President Uhuru Kenyatta’s inauguration Tuesday places his deputy William Ruto at pole position to succeed him in five years.
Mr Ruto, the Rift Valley political kingpin, has served his boss with the kind of unquestioning loyalty that Daniel arap Moi, who set the pace by putting the region under his thumb over 50 years ago, did to Uhuru’s father, Jomo.
And as Moi’s political student, Mr Ruto has often employed the former’s tactics, including hosting thousands of grassroots leaders from many parts of the country, especially during the festive season in his Sugoi home, an opportunity he uses to curry favour with MPs, MCAs and ordinary village folk.
Apart from delivering a rich vote basket, Mr Ruto has been useful to President Uhuru in many ways.
He has taken the flak for his boss’s little failings, and defused threats to Uhuru’s government, regularly tackling the indefatigable Raila Odinga, whose knack for rabble-rousing has often left governments — from Moi, Kibaki, and Uhuru — looking vulnerable.
The self-proclaimed ‘hustler’ has exorcised the ghost that haunted his childhood, and is now one of the richest men in Kenya, which makes him capable of mounting a serious presidential campaign in the future.
In the meantime, the financial and material wherewithal is useful in acquiring and maintaining loyalty from key regional leaders.
But Mr Ruto is also a fighter who never shies away from going against the tide.
Since 2010 when he strategically ran an intense campaign against the then proposed constitution, the man has been creating networks across the country, a political resource that will come in handy when he takes an aim at the ultimate prize.
His decision to throw his weight behind Mr Kenyatta in the run up to the 2013 elections was considered by some pundits as reckless; in fact he had to stave off loud protests from his Rift Valley backyard.
He triumphed then, as he did in this year’s elections in August, humbling his challengers for the chieftaincy of the Rift Valley — the cantankerous former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto and Senator Gideon Moi, who nurses presidential ambitions.
Prof Maurice Amutabi, a history and governance expert, says the 50-year-old’s biggest advantage in the race to State House is in his vast wealth, streetwise dexterity and oratorical power.
“He is self-made, a rank outsider in Kenya’s dynastic politics. He calculates his moves and is quick to pull back when he sees an obstacle.
“He thrives in public exchanges and knows how to work the crowd, if with a bit of propaganda here and there,” Prof Amutabi, the vice-chancellor of Lukenya University, says.
For all his strengths, however, Mr Ruto remains a polarising politician who will need to mend some fences if only to pave his path to power, some analysts point out.
Prof Peter Ndege, a teacher of history at Moi University, sums up Mr Ruto’s political character:
“Ruto’s strong and assertive character makes it easy for his opponents to wage an anti-Ruto campaign.
“It makes it easier to go for his person than to attack his policies as has been with Uhuru, a more likeable character.”
Prof Ndege notes that whatever else he does, Mr Ruto must remember he will need to associate himself with the successes of the Uhuru regime, while distancing himself from its failures.
“He shouldn’t be the ugly face of the State. He needs to cultivate a loveable persona by being less aggressive, more conciliatory and humbler.”
As it is, Mr Ruto should expect a tough challenge campaigning in Nyanza, Western and Coast, regions that have remained fiercely anti-government in recent years, despite massive campaigns to lure them.
Having been an incumbent, Mr Ruto will also understand the invisible power of interest groups in paving the path to power.
Commenting on how interest groups work in politics, political scientist Kiprono Chesang says:
“It is usually very important for anyone seeking political office to have the support of powerful interest groups behind the scenes — business, religious groups, civil society, international community and so forth.”
Often one of the most overlooked, but perhaps the most powerful interest groups is the ‘deep state’, which includes the civil service and other executive institutions.
“This is the State. It is very difficult to capture or wield power if the ‘deep state’ is uncomfortable with you.
“Having enemies in the deep state is what results in embarrassing leaks, slip-ups in critical moments, tacit support for opponents and even plain resistance to your authority.
“Winning it over is no guarantee for victory, but it does remove a very important, if invisible, barrier from the pathway,” the South African-based analyst says.
Still, there are the cautious among Mr Ruto’s strategists who believe that while President Kenyatta may be personally committed to keeping his promise to back Mr Ruto for the top job in 2022, some powerful Central Kenya business elite’s support may not be automatic.
And while this fear is tempered by the unattractiveness of fronting another Kikuyu candidate, or even the difficulty of finding one to match Mr Ruto’s stature, the DP’s strategists prefer to work from this worst case scenario and are busy expanding his networks.
Cherang’any MP Joshua Kutuny, a close confidante of President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto, dismisses any suggestion that the DP’s support from Mt Kenya region would be halfhearted.
“You can’t miss one or two elements with contrary opinion, but I have no doubt at all that the sacrifices Mr Ruto has made for President Kenyatta have endeared him to the ordinary voter from Central,” Mr Kutuny said.
This is helped by the thinking in Mr Kenyatta’s quarters that he will want to marshal his vote-rich Mount Kenya region behind Mr Ruto to serve the dual purpose of protecting the region’s interests and in order to shed off the dubious distinction that the Kikuyu never reciprocate political favours.
Commenting on this oft-touted assertion, Mr Ngunjiri Wambugu, the MP for Nyeri Town, says Mr Ruto has “more goodwill in Central region than any other leader, except Uhuru Kenyatta”.
“Central Kenya has seen the work he has done for Uhuru; his support; loyalty and commitment, and they genuinely appreciate it.
“All the DP needs to do is consolidate and sustain this goodwill and overwhelming support during President Kenyatta’s second and final term.”
He said the DP must continue “keeping Central Kenya close”.
He added: “There has always been fear within Central that the region could be orphaned (after Uhuru’s exit). The DP has however consistently proven to the region that he will look after their interests.
“The region will rest assured that their interests will be as secure under Ruto as they have been under Uhuru.”
It doesn’t help his opponents that Mr Ruto has more or less been a co-incumbent, a far cry from the pitiful vice-presidents of yesteryears who, despite fawning at the feet of their bosses, had no power and were treated with contempt.
“He is a substantive deputy president with a secure boss who trusts him and sees him as a political partner rather than a subordinate,” a senior aide who did not want to be seen discussing his bosses told the Daily Nation.
The aide said the goodwill gives Mr Ruto the political resources he needs to mount a powerful presidential campaign.
As the saying goes, a day in politics is a long time, and five years is certainly an eternity, but one thing is clear: Mr Ruto occupies a position that many politicians can only envy.