KANGARI, Kenya — The helicopter flew over lush tea and coffee fields flanking Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain, and landed outside a small highland town where William Ruto, the self-proclaimed leader of Kenya’s “hustler nation,” disembarked .
Mr Ruto, a frontrunner in next Tuesday’s presidential election, pins his hopes on what he calls Kenya’s ‘hustlers’ – the masses of frustrated young people, most of them poor, who simply want to move forward. He delights supporters with his story of how he was once so poor that he sold roadside chickens, and with his feisty attacks on rivals portrays him as elitist and aloof.
“I grew up wearing second-hand clothes,” he boasted to a cheering crowd in Kangari, where farmers and merchants lined the door of his election vehicle, a canary-yellow, faded stretch SUV, “Every Hustle Matters.”
The strange thing is that Mr Ruto has been in power for nine years as Kenya’s Vice President. And he has become a very wealthy man, with interests in land, luxury hotels and, perhaps fittingly, a large chicken processing plant.
There are many contradictions in this Kenyan election, a blistering and unpredictable contest between Mr Ruto, 55, and Raila Odinga, a veteran 77-year-old opposition politician who is running for president for the fifth time after failing the first four. . But the eternal outsider is now being cast as the insider after forming an alliance with the man who for years was his bitter enemy – the outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Days after the vote, the race is a nail-biter — a stark contrast to many other African countries, such as Uganda and Mali, where once-high democratic hopes have given way to mock votes and military coups. For its Western allies, that underscores why Kenya is more important than ever. Since the first competitive multi-party elections 20 years ago, the East African nation has emerged as a burgeoning technology hub, a key counter-terrorism partner, a source of world-class athletes and an anchor of stability in a region ravaged by hunger and strife.
Kenyans are avid voters, with an 80 percent turnout in the 2017 election (compared to 52 percent for the United States presidential race a year earlier); on Tuesday, 22.1 million registered voters choose candidates for six races, including president, parliament and local authorities.
The mood comes at an anxious time for weary Kenyans. The pandemic and war in Ukraine have ravaged their economy, which is under billions of dollars in debt for Chinese-built road and rail projects. In the north, a devastating four-year drought threatens 4 million people with famine.
But this race is less about problems than a gigantic clash of personalities, of age against ambition – laced with a steady stream of personalized attacks.
mr. Ruto, a charismatic and ambitious leader with a ruthless edge, mocks Mr. Odinga as “the Riddle man”, a count on his propensity to quote folk sayings and riddles, and as a “project” of his ally, Mr. Kenyatta .
Odinga, a leftist veteran who estimates corruption costs Kenya millions every day, has another word for his opponent. “The thief?” he asked the crowd at a rally in Machakos, 40 miles from Nairobi, on a recent afternoon.
“Ruto!” his supporters replied.
Allegations that Mr. Ruto’s team is susceptible to inoculation (or at least more susceptible than its opponents) were bolstered by the courts last week when the Supreme Court ordered his running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, to pay $1.7 million in illegally obtained funds. forfeit government funds. Mr Gachagua, whose bank accounts were frozen by a government anti-corruption agency in 2020, is appealing the verdict, which he dismissed as politically motivated.
Mr Odinga is also accused of unsavory compromises. The son of Kenya’s first vice president, he spent most of his career on the opposition benches. He personifies a sense of discontent among his compatriot Luo, Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group, who has never had a president.
After weeks of neck-and-neck polls, the latest figures give Odinga a clear lead. He is boosted by the buzz around his running mate, Martha Karua, who is seen as a principled politician with a long track record who, if elected, would become Kenya’s first female vice president.
A wildcard is a third candidate, George Wajackoyah, who has won a small but vociferous protest vote for his proposals to legalize marijuana and, even weirder, to export hyena testicles to China (where they are said to have medicinal value).
If Mr Wajackoyah can keep his share of the vote, as much as 3 percent in the polls, he can deny Mr Ruto or Mr Raila the 50 percent majority needed to win, and start a second round of voting 30 days later.
One of the biggest forces in the race is not on the ticket. The current president, Mr Kenyatta, turned politics on its head in 2018 when he struck a political deal known as “the handshake” with Mr Odinga.
The alliance ended an enmity between Kenya’s two major political dynasties dating back to 1969, when Mr Kenyatta’s father, then president, imprisoned Mr Odinga’s father, an opposition leader, for 18 months.
But for many Kenyans, the handshake was little more than “the children of kings” making a deal to help themselves, said Njoki Wamai, an assistant professor of international relations at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi.
Stabbed by an alleged betrayal, Mr Ruto built his own base in Mr Kenyatta’s political backyard in Mount Kenya, the ethnic Kikuyu-dominated area that accounts for about a quarter of the Kenyan electorate.
The vitriol between the two men is never far from the surface. “You have enough money, security and cars,” Mr. Ruto said in a speech to the president recently during a meeting. “Go home now.”
“Don’t vote for thieves,” said Mr. Kenyatta days later against his supporters. “Otherwise you’ll regret it.”
An obstacle for both candidates is apathy. Younger Kenyans, in particular, say they have been turned off by the Byzantine feuds, alliances and backrooms that preoccupy their leaders.
Evans Atika, a hairdresser from the South C neighborhood of Nairobi, fits the profile of a typical ‘hustler’. But after voting in 2017, he plans to stay home this time. “They’re all the same,” he said. “They’re lying. They’ve made promises they can’t keep.”
Kenya’s elections are among the most comprehensive and expensive in the world. This one is expected to cost $370 million, with ballots with more security features than the country’s notes. But the elections here have a history of failure.
Widespread violence after a controversial outcome in 2007 left more than 1,200 dead, displaced 600,000 people and sparked an International Criminal Court investigation into politicians accused of funding death squads and fomenting ethnic hatred. Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto were charged with crimes against humanity.
But by 2016, both cases had collapsed, following what a judge called “a disturbing incidence of witness interference and unacceptable political interference”.
Other Kenyan elections have sparked disputes in court that ended with judges overturning the results. And days before the last poll, in 2017, a senior election commission official was found brutally murdered in a remote forest outside Nairobi.
The case has never been resolved.
This time, concerns about widespread election-related violence are lower, human rights monitors say. But in recent weeks, some residents of ethnically mixed areas, especially in the Rift Valley, where previous polls have seen the worst unrest, have voluntarily relocated to the safety of larger cities.
However, much will depend on the end result. The Kenyan Election Commission has a week to declare a winner, although analysts expect the losing side to face a legal challenge, extending the contest.
One bright spot, amid the mudslinging, is the potential for a reversal in the corrosive ethnic politics that has dominated Kenya for decades. The shifting alliances are expected to see millions of voters cross ethnic borders for the first time, especially around Mount Kenya, where Kikuyus will have to vote for a candidate from a different group for the first time.
“I love that man,” said Michael Muigai, a self-proclaimed “hustler,” after Mr. Ruto’s meeting in Kangari.
Mr. Muigai, who is 22, is building a Chinese road construction project to pay his fee for a deferred college placement. He said he did not care that Mr Ruto is an ethnic Kalenjin, and shrugged at media reports linking him to corruption.
“Past is gone,” he said.
Declan Walsh reported from Kangari, Kenya, and Abdi Latif Dahiru from Machakos, Kenya.