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William Ruto’s election as president of Kenya signals the end of dynastic politics of the tribe


Dr Joseph Makanda is a Senior Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg.

Kenyan politics has been dominated by three families since independence – the Kenyattas, the Mois and the Odingas. William Ruto’s win ushers in a new era of political imagination, signifying the growing irrelevance of tribal and ethnic politics.

On 9 August 2022, Kenya went to the polls and incumbent Deputy President William Ruto emerged victorious against long-serving opposition leader, 77-year-old Raila Odinga.

Before and during the campaigns, the 55-year-old Ruto, despite being sidelined by the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, fought back and told voters that the 2022 general election was between “hustlers” like him from modest backgrounds and the “dynasties” of Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga, whose fathers were Kenya’s first president, second president and vice-president respectively. Hence, the campaigns pitted two major political groupings against each other.

One group, known as Azimio la Umoja (Resolution to Unity) is led by Raila Odinga and had the backing of Kenyatta. The other group is known as Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First) and was led by Ruto without the support of Kenyatta, a man Ruto said he had campaigned for in 2013 and 2017.

Although most of the political agglomeration in Azimio and Kenya Kwanza was still controlled by tribal barons whose concern was what their tribes or regions would get in return for their support, the 2022 campaigns were issue-based rather than ethnic.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Kenya declares William Ruto president-elect amid chaotic scenes

There was the “class” factor which Ruto leveraged and made a new tool of his political campaigns. He framed class as a dichotomy between hustlers and dynasties – the masses ranged against exploiters, meaning that both Kenyatta and Odinga represented the political oligarchs of their fathers and that their interests were to protect dynastic interests. 

On the contrary, Odinga’s camp launched a campaign of calumny and vilification against Ruto, portraying him as Kenya’s villain, the poster child of inequities and historical problems such as endemic corruption and land grabs. They also accused Ruto of having been mentored by former president Daniel Arap Moi, who had ruled over a one-party system that Odinga fought against.

Ruto, meanwhile, portrayed himself as the brash outsider and played up his chicken-selling childhood despite his current post and wealth. Amid these accusations and counteraccusations during campaigning, Ruto emerged victorious, winning just more than seven million votes, and Odinga secured just under seven million. Ruto received 50.49% of the vote, Odinga 48.85%.

Is Ruto’s win a resounding collapse of the Kenyatta, Odinga and Moi dynasties? Is this the end of the politics of the tribe in Kenya? Does it inspire hope that any Kenyan, irrespective of his or her background, can be a president? 

Ruto, in his acceptance speech, thanked Odinga and emphasised an election that focused on issues and not ethnic divisions, saying that “gratitude goes to millions of Kenyans who refused to be boxed into tribal cocoons”.

Tribalism and political dynasties

It has to be understood that tribalism and ethnicity have always been defining factors of Kenyan politics. It also has to be understood that Kenyan politics has been dominated by three families since independence – the Kenyattas, the Mois and the Odingas.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Vigilance is still needed on Kenya’s road to political reform

This started during the transition from colonial rule – Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president after independence, set in place a culture of tribalism, nepotism, land grabs, impunity and bad governance. His then vice-president, Oginga Odinga, later accused Kenyatta of bad governance and plunder at the expense of the poor, a move which led Odinga to resign in protest.

Kenyatta labelled Oginga Odinga’s move as tribalism for political mileage. This exacerbated animosity between the Kikuyu and Luo tribes. Odinga was replaced by Joseph Murumbi who after a short stint also resigned due to Kenyatta’s strong-arm rule and was succeeded by Daniel Arap Moi.

It is widely held that Kenyatta appointed Moi as his vice-president partly because of the thinking within Kenyatta’s inner circle that Moi was easy to tame – a yokel, unambitious, and therefore a safe bet who could easily be shoved aside for the “right” successor to the ageing Kenyatta.

Upon Kenyatta’s death, Moi assumed power and maintained his predecessor’s damaging legacy. Moi protected Kenyatta’s dubiously acquired wealth – massive land and investments – strewn across Kenya’s economy. He also leveraged state power to illicitly acquire enormous land holdings and wealth.

Moi ruled for 24 years and at the end of his tenure in 2002, he plucked Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, from obscurity and attempted to foist him on Kenyans as his successor. The move failed dismally when Mwai Kibaki became president in 2002.

Kibaki pursued the same trend by receding into Kikuyu chauvinism which isolated him from other tribal barons and their respective communities who had played a crucial role in his ascendancy to power. To shore up his sagging legitimacy, Kibaki invoked Kikuyu ethnocentrism, which polarised the country and snowballed into the highly contested presidential elections in 2007 and the subsequent ethnic violence in which more than 1,200 people were killed, 3,500 injured and about 350,000 displaced.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Chaos after William Ruto is declared winner of Kenyan presidential election

The strong ties between the Moi and Kenyatta families, which dates back to the 1960s, were also played to Moi’s youngest son Gideon’s advantage, with incumbent President Kenyatta appearing to be tactically bringing him into national politics.

Propelled by the fact that his father had been president, Gideon swiftly transitioned from being Baringo Central MP – the seat his father held for 39 years – to a senator and presidential hopeful in the run-up to the 2022 general election. He later dropped his presidential bid and supported Azimio la Umoja flag bearer Odinga under instruction of Kenyatta. Like Odinga, Gideon Moi lost his senatorial seat, a position he had held since 2013. 

As was the case in the 2007 general elections, after Ruto’s declaration as president-elect, both local and international media expected there would be violent ethnic protests across the country. A common feature in all of Kenya’s post-election periods has been violent protests and the expulsion of those deemed “outsiders” – madoadoa (blemishes) – in a presumed ethnically determined territory who needed to be cleansed for voting the wrong way.

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This did not happen, signifying the growing irrelevance of tribal and ethnic politics in Kenya. Hence, Ruto’s win has ushered in a new era of political imagination. At this point, I can state with conviction that the election of Ruto is a clear message by the majority of Kenyans that they refuse to be boxed into tribal cocoons.

Odinga’s defeat is also a big win for Ruto, who was seen as a representative of the poor masses and those from modest backgrounds. It also means that the representatives of the political oligarchs have been defeated. 

The end and a beginning

But is this the end of the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga dynasties? To some extent, Raila Odinga’s resounding defeat is a sign of the collapse of the Kenyattas, Mois and Odingas.

A rebuttal that can be levelled against this argument is that the Kenyattas, Mois and Odingas still dominate Kenya’s economy and hold key political positions. However, Odinga’s loss is a visible end to the political supremacy of the three family dynasties in Kenyan politics, despite Odinga’s brother and sister clinching the Siaya gubernatorial and Kisumu women’s representative seats respectively (Odinga’s turf) in the run-up to the 2022 general elections.

Since Raila Odinga was seeking to be the heir to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga dynasties, his defeat might be the end of the families’ scions portraying themselves as the kingpins of Kenyan politics.

It is both the end and a beginning of a new era of political imagination. It is an end to an era where the Kenyattas, the Mois and the Odingas have bestrode Kenya like Colossus, wielding power and determining who survived the cutthroat politics in the country and in their regional backyards.

I am cognisant that Odinga’s defeat does not necessarily mean the three dynasties have been sent to permanent political oblivion. More members of the families might join politics in future to carry on their fathers’ legacies.

But Ruto’s win ushers in a new era of politics that inspires hope. Those who had considered themselves as poor and from modest backgrounds can now hope that they too can one day be presidents, senators, members of parliament and members of county assemblies in Kenya. DM

Dr Joseph Makanda is a Senior Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg.


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