the same,” he said. “They lie. They made promises they can’t keep.”
Elections in Kenya are among the most complex and expensive in the world. This is expected to cost $370 million using ballots with more security features than the country’s banknotes. But elections here have a history of failure.
Widespread violence since a controversial outcome in 2007 has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 people, the displacement of 600,000 people, and prompted an investigation by the International Criminal Court of politicians accused of funding death squads and inciting ethnic hatred. Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto were charged with crimes against humanity.
But by 2016, both cases had closed after what one judge called “an alarming case of witness interference and unacceptable political interference.”
Other elections in Kenya led to courtroom disputes that ended with judges overturning the results. And just days before the last vote, in 2017, a senior election commission official was found brutally murdered in a remote forest outside Nairobi.
The case was never solved.
There is less concern this time around widespread election-related violence, human rights watchers say. But in recent weeks, some residents of ethnically mixed areas, especially in the Rift Valley, which has seen the worst unrest in previous polls, have voluntarily moved to the safety of larger cities.
However, much will depend on the final result. The Election Commission of Kenya has one week to announce the winner, though analysts expect the losing side to file a lawsuit, extending the contest.
One bright spot amid the mudslinging is the potential for dramatic change in the corrosive ethnic politics that has dominated Kenya for decades. The changing alliances mean that for the first time, millions of voters are expected to cross ethnic lines, especially around Mount Kenya, where for the first time the Kikuyu will have to vote for a candidate from a different group.
“I love this man,” Michael Muigai, who calls himself a “hooligan,” said after a rally in support of Mr. Ruto in Kangari.
Mr. Muigai, 22, is building a road in China to cash in on college deferrals. He said he did not care that Mr. Ruto was an ethnic Kalenjin and ignored media reports linking him to corruption.
“The past is the past,” he said.
Declan Walsh reported from Kangari, Kenya and Abdi Latif Dahir from Machakos, Kenya.