The Irish Times view on Kenya’s election: over to the judges

William Ruto’s rise stirs both hope and concern in east Africa’s richest state

Kenya is braced for a protracted legal battle after William Ruto was declared the winner of the presidential election by a tiny margin. Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga said he would contest the declared result, which led to a split in the electoral commission and was followed by clashes between protesters and police in Odinga strongholds in the capital Nairobi and the western city of Kisumu. Kenya, east Africa’s richest and most stable state, is haunted by memories of the 2007 presidential election, when the supreme court’s decision to overturn the result was followed by widespread violence that left more than 100 people dead.

Ruto, a former street chicken-seller who became one of Kenya’s richest businessmen, won 50.5 per cent of the vote, according to official results, with Odinga, supported by outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, on 48.8 per cent. Neither candidate comes from the dominant Kikuyu tribe, to which three of Kenya’s four presidents have belonged.

And though neither of these veterans of Kenyan politics could claim the status of outsider, the 55-year-old Ruto managed to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate. He put class divisions at the centre of his campaign, emphasising his own humble origins and presenting himself as the voice of the poor in a country he said was riven by inequality and corruption. With the poor already reeling from the impact of Covid-19, surging food and fuel prices and a devastating drought in the north, it was a powerfully resonant message.

Ruto would indeed represent change. Whether it is the change that Kenya needs is another question. He was charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over his alleged involvement in violence after the 2007 election (the charges were later dropped) and a number of his allies have been investigated in relation to other crimes. His brand of economic liberalism mixed with strongman-style rhetoric recalls populist leaders elsewhere. If the courts uphold the election result, Kenya will have a president whose rise stirs both hope and concern.