Stroke of a Pen Upsets Kenyan Deputy’s Presidential Ambitions

(Bloomberg) -- Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta gave his security chief responsibility for enacting far-reaching development plans, limiting the role of his deputy, William Ruto, who plans to run for the East African nation’s top job in 2022.

The appointment of Interior Secretary Fred Matiang’i as chairman of the new cabinet committee means he’ll oversee Kenyatta’s so-called Big Four agenda that includes developing public services and housing, plans crucial to the president’s legacy. But it may also signal a growing rift in the ruling Jubilee Party as some factions oppose a presidential bid for Ruto, who delivered Kenyatta, an ethnic Kikuyu, key votes from his Kalenjin community in return for future support.

Stroke of a Pen Upsets Kenyan Deputy’s Presidential Ambitions

“By the stroke of the pen, the president and his handlers want Ruto to start gasping for air,” said Javas Bigambo, an independent political analyst in the capital, Nairobi. “The interior minister is now the leader of government business. It’s a lack of confidence in the deputy president.”

Kenyatta secured his second and final term in 2017 after months of uncertainty -- including protests and claims of vote-rigging -- jangled nerves of citizens and investors in the region’s biggest economy. While he eventually reconciled with his veteran opponent, Raila Odinga, the terms of their deal have never been publicly revealed. Odinga has since suggested amendments to the constitution and the reinstatement of the role of prime minister.

The realignments are “ripple effects” of Odinga’s rapprochement with Kenyatta after the opposition leader agreed to end a defiance campaign on March 9, Bigambo said. Odinga’s move sounded a death knell for Kenya’s main opposition alliance and handed Kenyatta a much-needed reprieve from an opponent who scuttled the president’s first bid for office in 2002 when Odinga led a rebellion from the then ruling Kenya African National Union and helped form an opposition coalition that won that year’s vote.

Delicate Balance

A fresh distribution of political roles could upset the delicate balance in Jubilee, which was formed as a grand coalition to bring together Kenyatta and Ruto, who’d backed opposing candidates in Kenya’s 2007 disputed elections that triggered ethnic violence in which more than 1,000 people died. Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the bloodshed, until the cases were thrown out for lack of evidence.

Fitch Solutions Macro Research said this month that party tensions following Kenyatta’s rapprochement with Odinga could undermine policymaking. If the executive is opened up to more members of the opposition, that could isolate Ruto, who may motivate his allies in Jubilee to block legislation, it said in a note.

‘Empower or Undermine’

Following the announcement, Matiang’i will manage Kenyatta’s showpiece programs to boost agriculture, manufacturing, health care and home construction. In previous governments, the deputy president has traditionally led most cabinet sub-committees, taking a key decision-making role, said Peter Wanyama, a Nairobi-based attorney.

It is “telling” that Kenyatta bypassed Ruto for the job, he said by phone. “The deputy president works at the mercy and discretion of the president. The president can decide to empower or undermine him.”

Presidential spokeswoman Kanze Dena didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment on the reasons for this week’s appointment and whether it sidelined Ruto. The deputy president said on Thursday that government officers “at all levels should align their operations” with Kenyatta’s order, according to a statement posted on his Twitter account.

The Nairobi-based Star newspaper reported Thursday that Jubilee may create a position of parliamentary secretary that could curb the powers of the Senate and National Assembly leaders, who are allies of Ruto.

Unhappiness within Jubilee at Ruto’s presumed presidential candidacy has already spilled out into the open. The party’s deputy chairman abruptly stepped down on Jan. 6, a day after vowing to do anything he can to stop Ruto succeeding Kenyatta. He’s said he’ll form a new political movement for party members opposed to Ruto.

The threat of a Jubilee split has heightened tensions in Ruto’s constituency of the Rift Valley, where much of the 2007 ethnic fighting occurred, Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said this month.

Fitch Solutions said instability may increase as 2022 approaches, “given Kenya’s history of ethnic and social tensions which can be inflamed by personal political rivalries.”

Kenyatta and Ruto “didn’t come together because they’re friends, they came together because of interests,” said Edward Kisiang’ani, a politics lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. “Interests have now changed, you can’t force them together. For now the interests are not the same. One is legacy, the other is 2022.”

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