Odinga and Ruto -- Credit/Wikimedia Commons

Kenya’s High Stakes Presidential Elections

Kenyans will go to the polls on August 9th to elect a new president. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is term limited from seeking re-election and the two main candidates are both very familiar figures in Kenyan politics.

William Ruto is currently the Deputy to President Kenyatta. But the two men had a falling out and now President Kenyatta is backing Ruto’s main rival, Raila Odinga. For his part, this is Odinga’s fifth time running for president.

Kenya has a recent history of highly competitive elections that are sometimes accompanied by violence. Disputed elections in 2007 lead to over 1,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.

On the line with me to help make sense of all this political intrigue and explain the significance of these elections is Caroline Kimeu, East Africa Correspondent for The Guardian. 


Apple Podcasts  | Google PodcastsSpotify  | Podcast Addict  |  Stitcher  | Radio Public 



Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Who is running in Kenya’s presidential election?

Caroline Kimeu [00:00:00] There’s always context for which humans act violently, and one of them is lack of institutions or protection mechanisms that make people resort to this.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:00:11] Welcome to Global Dispatches, a podcast for the Foreign Policy and Global Development Communities and anyone who wants a deeper understanding of what is driving events in the world today. I’m your host, Mark Leon Goldberg, editor of U.N. Dispatch. Also, regular listeners might notice that the show sounds a little different and hopefully a little better. This is owing to the excellent work of the show’s new producer, Levi Sharp. Welcome to Levi. And I look forward to this show being an excellent resource for everyone in the years to come. Ethnicity often correlates with voter preferences, and the disputed elections in late 2007 included communities being targeted based on their ethnicity.

Edited News Reports [00:01:59] On the first day, it was normal demonstrations on the streets. People were carrying placards saying that their votes had been stolen by the president. Armed groups on a revenge mission attacked this House belonging to opposition leader Raila Odinga’s community. Occupants and some of their neighbors have sought refuge inside from the violent youth. They now lie there, their bodies still burning. The country was a shadow of what it used to be. Ethnic violence cast a dark cloud with over 1500 people killed, 600,000 displaced, and over 900 women raped.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:40] Back then, Kenyatta and Ruto were rivals. Both men were accused by the International Criminal Court of stoking ethnic violence related to the disputed election. The ICC ended up dropping or dismissing the charges, but not before Kenyatta and Ruto formed an unlikely alliance. The two men won elections twice on a joint ticket, first in 2013 and then in 2017. But now, Ruto and Kenyatta are once again at odds with Kenyatta throwing his support behind his erstwhile rival, Raila Odinga, over his own deputy.

Why is the current Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, opposed to the candidacy of his former ally, William Ruto?

Caroline Kimeu [00:04:44] So that’s the thing with the rift between the deputy president and the president. Nobody knows exactly what happened, what transpired. I mean, there are suggestions in some quarters. Some people believe it could be as the president got closer and started to form an alliance with his longtime rival, Raila Odinga, then the relationship with the deputy president became a bit shaky. But also, I mean, at a press conference today, Odinga himself mentioned that the cause of the rift has nothing to do with him. He said that specifically the rift has been happening since their first term in office because they had a very strong bromance, so to speak. It was the subject of a lot of media attention. And the thing that Raila said had caused the rift was allegedly the deputy president was involved in some level of corruption that was affecting the levels of corruption within the administration. So that caused the fallout.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:45] But it is worth emphasizing, as you just noted, this bromance was like real, at least in public perception. Like there was this shorthand; people would refer to them as like Uhuruto, something like that, right?

Caroline Kimeu [00:05:55] Exactly. They were very popular as a duo. And so, I guess it was very surprising to see two people who had really just come together as a pair in the public eye to now come on opposite sides with Kenyatta, then pairing with his long-term rival, Raila Odinga. So that was definitely a shift, but not untypical of Kenyan politics.

Who is William Ruto?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:20] So these three men, Kenyatta, Ruto and Odinga, are known internationally. These are just very familiar names for both Kenyans and also those of us on the outside who broadly follow African politics. I’d love to have you go back and briefly explain who Ruto is, what’s his background, and what has his campaign been like so far?

Caroline Kimeu [00:06:45] Well, he started off in life, which is something he really has built his brand around, as a street hawker and then, you know, moved to being a teacher before going into politics, where he served in one of the administrations, then kind of campaigned for the second president of Kenya, who’s Daniel arap Moi, who is widely considered a dictator. So, he has climbed and clawed his way in Kenyan politics as someone who did not come from a dynasty background. And that’s something he’s really put in the forefront as far as his campaigns is called himself, you know, the Hustler candidate, someone who can identify with the common Kenyan and their journey to make a living. And that’s kind of what the hustler narrative is. Him having started from a very, very humble background and coming to a point where he is competing for the presidency and is considered to be one of the top contenders.

How did William Ruto amass his wealth?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:45] Yet he is fabulously wealthy right now. Where is the source of his wealth?

Caroline Kimeu [00:07:51] Deputy President Ruto has been very obscure about the source of his wealth. Actually, he’s been asked about this in various media interviews, but he refuses to address that and that’s also what does cast a shadow on the Hustler narrative to some extent, because he’s known to have properties, his wealth is estimated to be in the billions of shillings, so the fact that he refuses to address this, it brings some questions about what the source of his wealth is. It’s not really known and that’s something that I guess might have made him and his team tone down the Hustler narrative because initially when they were perpetrating the Hustler narrative, it had started to become economically divisive in certain areas. And Kenya is a very unequal country, less than 1% of the population earn more than the remaining 99% of the population. So, inequality is an issue and I, I guess kind of using the Hustler narrative worked for him in some ways, but then in other ways it was causing a divide that I’m not sure he wanted to be responsible for. So, they kind of toned down on that a bit.

Who is Raila Odinga?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:01] So presumably running a campaign in which he’s presenting himself as a hustler, as a self-made man, seeks to put him in opposition to Odinga, who comes from more of a political dynasty. Can you explain his background and how he came to power as well?

Caroline Kimeu [00:09:20] Odinga is from a dynasty family. It’s exactly what you said. He was the son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was one of the Founding Fathers of the country and so in that sense, he does come from money. He does come from one of the initial families that had a lot of power within the country. So Odinga, though, at the same time, has been known for his background in fighting, he was a political prisoner, and he really is one of the biggest figures in Kenya’s fight against the one-party dictatorship system and kind of like ushering Kenya into a multiparty democracy. He was really big on that, and that’s been one of the things that he’s really known for and is favored for. As well, he does have what some people call, you know, a fanatic following of sorts — the people that love Odinga, love Odinga. He is very loved in some quarters but then the ones who are not for him absolutely have a hard stance on that. So, in this campaign, too, it’s been very interesting to kind of see that play out, especially now. This is his fifth stab at the presidency, but now he has very powerful players supporting him. He has the president and his deputy, both of whom are from the Mount Kenya region, where he has not been able to get votes and support from in the past. And just to kind of give you context for that, Odinga is from the Luo community and President Kenyatta and his running mate are from the Kikuyu community who have historically not been part of the same voting bloc. In fact, there’s been a lot of tension there. There’s been a huge ethnic divide but this election that’s changed. And that’s a very interesting dynamic as to how he’s coming into the race at this time. That’s been a defining feature of his run in this presidential race.

Why is it significant that two politicians from the Luo and Kikuyu communities are working together in Kenya?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:21] That’s interesting that politically rivalrous ethnic groups, the Luo, and the Kikuyu, are now sort of joining forces in the forms of Odinga, who is a Luo, and the current President Kenyatta, who is a Kikuyu, who is backing Odinga. This is unheard of in recent Kenyan politics.

Caroline Kimeu [00:11:41] Completely unheard of. I don’t think it’s been made out to be as momentous as it could have been but at the same time, I can see why it hasn’t really taken off because to be honest, you can see that the coming together, which could have been a really big moment for ethnic unification, is really still staying at a superficial level. It’s very interest based. It’s that Odinga has had to learn the hard way about the numbers factor, that he would have to get a certain number of votes from the Mount Kenya region to be certain of a presidential win or to have high chances of it so there is that interest from his side and then on the other side as well. The Kikuyu group did not have a strong presidential contender who could knock off Odinga. Like I said, it’s his fifth stab at the presidency, but he’s been a very strong candidate in all elections in which he’s vied. So, it’s very interest based on what could have been a lot more if they could have dug a little deeper as to bringing the communities together. I think that could have been more of a moment. But then the thing is, they did have a handshake to signify the new and growing alliance between the two. But I don’t think that’s gone all the way to the grass roots. Like if you still talk to some members of either community, there isn’t a sense of coming together.

Why are Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga teaming up for the upcoming Kenyan presidential election?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:12] So the interests of these two men, Kenyatta and Odinga, happened to align and it just so happens that they are from historically rivalrous ethnic communities.

Caroline Kimeu [00:13:22] Exactly. So, for Odinga, I mean, it is clinching the presidency and for Kenyatta, there’s a lot to that could, especially now with his rivalry with Ruto, you know, it would be tricky if someone who’s completely opposed to you as a former president and might have some insight as to where the gray spots might be, could start poking at you, especially politically. And remember that the Kenyatta’s have significant wealth within the country. So, an alliance on both ends, yes, is certainly in their interest, but as well to broader in the community interests, because they’re not only seen as themselves, but they’re also representing of community interests.

What are the key differences between William Ruto and Raila Odinga’s campaigns for the Kenyan presidency?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:03] Are there any discernible policy differences between Ruto and Odinga?

Caroline Kimeu [00:14:09] One main thing about Ruto’s campaign that he’s made very clear, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a discernable difference more than it’s the basis for everything that Ruto is proposing, or many things that he’s proposing in his manifesto, which is what he calls a bottom-up model, which really just means the empowerment of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Meaning that everything he’s suggesting, whether it comes to the strengthening of agriculture or ensuring that there is employment, or that the country’s debt doesn’t soar — because the soaring debt has affected the prices of basic goods and that’s become a sticking point for so many Kenyans — on the other hand, Odinga has focused on questions of social protection, saying that he would give 6000 shillings each to the most vulnerable families each month, and also saying that he would come up with a health care kind of version of Obamacare, so to speak, it’s BabaCare, that would be affordable health care for all. So, I wouldn’t necessarily say that there are stark differentiating points. You know, Odinga really wants to look into manufacturing, agriculture as well. It’s really very much that the race doesn’t and wouldn’t necessarily come down to the policies. I was talking to one political analyst the other day and he was saying that in Kenya, because people vote along ethnic lines, the policies are not the make it or break it factor at the end of the day.

Could there be violence during and/or following the upcoming Kenyan presidential elections?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:47] So it’s in part because voting patterns often follow ethnic lines that many analysts are concerned about the prospects for ethnic violence around these coming elections, given Kenya’s recent history with election related violence. I know you’ve done reporting on this specific issue. What warning signs, if any, are you seeing in the weeks ahead of the election that in fact, violence might occur around election time or shortly after the polls?

Caroline Kimeu [00:16:21] I would say it’s very tricky with the violence issue because it always comes down to who you are speaking to. With violence, what the political analysts are saying that it’s very unlikely because most cases where violence breaks out has been in the past, where there’s been an incumbent president hanging on to power. So, one political analyst I spoke to said it’s really about retention of power. But on the other hand, there’s also a report by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, NCIC for short, that says that the country’s vulnerability to violence is at 53%. And just to put this in context, the potential for violence comes from the lack of faith in institutions, because many of these situations that could have been resolved through, whether it’s the judiciary system or could have been resolved at the electoral body system level, tend to escalate because there isn’t that certainty that this would be dealt with justly, that necessarily the results would be 100% reflective of the voting that took place. So, these are some of the issues. It’s really the trust in the institutions is low and there’s been a lot of talk around election periods each single time about electoral reform but then the election happens. It’s marred with some irregularities and then life proceeds as usual. And in 2017, the elections were canceled because of election irregularities and then a rerun was held, but no electoral reforms had been put in place, making Odinga, who was running, then sit out the race and call on his followers to boycott the elections, which they did. It just shows you that there isn’t a lot of trust, and rightfully so, because of such situations in which the elections haven’t been handled very well. But in that situation too the judiciary came in and really, I will say, it built the sense of trust from the public by, you know, issuing a historic ruling in which it said that the first elections would be nullified because of the irregularities. So even if it did proceed into a rerun, you know, another race that didn’t proceed as planned, I think it was still a strong ruling and made people realize that you can take issues to the court and there might be some kind of solution for this.

How will Kenya’s 2017 elections affect their upcoming presidential elections?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:49] So the fact that the 2017 elections were canceled because the Supreme Court found significant irregularities and then there was a subsequent election, though Odinga sat that election out, leading Kenyatta to win reelection back in 2017. That history of like real judicial independence, you’re saying, is giving people confidence that at least that institution, if the electoral institutions fail somehow, that they can turn to the Supreme Court and the judicial system to render justice faithfully.

Caroline Kimeu [00:19:31] For sure. I mean, I wouldn’t say that the trust is at 100%, because the NCIC reports still show that faith in the judiciary is still at less than 50%. I believe it was 20 something percent, meaning that it still has a long way to go but at the same time, it was a significant milestone because we know what happens when institutions completely fail. We had a very, very devastating election violence in 2007 and I think many people, whether it’s at the political leader level or even at the ground, many people, many Kenyans do not want to go back to that. And again, like when it comes to violence, one thing that I’m always very careful about when talking about violence is that most times it isn’t contextualized. There are such important historical and kind of contextual issues behind people and Kenyans using violence as a tool of expression in these situations. And I think there’s such a history there in terms of how violence was used to enforce colonial power, to enforce state power, and as a tool to coerce so it was learned in some ways this is you know what, according to me and my understanding of what happened in history, that ultimately this has translated to a sense where violence, it stands for something, but I think we need to look deeper to understand how did violence become a tool that people are turning to and what are people trying to communicate through violence? Is it helplessness? Is it over perceived injustice? Is it dissatisfaction? Is it disenfranchisement? Is it disappointment in our systems? And there’s so many issues because the average Kenyan does not have a lot of power. So, it’s not like a country that has a very, very old democracy where there are functioning systems to which to express your complaints or know that if the electoral body has handled this, you have a certain level of faith that the election results and the systems to check that are functioning a certain way. So that’s also where that comes from and it’s an important part of the conversation that sometimes doesn’t even make it to the top, which leads to stereotypes of Black African people as just intrinsically violent, which is not the case. There are always contexts for which humans act violently, and one of them is lack of institutions or protection mechanisms that make people resort to this.

What could happen in Kenya if one presidential candidate challenges the results of the election?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:06] So chances are that this will be a very close election and that if past is any precedent, the person declared to have narrowly lost the election will challenge the results. What happens then?

Caroline Kimeu [00:22:24] If the election is contested, my thinking is that they would go to the court system to contest this first and kind of have that sorted there. I do not see the potential for immediate violence. I think the violence usually comes as an escalation. It’s not usually the primary reaction, but more is something that happens when there is no action where there should be.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:51] I guess conversely then like what opportunities exist in that kind of contested space in that post-election period in which chances are the results will be contested? What opportunities exist to support a more peaceful resolution of this contest?

Caroline Kimeu [00:23:09] When I was talking to one of the people that works in political campaigns, one thing that they said is that a reason that things moved to a certain height is because of the continual positioning by presidential candidates that they can’t lose, that they’re set to win the election. And this narrative, it’s great to have confidence in your own bid, but it does come down to accepting defeat. There is a huge power in that even before getting to the post systems, because as long as the election is contested, things are already starting to get in difficult water there because you’re hoping that the electoral body would have carried out the elections that are widely seen as credible, that there wouldn’t be a need to contest it. So, by the time it’s moved to the contesting phase, the politicians would make a huge difference if they stood up to resolve this peacefully, because ultimately when it does reach the ground and if the politician keeps a hard stance, there is no telling what people would do. I mean, each person is different, each region is different, each community is different, and depending on various factors, would react differently to a contested election. So honestly, I would say the biggest part of the work has to happen in the before and less in the after.

How much does it cost to be a presidential candidate in Kenya?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:32] I’ve seen analysts refer to the fact that both Ruto and Odinga view this election as sort of existential to their political and also their sort of personal financial interests and sort of accepting defeat when you view holding on to power as critical to your own personal fortune seems like a very difficult thing to accept.

Caroline Kimeu [00:24:58] That’s certainly a part of it and it’s never going to be easy to say just accept defeat because, again, we have to set up why these elections become an issue of do or die. Some of the costs involved in running a presidential campaign, and that’s why many times it’s the familiar faces that we see in these kinds of races, because it’s very expensive. It’s literally millions of dollars, I think. Currently, presidential candidates are allowed to campaign to the extent of $44 million if I’m not wrong. So that that just shows you when you put that kind of money on the line, when you’ve put that kind of time, Ruto has already been campaigning for a long time, even before the elections were formally opened. So, it goes even beyond fortune to how much is actually invested in this? How much does it take to get someone in that seat? And I will tell you, it’s quite a lot so I don’t say it lightly when I say that they should accept defeat. It’s not just accept defeat, but it is understood how devastating this has been for our country, where politicians have refused to do that. Like in 2007, we saw that firsthand as a country. It’s a thing that many Kenyans wouldn’t forget. So that’s also why I’m saying it does start from the top. What they can do is to turn to institutions, even knowing that we have imperfect institutions. The building of these institutions happens also in the resorting to them and kind of them growing in the process but at the end of the day, also speaking on a ground level, I will say that even speaking to a number of political analysts, not too many Kenyans are looking to lose their lives or get displaced over a rich politician who will never live a day in their realities. I read a study that said seven out of ten Kenyans struggling within the last two years to feed themselves or their families. So, I think the problems right now for people are much more personal. So, in some ways it does make them more vulnerable to resorting to violence but in many ways, too, it means that their plate is full, that they have real life issues that they’re trying to deal with that might make them less likely to launch a fight for a presidential candidate.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:19] So in the coming weeks, ahead of the August 9th elections, are there any indicators that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not that indeed the candidates will accept defeat if indeed they lose the election?

Caroline Kimeu [00:27:39] So one of the things that would be an indicator would be them just saying outright, I will accept defeat if I lose the election. That’s one of the best indicators but then also if you start to see a candidate talking about foul play or several questions being launched about the electoral body’s credibility, take for instance, the electoral body wanted to do a fully electronic registration, whereas the physical registers can be integral when the systems fail because some of these electronic systems might not function in certain areas or might fail at some point. So, when you see big ticket issues like anything that could go wrong with the elections being flagged, that’s a sign that nobody wants to go into an election that they can’t trust. So, if there are too many red flags with the electoral body, that will reduce the chances of candidates conceding elections as well.

Who is Martha Karua? Who is Rigathi Gachagua?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:45] Is there any other point you want to emphasize? Any question you think I should ask but didn’t?

Caroline Kimeu [00:28:51] One thing about these elections is that the choice of running mates seems to have had a notable effect on the race, at least as far as what analysts are saying and the general perception. Martha Karua, Odinga’s running mate, is thought to have given a boost to Odinga’s presidential bid. She has a solid political background in justice reform. She’s done work in anti-corruption. And then she’s also engaged in the kind of issue-based politics that analysts say could have drawn in some of those who have been suffering from voter apathy or just, you know, have been undecided. And apathy has been quite high this election season. And then there is Rigathi Gachagua, who is the deputy president’s running mate. He’s had a far less hot reception, for various reasons, he worked under a dictatorial regime. He’s been linked with corruption. And again, like through the campaign, he’s put his foot in his mouth quite a bit. I mean, ultimately the deputy president did not select him without reason, and the general sense is that he could pull in a good number of votes from the Mount Kenya voting bloc, which is critical these elections.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:09] Caroline, thank you so much for your time. This was very helpful.

Caroline Kimeu [00:30:13] Thank you very much, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:22] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp. Just a quick disclaimer for episodes that are produced in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York that the views and opinions expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who express those views and opinions. Please rate and subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts.