William Ruto: From Chicken Peddler to President-elect of Kenya

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William Ruto had been vice-president since 2013 – Copyright AFP/File STR

Tanya WILLMER and Simon VALMARY

President-elect William Ruto is one of Kenya’s wealthiest men, but he has long portrayed himself as a ‘cheater in chief’, the champion of the poor and downtrodden.

Defying allegations of corruption dating back years, the ambitious 55-year-old worked his way to the center of power by playing on his religious faith and humble beginnings by selling roadside chickens.

His duel against former prime minister Raila Odinga in the August 9 election was something he portrays in simple terms.

It was, he said, a battle between ordinary “scammers” struggling to put food on the table and the elite Kenyatta and Odinga “dynasties” that had dominated Kenyan politics for a while. decades.

“We want everyone to feel the richness of this country. Not just a few at the top,” Ruto said as he criss-crossed the country promoting his “bottom-up” economic plan.

The shadowy rags-to-rich businessman had effectively presented himself as a challenger after a very public and acrimonious falling out with incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, who backed Odinga for the top job.

Despite a race dominated by disparagement, Ruto adopted a conciliatory tone on Monday after his victory, vowing to work with “all leaders” after the result split the election commission and sparked fears of violence.

“There is no room for revenge,” Ruto said, adding, “I am fully aware that our country is at a stage where we need everyone on deck.”

– ‘Effective strategist’ –

Ruto had been Kenyatta’s vice-president since 2013, backing him in two elections with the promise that he would have his boss’s backing in this year’s vote.

It was a political marriage of convenience forged in the wake of deadly post-election violence in 2007-2008 that largely pitted the Kikuyu – Kenyatta’s tribe – against the Kalenjin, Ruto’s ethnic group.

Both men were hauled before the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of stirring up ethnic unrest.

The cases were eventually dropped, with the prosecution complaining of a relentless campaign of witness intimidation.

But Ruto was left out after Kenyatta shook hands with longtime foe Odinga during a dramatic shift in political allegiance in 2018.

He rebounded with a campaign that targeted Kenyatta as much as his rival at the polls, blaming the government for Kenya’s economic woes and even accusing the president of threatening him and his family.

“Ruto is considered by many to be one of the most effective strategists in Kenyan politics,” Nic Cheeseman, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham in Britain, said ahead of the poll.

– ‘Perfect storm’ –

Dressed in the bright yellow of his United Democratic Alliance, whose symbol is the humble wheelbarrow, Ruto sought to reach out to those who are suffering the most from the Covid-induced cost of living crisis which has been made worse by the war in Ukraine.

Ruto “chose the perfect storm,” Kenyan political analyst Nerima Wako-Ojiwa said ahead of the election.

Observers attribute Ruto’s aggressiveness to the fact that he had to fight for everything he has achieved in life since his humble beginnings in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the heartland of the Kalenjin.

“I sold chicken at a railroad crossing near my house when I was a child… I paid the (school) fees for my siblings,” he once said.

“God has been kind to me and through hard work and determination I have something.”

His fortune is now said to be in the millions, with interests spanning hotels, real estate and insurance as well as an extensive chicken farm.

A sober father of six who describes himself as a born-again Christian, Ruto rarely lets a speech pass without thanking or praising God or reciting the Bible.

He first stepped onto the political ladder – and his critics claim to have access to funds – in 1992. After completing studies in botany, he led the YK’92 youth movement tasked with mobilizing support to the autocratic then President Daniel arap Moi, also a Kalenjin.

In 1997, when he tried to launch his parliamentary career by running for a seat on his own land in Eldoret North, Moi told him he was a disrespectful pauper’s son.

Undeterred, Ruto won the seat, which he retained in subsequent elections.

His critics say he siphoned off money from the YK’92 project and used it to go into business, and allegations of corruption and land grabbing still hang over him.

But he has long dismissed those claims, once telling local media, “I can account for every piece I have.”

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