The ties that bind Uhuru and Ruto in Jubilee

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Nic Cheeseman

In his bi-monthly column our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman explains why the Jubilee Alliance is likely to be stronger than many would think. The Kenyatta-Ruto alliance, he argues, was not as surprising as it might have appeared and there are historical precedents for political alliances between Kikuyu and Kalenjin leaders.

Kenyans were speculating about how Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto would work together even before the Jubilee Alliance won the presidential election. Many assumed that as soon as he had one foot in State House, President Kenyatta would set about marginalising his running mate.

Now that Jubilee is in power, such speculation has intensified. Some have pointed to the way that President Kibaki was able to effectively contain Prime Minister Raila Odinga during the power-sharing government of 2008-2013 as evidence that Mr Kenyatta will be able to lock his deputy out of key discussions. Others have argued that Mr Ruto will turn out to be the power behind the throne, controlling the government from the shadows. The reality will probably lie somewhere in between. President Kenyatta has many good reasons to curb Mr Ruto’s influence, but he also needs him. As a result, an uneasy compromise is likely to emerge that will enable the Jubilee Alliance to be far more durable and stable than many sceptics have predicted.

The argument that Mr Kenyatta will dump Mr Ruto as soon as he can is based on two premises. The first, is that any alliance between a Kikuyu and a Kalenjin leader is inherently unstable given the historical tension and recent electoral violence between these two communities. The second is that figures close to Mr Kenyatta will be unwilling to share power with Mr Ruto’s team, and so will do whatever they can to prevent the coalition agreement from being enforced. But although there is an element of truth to both assumptions, they are nonetheless misleading.

In fact, Kikuyu-Kalenjin political alliances have a long history. Following the dissolution of Kadu in 1964, President Jomo Kenyatta made Mr Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, vice-president, with the expectation that Mr Moi would smooth over the reallocation of land in Rift Valley in return for political office. When Mzee died in 1978 and leading members of Kanu set up the Change the Constitution Movement to block Moi’s path to the presidency, it was the support of a number of prominent Kikuyu figures such as Mr Kibaki and Mr Charles Njonjo that ensured that he made it to State House.

More recently, Mr Moi followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by selecting Uhuru to succeed him in 2003. In all of the discussion of the potential pitfalls that could undermine the Jubilee Alliance, it is often forgotten that in the 2002 election Kenyatta’s campaign was led by Mr Ruto. Indeed, the two leaders continued to work together after Mr Kenyatta’s humiliating defeat, with Mr Ruto becoming the party’s secretary general. Seen against this background, the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance appears far less surprising. Moreover, the two men now have a far stronger reason to remain united: their prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Many commentators – myself included – expected that the court would send Mr Kenyatta’s case back to pre-trial. If this happened, there seemed to be a real possibility that the proceedings would be dropped – which is exactly what happened to the Francis Muthaura case in early March. If this had happened, and only the Ruto trial had proceeded, it would have undermined the common interest uniting the two leaders and so placed a great strain on the Alliance. But the decision of the prosecutor to go ahead with the case means that the fate of the president and deputy president will be tied for some time to come.

Of course, the two cases are not the same. It is widely believed that the case against Mr Ruto is stronger than the case against Mr Kenyatta and some commentators have suggested that, over time, this will mean that the incentives facing the two men will diverge: Mr Kenyatta will be happy to comply with the court if he is confident he will get off, whereas Mr Ruto will become increasingly determined not to comply if he senses that he will be found guilty.

The potential for a major disagreement about how to respond to the ICC to disrupt the alliance is real, but a critical factor here is time. We are not likely to see decisions on the cases in the next four years. Indeed, the typical length of an ICC case is about the same as one presidential term in office, so it is may be that the next election has already come and gone by the time the court delivers its verdict. There is no such thing as swift justice where the ICC is concerned.

Even if tensions between the two men do rise, the President can ill-afford to lose Mr Ruto’s support. Most obviously, Mr Kenyatta’s The National Alliance party did pretty badly in most of the elections. Although it won the presidency, TNA took only 72 seats in the National Assembly – just 25 per cent. This is less than the ODM. President Kenyatta can only hope to pass his legislative agenda with the support of Mr Ruto’s United Republic Party (URP), which commands 62 seats (21 per cent). This situation is repeated in the Senate, where the TNA holds just 23 per cent of senators – the same as the ODM – and will therefore be heavily reliant on the URP, as well as a host of smaller parties. Under the old constitution, holding a legislative majority was not that important because the president’s powers were strong, and the assemblies so weak. But the new Constitution has changed that. More than ever before, MPs can hold a president to account should they so wish.

 Mr Ruto is also critical to Mr Kenyatta’s ability to control the process of decentralisation. Many commentators who believe that the alliance will rapidly disintegrate point to the fact that Mr Ruto is assumed to want to fully implement devolution, while Mr Kenyatta is in favour of blocking it. This would seem to be a recipe for disaster. But it is also true that the President’s ability to manage the counties depends on his deputy. While TNA controls just eight governors, URP controls 10, and ODM 16. If the government is to manage the inevitable demands from below for greater power and resources, Mr Ruto’s support is essential. It is perhaps for this reason that Mr Kenyatta has agreed to allow the strategically important Ministry for Devolution and National Planning to come under Ruto’s area of responsibility within the Office of the President and Deputy President.

President Kenyatta also has other good reasons to want to keep Mr Ruto by his side. One of the main reasons that Kikuyu and Kalenjin supporters held their noses and voted for the Jubilee Alliance was the promise of a “peace dividend” if the leaders of the two communities joined forces and worked to prevent ethnic clashes around the election. Peace between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin is not just important to stability in the Rift Valley and beyond – it is critical to Jubilee’s broader peace narrative, through which Mr Kenyatta hopes to gain domestic and international legitimacy. But the President’s ability to depict himself as a source of much needed stability will be undermined if Mr Ruto pulls out of the Jubilee Alliance and tensions between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin communities rapidly escalate. The President therefore has a strong incentive to follow the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Of course, it will not be plain sailing. There will inevitably be disagreements, infighting and squabbles – indeed, we have already seen all three over the thorny question of how to distribute cabinet positions. It is also important to remember that the only predictable thing about Kenyan politics is its unpredictability. But both men would lose more than they would gain by parting ways and so the Jubilee Alliance, like the power-sharing government that it replaced, may hold together for longer than expected.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 10th May 2013.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.


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