Kenya, my country, will soon have a new president. On Monday, after an anxious week of counting and verifying votes, the chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced that William Ruto, the current deputy president, had won the latest presidential election, with 50.45 percent of the vote.
This election cycle has been a bit of a doozy, so here’s a summary:
Mr Ruto fell out with the outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta, in the early days of their joint second term. The main cause of the fallout was the March 2018 rapprochement, known popularly as the “Handshake”, between Mr Kenyatta and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga. Mr Odinga was Kenyatta and Ruto’s main challenger in the 2013 and 2017 elections; his petition to the supreme court led to the annulment of their 2017 win.
The thawing of hostilities between Odinga and Kenyatta led to the latter backing Odinga’s 2022 bid for the presidency, thereby closing a wound that has festered in the relationship between their two families since independence (the TL;DR version: Odinga’s father turned down the opportunity to lead Kenya at independence, in favour of Kenyatta’s father, who later betrayed and ostracised him, giving rise to Kenya’s bitterest ethnic rivalry, between Odinga’s Luos and Kenyatta’s Kikuyus).
Mr Ruto, for his part, though he stayed on and continued to draw compensation as as deputy president – an elective position under the current constitution, so that the president couldn’t just fire him –went on to craft and energetically sell a narrative in which he was both part of the government and not part of it, claiming credit for its successes and blaming its failures on Kenyatta’s dalliance with Odinga. He has been campaigning for most of the past five years.
And it worked. He defeated Odinga (who garnered 48.5 percent of the vote).
For many, Mr Ruto’s victory is a tragedy. After all, he is a very flawed character. With Mr Kenyatta, he was one of six suspects arraigned at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, concerning his alleged role in Kenya’s diabolical 2007/08 post-election violence. All the cases collapsed after the duo frustrated the court, witnesses disappeared and evidence was tampered with.
As if that were not enough, Mr Ruto has demonstrated disdain for a free press, paid lip service to judicial independence, gained a reputation for grand corruption and tribal cronyism over his many years in government, and, perhaps most alarmingly, has a penchant for overt performative religiosity. If this description rings a bell, it’s because you have seen similar behaviour in a certain famous Russian leader.
Mr Odinga has vowed to petition the supreme court to annul the Mr Ruto’s win. However, unlike in 2017, when his petition led to the first-ever annulment of a presidential election, he is likely to fail this time. Observers have noted that this election was about as transparent as it could have been. Tallies carried out by independent analysts from polling station-level results, which were all posted online, also seem to corroborate the IEBC’s numbers.
Nevertheless, many have also welcomed Mr Odinga’s petition, both because it is the constitutional path to be followed in such cases, averting the possibility of violence, and will also strengthen the judiciary’s electoral jurisprudence. And it’s just as well that he does this, since the country will likely need a very strong judiciary over the next few years. The domination of the next parliament by Mr Odinga’s political alliance is also a sign of hope.
No matter what happens now, we can draw one triumphant conclusion from what has already transpired: Kenya’s democratic star shines brighter yet.
Though I belong to the group that considers Mr Ruto’s election to be a tragedy, I draw consolation from the fact that the tragedy wasn’t forced upon me. A majority of my countrymen elected him, as required by our constitution; and if accepting him as my president is the price I must pay to live in a democratic republic, then so be it.
This is especially important because it is still rare in Africa. One of the saddest elements of this election was the live social media commentary by other Africans – especially from neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda – who good-humouredly noted how amazing it was that Kenyans retained unfettered access to social media, the internet and electricity; that every Kenyan who wanted to vote was able to vote without drama; that Kenyans could download and independently tally raw results from every polling station; and that all the candidates, even those opposing the president, were free from state mistreatment.
These things shouldn’t be remarkable. They should be normal. The fact that so many of my fellow Africans, especially those just across our borders, consider it to be remarkable, is both a tragedy and a reminder that it is indeed remarkable. It is a call for us to continue getting better, so that, if with nothing else but our cheerful example, we can also draw them to the side of freedom.