Kenya’s recently concluded Kiambaa by-election on 15 July was the latest in a series of electoral and legal victories for the so-called ‘hustler movement’ and its titular head Deputy President William Ruto. The ‘hustler movement’ is a loose network of socio-political interests that is being styled as a direct rejection to establishment political and economic forces, which are said to alienate youth and marginalize citizens.
Ruto’s life story – a self-made man who ‘hustled’ his way from selling chicken on the streets to becoming deputy president – is now being presented an inspirational tale for masses of youth who feel abandoned or abused by the national system. Edged out of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s succession plan, following Kenyatta’s “handshake” with long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga in 2018, Ruto has carved out his own political trajectory.
Although he has often been dismissed in the past, he is growing in strength and has won several recent by-elections under the mantle of his new political vehicle, the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) and its affiliate parties.
Not only will he be one of the most competitive candidates in the 2022 general elections, but his favoured trope of hustlers vs. dynasties – a battle between those forced to squeeze out a meagre living on the margins of society and Kenya’s big-name families (i.e., Kenyatta, Odinga, and Moi) – looks like it will be the dominant narrative that frames the campaign.
It is therefore important to ask how Ruto was able to win the Kiambaa by-election against the wishes of Kenyatta and his allies, and how far the political momentum he is building will take the Deputy President towards his ultimate goal of securing the presidency.
Significance of the Kiambaa By-Election
The Kiambaa by-election was brought about, like most of Kenya’s recent by-elections, by the death of the former Member of Parliament (MP) Paul Koinange who passed away in February 2021 leaving his seat vacant. The Koinange family has had close ties to the Kenyattas since before independence and are considered key political brokers in the Central Kenya region and in Kikuyu politics, the most populous community in the central region.
The by-election attracted eight contenders although only two, UDA’s John Wanjiku and Kariri Njama of Jubilee, had a strong showing. In the official Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Wanjiku narrowly defeated Njama by 21,773 votes to 21,263. The by-election was marked with low voter turnout, allegations of electoral malpractices and voter intimidation, providing a glimpse into how the general election is likely to play out in the former Central Province. Ruto’s UDA won on the back of a comparatively well organised campaign that overtly highlighted the Kenyatta’s administrations disregard of the region’s business interests and economic needs.
The victory of a candidate known to be aligned to Ruto in Kiambaa, coming about two months after a similar success in another Kikuyu-dominated area in the Juja by-election, calls into question the entrenched perception that Kikuyus will not vote for an ‘outsider’. As a result, his political rivals will be becoming increasingly worried, despite their great number.
Never before has a candidate successfully mobilised Kenya’s youth and unemployed in quite such a direct and aggressive manner. During the one-party state J.M. Karuiki complained about a nation of “10 millionaires and 10 million beggars”, and Raila Odinga has frequently sought to rally the country’s “haves” against its “have nots”, but nether explicitly sought to take down established “dynasties” – in part because they were “princes” themselves.
By reaching out to this particular demographic via social media with a narrative based around economic exclusion, Ruto threatens to short circuit the ethnic politics for which Kenya is so famous – and this makes him particularly dangerous to the rest of the political elite.
Although we are still a long way from the presidential election, and the candidates who actually won the seats were both Kikuyu, it increasingly looks like Ruto can compete in Central Kenya. This is particularly significant for the presidential election, because if Ruto can add significant support in areas such as Central Kenya to the votes he is likely to mobilise in the Rift Valley, he will be difficult to beat.
In turn, the more viable he appears as a candidate, the easier it will be for him to fundraise, build a party structure and attract more supporters.
Marching Forward to 2022
One of the main problems for Ruto’s rivals is that they have yet to coalesce around a presidential candidate, gifting him first mover advantage. If those around Kenyatta and Odinga now stand a leader in the classic ethnic patron mold, they risk playing into Ruto’s hands, confirming his depiction of them as out of touch elites determined to preserve the status quo at all costs.
Although the campaign backed by Kenyatta will have access to vast resources and the advantage of state backing, it will also need to find a way to counter Ruto’s powerful blend of economic populism and ethnic alliances.
This does not mean that Ruto already has one foot in State House of course. The elections are still 12 months away – a life time in Kenyan politics – and there will be considerable political re-alignment between now and then. But given the economic misery generated by COVID-19, his aptitude for political strategy, and the fact that he has spent his career confounding expectations, it would not be wise to bet against the man from Kamagut.
Declan Galvin is the Head of 3i at WS Insight where he supports diplomatic clients and investors understand political risk in East Africa. He has held Global Human Rights Fellow and Africa House Fellowships at New York University and later worked as an investigative reporter focused on public interest projects in West Africa.
Simon Mutie is a Senior Analyst at WS Insight where he works with public and private clients to understand political, security, and election dynamics in the East Africa region. He provides expert research, briefing, and support services on Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan for Insight clients.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily any organization they are associated with.