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Kenyatta-Ruto: Ushering in a United Kenya or Reinforcing Ethnic Politics?

Kenyatta and Ruto say their political alliance will bring the country together, but others fear it is a marriage of convenience and route to impunity.
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Men in Nairobi sit by graffiti calling for peace during the 2007/8 post-election violence. Photograph by Barbara Dziedzic/The Advocacy Project .

Nakuru, Kenya:

As Kenya’s March elections approach, two powerful rival alliances have emerged. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Raila Odinga formed a coalition with Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and Trade Minster Moses Wetangula as well as several other parties. This came two days after presidential hopefuls Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto announced they will contest next year’s Kenyan election together, with Deputy Prime Minister Kenyatta as the presidential candidate and Ruto as his running mate.

In Nakuru, in front of thousands of supporters wearing t-shirts with the slogan “UhuRuto – Umoja Kenya” (Kiswahili for United Kenya), Kenyatta and Ruto danced together before addressing the crowd. Ruto forecast that their alliance would create employment and stimulate the Kenyan economy, adding “We come to announce a coalition of ideas between men and women who subscribe to returning this country as a prosperous nation”.

Sharing power, sharing seats

News that an alliance was imminent had been circulating for several days, but disagreements over how exactly power would be shared delayed its formalisation. In the end, the December 4 deadline for signing pre-election agreements forced the two to resolve these differences.

If they are successful in the March 4 election, ministerial positions will be split equally between Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA) and Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP). Other prominent positions, such as the National Assembly and Senate Speakers, will also be divided equally.

Although Kenyatta and Ruto will keep their parties separate, they will work together during the campaign and form a joint manifesto. It is anticipated that their parties will not run candidates against each other in certain regions. This zoning policy has already provoked strong opposition from local party activists who fear they are being side-lined by the party leadership. The central party leadership dismissed this as irrelevant complaints from people who have no interest in supporting the alliance. “Those who are making noises are not real members,” said Brian Mbugua, a URP spokesman, to Think Africa Press.

The problem remains, however, over how the two parties will campaign over those seats both parties are contesting. The location of the rally in Nakuru is an example of where this may be difficult. The town has strong support for both TNA and URP and this support largely follows tribal lines. During the violence, which followed the December 2007 Kenyan election, the Nakuru district saw some of the worst clashes between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities. A contest between a Kikuyu-supported TNA candidate and a Kalenjin-supported URP candidate could inflame simmering tensions.

A suitable match?

Although the two parties will need each other to mount a serious challenge for the presidency, there appears to be some mistrust amongst the parties’ grassroots supporters. “I don’t like him [Ruto], his record is not good” says Martin, a TNA supporter from Nakuru. “Ruto is a pragmatist. He needs us to help him, but TNA will win here.”

The alliance is a controversial one and has divided public opinion. Both men have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court and their trials will start in early April next year, a month after the election and just days before a possible second-round run-off. Despite Kenyatta and Ruto insisting that they will attend their trials in The Hague, there are suspicions that the alliance is simply an attempt to help each other avoid trial; while Kenya is legally obliged to hand over those charged by the ICC, Kenyatta and Ruto could clearly avoid this fate if they hold the presidency and vice-presidency.

The charges relate to instigating the violence that followed the 2007 election. At the time, Kenyatta and Ruto were on opposing sides with Kenyatta supporting incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and Ruto supporting Kibaki’s challenger Raila Odinga. Two months of violence and unrest was finally ended when a power-sharing agreement was brokered whereby Kibaki stayed on as president and Odinga became prime minister.

Moving forwards or backwards?

Kenyatta and Ruto aim to paint their alliance as proof of reconciliation and as the only choice for voters wanting a united Kenya. “The journey of uniting the country has started,” Ruto told the rally in Nakuru.

However, many see the alliance not as a symbol of Kenya’s newfound unity but as a step backwards. The prospect of the sitting Kenyan president and vice-president standing trial for crimes against humanity is a situation that some want to avoid. At the end of November, a court case brought by the Nairobi-based International Centre for Policy and Conflict sought to question whether the integrity rules of the Kenyan constitution could prevent Kenyatta and Ruto from participating in the election.

Ndung’u Wainaina, the centre’s executive director, declined to comment as the case is ongoing. However, in a newspaper column in early November, he expressed his fears about a Kenyatta-Ruto presidency. “Their trademark is ethnic manipulation and casting themselves as ‘victims of persecution’ to win sympathy and protection” wrote Wainaina. “There is imminent threat of loss of all the economic gains that has [sic] been witnessed in the recent past.”

At the rally in Nakuru, Kenyatta responded to those attempting to block his candidacy, saying: “The fundamental basis of that constitution is to give our people the freedom and the right to choose their elected representatives. I would plead with you to respect the voice of Kenyans and not to impose your thoughts and your will on the people.”

The importance of ethnicity to the Kenyatta and Ruto alliance has also attracted criticism. Both leaders have been clear that the alliance will be beneficial to them because of ethnic block voting. When explaining his reasons for entering into the alliance to Kalenjin elders, for example, Ruto pointed out that the size of the Kikuyu community would help the Kalenjin form part of the next government.

The influence of ethnic identity on Kenyan politics has become a central part of the campaigns, with rival presidential candidate Peter Kenneth commenting that it was sad Kenyatta and Ruto have “ganged up behind their tribes”.

When addressing the rally, however, Kenyatta denied that their alliance only appeals to certain communities and called for an end to personal attacks. “We are willing to work with all, but we also demand our respect as citizens of this republic” he said. “Our union is not to attack anyone, but to build Kenya.”

Kenyatta and Ruto’s focus on umoja (unity) will play a central role in their attempts to portray themselves as the route to a peaceful and prosperous Kenya. The coming together of two rivals, from two communities that clashed so violently five years ago, is certainly significant, as was the decision to hold the launch of the alliance in the Rift Valley, the epicentre of the violence. However, it is less certain whether this alliance will truly unify Kenya or if it is simply a marriage of convenience that reinforces Kenya’s ethnically charged politics, simply shifting the lines along which this election campaign will be fought.

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