Kenyans will go to the polls on Aug. 9, and with food and fuel prices rising, unemployment high and post-pandemic stagnation, a change in leadership couldn’t come at a more critical time for East Africa’s largest economy.
Vice President William Ruto, 55, and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, 77, lead in opinion polls in the race to succeed term-bound President Uhuru Kenyatta.
It is a bitter struggle between the former enemies – who again became allies – who became enemies again – who struggle to lead the relatively stable country in an unstable region.
Ruto calls himself the ‘Hustler-in-Chief’, a reference to his humble beginnings as a chicken salesman in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a stone’s throw from the country’s most powerful office.
“I may be nobody’s child, but we want to make this country a country for everyone,” the Kenyan vice president told CNN at his sprawling official residence in Nairobi’s wealthy Karen neighborhood.
“We want to make this country a country of opportunity for every child in Kenya.”
Odinga, who says he is fighting for the last time, has previously unsuccessfully run for president four times and has contested his loss in the last three elections.
“I had considered not participating this time, but there was a lot of pressure from my supporters to join because of what I represent,” he told CNN, promising change if elected.
“I have said that the aspirations and aspirations of the people of Kenya, as expressed in the founding document of our nation, what you can call the Kenyan dream, has not been realized.”
The other two candidates who have run for president are Professor George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure Waihiga. They are both considered long shots and are unlikely to win.
Kenyatta dumped his deputy Ruto to support Odinga, chaired the campaign of his Azimio la Umoja (Aspiration to Unite) coalition, and brought with him influential figures from his powerful Kikuyu ethnic group.
But Ruto has formed a formidable coalition of his own called Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First), drawing many leaders from Kenyatta’s backyard and ensuring wide national appeal with an oft-repeated rags-to-riches tale.
While retaining the title of Vice President of Kenya, Ruto lost most of his powers and responsibilities in 2018 when Kenyatta reconciled with his former rival Odinga, effectively neutralizing the opposition.
A symbolic handshake with Odinga ended Kenyatta’s alliance with Ruto, a well-orchestrated union that had won them twice the presidency and sunk their crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
Ruto is walking out on that betrayal, as Kenyatta had repeatedly pledged to support his deputy when the president’s term expired.
“There is a world of difference between me and my competitor. I have a plan, he doesn’t”, says Ruto about Odinga.
He accuses the Odinga campaign of making general statements about Kenya’s massive debt burden, high cost of living and unemployment crisis without detail or clarity.
“He’s a good old man, but I don’t think he has the capacity today to take this country away from where it is. Kenya cannot afford to have a leader who is not hands-on, who does not know what he is doing or what is going on, who depends on other people to make decisions.”
Both campaigns have accused the other of corruption, a persistent challenge to Kenya since it gained independence from Britain in 1963. More than $16 million is stolen from the government every day, Kenyatta claimed.
Odinga calls the stolen funds “budgeted corruption” and promises to close the corruption corridors if he wins. “There is a lot of theft. If we do this, we will save more than we need to fund the projects we are talking about,” the veteran politician nicknamed Baba told CNN.
He has pledged to establish social protection and a universal health program called Babacare. A universal basic income for poor households and free education up to university level are also part of his plans.
“We are not going to compromise and no one will be indispensable, including myself in the fight against corruption, because if you do it effectively, there is no reason why this country cannot achieve its development goals,” said Odinga.
Because of their ties to Kenyatta, Odinga and Ruto have to walk a tightrope between claiming the achievements of his government and promising to run the country better if elected.
Ruto says their second term government has been “invaded by the opposition”, derailing their agenda, while Odinga denies that a win for him would be an unofficial third term for Kenyatta.
The vice president has sharply criticized his boss and the government in which he still serves, with former prime minister Odinga primarily attacking Ruto.
“Everything he utters today is just empty rhetoric – words – and we know there is no dedication or determination to fulfill what he promises the people of this country,” Odinga said of Ruto.
The vice president rejects any criticism and believes the elections have already been decided in his favor.
To win, both candidates must win more than half of all votes cast in the election. Some observers say the outcome could be so close it could send Kenya into a run-off for the first time. Odinga and Ruto both told CNN they would accept the election results if they lost, as long as the process is free and fair.
The election results are expected to be announced on August 15.
But both expressed concern over the way the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had managed aspects of the process, warning that it could hurt confidence in the poll.
After Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the 2017 presidential election and blamed the IEBC, the commission has sought to be more transparent to increase confidence in the process.
Kenya has an electronic electoral register, but voting and counting is done manually. The polling stations open on 9 August at 6:00 am and close at 5:00 pm.
For its part, the IEBC says it has made minor technological changes this election period to regain confidence in the voting system.
The race is expected to be close, with none of the leading candidates scoring significantly higher than the other. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes cast, the elections will go into a runoff for the first time in Kenyan history.