“A village boy has become the president of Kenya,” William Ruto proclaimed during his September 13 victory speech. A crowd of tens of thousands, sporting the bright yellow of Ruto’s
United Democratic Alliance (UDA), erupted in cheers. Although the election was close, Ruto’s win represents a shift in the priorities of Kenyan voters.
In a country so often dominated by political dynasties, Ruto is an underdog. Originally from the Rift Valley Province in western Kenya, he grew up selling chickens and groundnuts by the road, acquiring his first pair of shoes at the age of 15. During his campaign, he capitalized on these humble origins, championing himself as the representative of what he dubs “hustler nation”: a culture of hard-working, self-bettering Kenyans. His strategy worked. Millions of Kenyans crossed ethnic lines during the election to bring to power a politician to whom they could relate.
The salience of class in this year’s election represents a shift from the tribalism that typically drives Kenyan politics. The country’s dynastic political scheme is epitomized by two prominent families: the Kenyattas and the Odingas. Together, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga fought against British colonial rule and secured the country’s independence in 1963. Following their victory, Kenyatta became the country’s first president, with Odinga as his vice president. Their alliance, however, was short-lived. In 1966, two years after taking power, Kenyatta was galvanized by both regional tensions and policy disputes into firing Odinga from his government. The feud, stemming from this more than five-decades old incident, has persisted over the course of a generation, creating a rivalry between Uhuru Kenyatta (Jomo’s son) and Raila Odinga (Jaramogi’s son).
In March of 2018, the long-standing antagonism was halted with a handshake. After a private meeting, Uhuru Kenyatta, who was president at the time, and Raila Odinga, who was running for president, posed for a photo-op in front of Kenyatta’s office in Nairobi. In an attempt to reconcile Kenya’s foundational dynasties and to secure his legacy, Uhuru Kenyatta endorsed Raila Odinga’s presidential campaign in February of this year and called Ruto “untrustworthy.” In doing so, he also subverted the long-standing tribal rivalry between the Luo and the Kikuyu, the two communities to which Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta belong, respectively.
Though an endorsement from the then-president initially seemed to bolster Odinga’s campaign, Ruto’s emphasis on class struggle nullified the benefits of Uhuru Kenyatta’s support. In fact, as Ruto began to frame the race through the language of “hustlers” against “dynasties,” voters began to see the endorsement in a new light. During the presidential race, the immense wealth of the Kenyattas and the Odingas underscored Ruto’s unmistakable relatability.
Suddenly, the family alliance became a liability for Odinga’s campaign as voters feared a continuation of the corruption they experienced under Jomo Kenyatta. After all, despite their rivalry, the Kenyattas and the Odingas live remarkably similar lifestyles. While each family’s exact net worth is unknown, according to a 2021 leak the Kenyattas have owned a network of offshore companies for decades. The assets of one of these companies alone was worth 30 million dollars. Raila Odinga has claimed to be worth 16.5 million dollars, although some contend that this number is artificially low. His wealth is considered evidence of his corruption, a particular cause for concern amongst voters given that he has been implicated in various scandals, including a plot to sell nonexistent gold to foreign leaders.
To be clear, Ruto’s humble upbringing does not make him exempt from corruption. As a businessman, he has been the subject of land-grabbing controversies for decades. Notably, in 2013, the High Court of Kenya ordered Ruto to relinquish a 100-acre farm in the Rift Valley Province after he illegally seized the plot from a farmer. Perhaps even more distressingly, the International Criminal Court accused Ruto of instigating violence in the wake of the 2007 presidential election, which culminated in 1,200 deaths. However, during the 2022 election, Ruto’s corruption was shrouded by that of his opponent. In essence, because both Ruto and Odinga have been deceitful politicians, voters were forced to choose the lesser of two evils.
Ruto played up the economic concerns of the populace to ensure voters would see him as the better option. Though both Ruto and Odinga are far wealthier than most Kenyans, Ruto emphasized that this has not always been the case for him. Donning a wheelbarrow as his campaign symbol, he gained the trust of voters to tackle the country’s economic challenges: While Kenya had one of the fastest growing economies in Africa until the Covid-19 pandemic, two-thirds of Kenyans live in poverty, and among Kenyans ages 18 to 34, the unemployment rate is nearly 40 percent.
Ruto’s “bottom-up” economic model spoke to the pressing needs of these struggling groups. In a 2021 tweet, Ruto promised to focus on “DELIBERATELY creating Jobs, LIBERATING hustler enterprises from shylock-credit exploitation & unfair regulation and EMPOWERING our resource-poor farmers/herders to produce.” Combined with his campaign’s focus on his humble beginnings, this garnered the support of Kenyans experiencing economic precarity. Ultimately, Odinga’s dynastic origins made him the less appealing candidate to resolve these longstanding issues.
By emphasizing class, Ruto diminished the importance of tribe—indeed, Kenyans of all ethnicities struggle financially. Although tribe did play a role in the election, some ethnic barriers broke down, exemplified by the voting of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group and the one to which the Kenyattas belong. For, despite the elders of the Kikuyu urging their kin to elect Odinga—due to his endorsement from Uhuru Kenyatta and because his running mate, Martha Karua, is Kikuyu—most Kiyukus voted for Ruto. That they ignored their elders’ caution against “sell[ing] their souls to Dr. Ruto” suggests that there is resentment for the Kenyattas’ economic policies.
Jomo Kenyatta’s promise to foster the formation of a socialist state sharply contrasted his actual record of supporting free-market capitalism. His economic scheme, focused on generating as much wealth as possible, failed to accomplish any redistribution of preexisting resources. In particular, to avoid forsaking the agricultural prosperity established by the colonial government, Kenyatta refrained from breaking up large-scale land ownership. For the Kikuyu—who are primarily farmers—this was divisive, as some Kikuyus cite Ruto’s own agricultural ventures as a reason for their support for him.
Undoubtedly, the results of this year’s presidential election indicate a diminishing focus on ethnicity for the Kenyan electorate. In his acceptance speech, Ruto expressed his gratitude for the “millions of Kenyans who refused to be boxed into tribal cocoons.” Evidently, he recognizes that had the Kikuyus followed the advice of their elders and maintained their tribal alliance with the Kenyattas, he would not be president. If this trend continues, positive social implications could follow such as a decrease in widespread tribal violence. However, whether the decreasing salience of tribe in the 2022 elections represents the beginning of a growing trend or merely a singular anomaly remains to be seen.