Kenya has a new president-elect after nearly a week of waiting. Following the August 9 election, William Samoei Ruto was declared the winner of the presidential poll after garnering 7,176,141 votes (50.49 percent) against his strongest challenger and former prime minister Raila Odinga who got 6,942,930 votes (48.85 percent).
Ruto, who is currently serving as deputy president, mounted a spirited campaign to emerge victorious, upstaging a coalition of the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga, arguably the most illustrious politician in Kenya. The president-elect modeled his political campaign and mobilisation around the “hustler” narrative, in which he presented himself as the advocate of the society’s poorest. Ruto sought to recast longstanding narratives in Kenyan politics, drawing a parallel of his little-known family background to some of the more established names such as Odinga and Kenyatta.
Ruto’s win now places him at the apex of Kenya’s governance system as he prepares to take over from his now estranged comrade, Kenyatta. While the deep curve of the campaigns is finally over, the steep climb of governing has just started for the new president-elect.
First thing on the to-do list for Ruto is to ground the legitimacy of his win. Four of the seven commissioners in the electoral body have disowned the results, accusing the presidential returning officer of using an opaque formula to declare Ruto the winner. Odinga has also rejected the poll results and is headed to the Kenya’s Supreme Court for arbitration. A precedent was set in September 2017, when the Supreme Court nullified results of the presidential elections won by Kenyatta and his running mate, Ruto.
Should Ruto successfully fend off the poll’s controversy, he faces the daunting task of uniting the country. Half of the electorate did not vote for him; so he will need more than the conditional dictates to fashion together a cohesive society that can successfully anchor his reign as president.
The timing of the transition equally presents monumental challenges for the new leader. The combined affronts of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine have driven the cost of living beyond most Kenyan households. Four million people are currently facing starvation in the country. Over five million people in the informal sector have lost their jobs to the global health crisis. The hopelessness among young and educated Kenyans unable to find work is palpable. Ruto’s promise to make life better for Kenyan hustlers must therefore be expedited.
Kenya’s next president also faces the serious governance challenge of uprooting corruption within government ranks as well as management of an estimated $70 billion public debt stock. These two issues were central to both political camps as they have contributed to the government’s limited fiscal space to invest in development projects that could spur economic activity at grassroots level.
Outside the country, Ruto has to assure international partners that Kenya will continue to be an anchor economy in the East African region and a leading actor in confronting global concerns including pandemics, climate change, terrorism, insurgency and human trafficking.
Compared to Odinga, who has had numerous international engagements including as African Union envoy for infrastructure development and international mediator in the 2010 Côte d’Ivoire’s political crisis, Ruto’s global visibility and stature is relatively thin.
How Ruto will manage Kenya’s relations with key development partners such as China remains to be seen. He, for instance, made China a subject of his vote-hunting mission. However, Ruto could easily go through the path of past leaders like Zambia’s Michael Sata, who won the presidency on anti-China rhetoric only to turn to Beijing for development support after assuming office.
China is an important development projects fancier and trade partner for Kenya. The Standard Gauge Railway from the port city of Mombasa to the administrative capital Nairobi was financed and constructed by China. Ruto has taken credit for the project.
If Ruto overcomes the impending obstacles to his assumption of office, he will have to quickly get down to implementing his campaign manifesto. In the next 100 days, Kenyans expect a reduced cost of living marked by investments in agriculture, better healthcare, loans for small businesses and new industries, as outlined in his manifesto.