Why you should care

A sharpening tussle to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta is threatening to undermine Kenya’s efforts at ambitious reforms.  

A split in Kenya’s ruling party over President Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor is reigniting political tensions and threatening to hobble the government’s ambitious reform agenda. Alliances in Kenyan politics are often in flux, but analysts say the current spat between Deputy President William Ruto and an ally of Kenyatta is particularly worrying and exposes a rupture between Kenya’s two most senior politicians.

David Murathe, a former vice chairman of the ruling Jubilee party, has launched a series of stinging public attacks on Ruto this year. He has accused the leader of the politically influential Rift Valley region of embezzling public funds and declared him unfit to succeed Kenyatta as the party’s next candidate for head of state.

Kenya is East Africa’s biggest economy and an important commercial hub for many of the region’s biggest companies. Analysts warn that renewed political infighting could curtail development, less than two years after a disputed election rattled investors and suppressed growth.

I am convinced [Ruto] is not fit to run for president.

David Murathe, Kenyatta confidante

Kenyatta and Ruto joined forces in 2013 when they were both under indictment by the International Criminal Court for their involvement in post-election violence in 2008. Ruto delivered his Rift Valley voters to help elect Kenyatta in 2013 and backed him again four years later on the understanding that he would succeed the president in 2022. While the alleged deal was always unpopular with some sections of Kenyatta’s support, it was accepted as a necessary compromise. But Murathe’s attacks, which analysts say are designed by the party’s leadership to torpedo the arrangement, have divided the alliance and threatened to plunge the country into a premature succession battle.

“I am convinced he is not fit to run for president,” says Murathe in an interview at his private residence in Nairobi. He adds that Ruto has focused on strengthening his own political and financial position and failed to support the president’s agenda. “If he can behave like this when he is No. 2, how will he behave when he is No. 1? Because then he would have the absolute power to ride roughshod over everybody,” says Murathe.

Marathe insists that his opinions are his own, but many observers say he is acting as a proxy for his friend Kenyatta. He stepped down from his position in the ruling party in January, saying he could no longer work with Ruto in good faith.

“The importance of Murathe is that nobody thinks he is speaking for himself,” says Murithi Mutiga, a Kenya expert at the International Crisis Group. “In the minds of the public, he is seen as speaking for a powerful camp within Jubilee that is mobilizing against Ruto.”

Ruto dismissed Murathe’s accusations while in London this month. “I haven’t responded to David Murathe in Kenya, and I won’t respond to him in Europe. He doesn’t merit my response,” said Ruto following a speech in the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. Kenyatta’s successor would be selected by the party and not by any individual, said Ruto.

But the address in which he outlined his government’s achievements and objectives in areas including health, energy, security and regional integration — his first big public speech in Europe since he was cleared by the ICC in 2016 — suggested he was boosting his international reputation ahead of a presidential bid.

Ruto’s supporters have sprung to his defense, splitting the government. The divide risks paralyzing the ruling party barely a year into a five-year term, according to Mutiga. “You will have less focus on the government’s very ambitious program and more on jockeying for position ahead of a very high-stakes transition.”

Kenyatta has set bold targets for his second and final term in office. The so-called Big Four agenda — focused on universal health care, food security, affordable housing and manufacturing — is supposed to be Kenyatta’s legacy, but the initiative has had a mixed start and might be derailed by further political infighting, says Mutiga.

The succession battle could also revive dangerous tensions in the Rift Valley, where post-election violence in 2008 pitched voters from Ruto’s Kalenjin community against members of Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community. “The Rift Valley is the beating heart of the country, strategically and economically, and the hostilities were never settled,” says Mutiga. “The [Jubilee] coalition papered over the cracks.”

Kenya has more than 40 ethnic groups. The Kikuyu are the biggest, and three of Kenya’s four presidents since independence in 1963 have been Kikuyu.

Political analyst Alutalala Mukhwana says the alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto was always a marriage of convenience that was never intended to last. “What brought this marriage was the fact that both of them were facing criminal charges at the ICC,” he says.

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By Tom Wilson

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