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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

What Kenya's new presidency could look like

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Nairobi - Kenya's William Ruto will on Tuesday take charge of the East African economic powerhouse after the country's Supreme Court confirmed his narrow victory over veteran politician Raila Odinga in the August 9 poll.


Odinga accepted the ruling but categorically said he did not agree with it, portending political divisions that the country is ill-equipped to cope with as it faces a cost-of-living crisis and a brutal drought.


Here is a look at what lies ahead as the new government takes shape:


- Can Ruto mend the political divide? - Kenya's traditional ethnic voting blocs may have ceded ground to class dynamics in this year's polls, but as in the case of previous elections, the result reflected a nation sharply split down the middle.


An effective political strategist, Ruto portrayed the election as a battle between ordinary hustlers and dynasties -- a reference to Odinga and outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose families have dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1963.


The 55-year-old deputy president scraped to victory by a margin of less than two percentage points and has struck a conciliatory tone since the results were announced, promising that his government will serve all Kenyans, regardless of political or ethnic affiliation.


According to the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, "Ruto has worked to co-opt independent lawmakers and weak links in Azimio (Odinga's coalition) to establish an operational majority sufficient to pass legislation and budgets" in parliament. But Ruto's relationship with Odinga and Kenyatta, former rivals who struck an unlikely alliance ahead of the poll, remains fractious. The outgoing president pointedly failed to publicly congratulate his long-standing deputy for winning the election until the very eve of his inauguration.


- How will the economy fare? - Kenya is the most dynamic economy in East Africa but many are suffering deep hardship. Prices for basic goods are skyrocketing in the wake of Covid and the war in Ukraine, and unemployment is a major problem, particularly among the young.


Inflation soared to a 65-month high of 8.5 percent in August in the face of a weakening currency, rising fuel costs and a poorly implemented subsidy to halve the price of maize flour used to prepare ugali, a dense porridge that is Kenya's staple food. Ruto -- who capitalized on growing frustration among Kenya's poor -- has vowed to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and the country's $70-billion debt mountain. He said he would establish a 50-billion-shilling ($415-million) "hustlers fund" to provide loans to small enterprises to help drive growth and a fertilizer subsidy to reinvigorate farming -- the backbone of the economy that contributes more than 20 percent to GDP. Florentina Kimoi, who hails from Ruto's Rift Valley bastion of Eldoret, told AFP she hoped the incoming president would pay attention to "long-suffering" farmers like her. "This year many farmers did not plant cash crops such as maize, cassava (tapioca), and wheat because the prices of fertilizers were too high," said 81-year-old Kimoi. "In the old days there was a lot of food but things have changed. Nowadays people need money to buy food and earn a livelihood."


- What about the fight against corruption?


- Ruto has promised to crack down on graft -- a hot-button issue in a country where dozens of leaders are facing charges of embezzling public funds -- but the promise rings hollow to many Kenyans. Ruto himself boasts a shadowy reputation with graft claims against him going back years, and his scandal-hit running mate Rigathi Gachagua was ordered to forfeit almost $1.7 million in a court ruling following a corruption probe. In an editorial last week, The Standard newspaper pleaded for Ruto to pick "men and women of integrity" to serve in his administration. Transparency International ranked Kenya 128th out of 180 in its 2021 corruption perception index, saying the fight against graft had "stagnated".


- How will Ruto treat Kenya's neighbors? - Ruto's predecessor Kenyatta devoted a large chunk of his second term to playing peacemaker in East Africa, easing tensions with Somalia, intervening in the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and hosting talks between Sudan and Ethiopia.


Kenya's allies are anxiously wondering what is next for a country that has evolved into a trusted ally and democratic anchor in a troubled region. Analysts say the most pressing regional issue will be the fighting in Ethiopia between government forces and rebels that resumed last month, shattering a March truce. Kenyatta had been touted as a possible mediator and offered Nairobi as a venue for peace talks, which the warring sides have both now agreed should be led by the African Union.


Puppet or strategist, dilettante or power-hungry heir?


After nearly 10 years in power and a mixed legacy, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta remains an enigma to many Kenyans as he leaves office. But one thing is certain: it is impossible to disassociate the outgoing leader from his family, which ranks among Kenya's richest, with two of Kenya's four presidents emerging from the Kenyatta dynasty.


Unable to run again after two terms at the helm, his endorsement of historic arch-rival Raila Odinga appeared a cunning move by a kingmaker seeking to influence Kenya's future long after retirement.


But the play backfired. His deputy and once close ally William Ruto secured victory -- and Kenyatta found himself rebuked even in his own heartland, as voters in Mount Kenya turned out for his opponent. True to form, his motives or future plans remain unclear. But many believe he will build on the diplomatic legacy crafted since his re-election in 2017.


The 60-year-old has worked hard to raise Kenya's international stature and fashioned himself as a regional statesman, seeking to resolve conflicts in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also strengthened its status as an East African economic powerhouse, launching several major infrastructure projects including a Nairobi expressway inaugurated in July. But these projects also caused Kenya's debt to balloon to about $70 billion.


In his final address to the nation on the eve of Ruto's inauguration, Kenyatta said the economy had tripled under his watch and Kenya was on track to becoming a middle-income country. "In all the work I have done as president... I have been guided by the dream of our forefathers: to eliminate poverty, ignorance, and disease, to improve the quality of life of all Kenyans, and to create conditions for everyone to achieve their dreams," he said.


- Political alliances - His avowed fight against corruption has prompted bemusement and even ridicule among Kenyans who have long seen the Kenyatta family as the embodiment of the elite stranglehold on power. His father Jomo served as independent Kenya's first president and the family is the country's largest landowner, with an empire that includes dairy giant Brookside, the NCBA bank and television broadcaster Mediamax. His own fortune was estimated at $500 million by Forbes in 2011. Born to Jomo and his fourth wife "Mama" Ngina in October 1961, Uhuru ("freedom" in Swahili) studied in the US and entered politics in the mid-1990s.


Over the years "the prince of Kenyan politics" has allied himself with leaders across the spectrum, from the autocrat Daniel arap Moi -- an early mentor -- to former president Mwai Kibaki, whom he backed in the 2007 election.


That disputed vote led to an eruption of politically-motivated tribal violence largely involving two of Kenya's main ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, that saw more than 1,100 people killed. In 2013, Kenyatta -- a Kikuyu -- allied with Ruto, a Kalenjin, and was elected president. Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their role in the 2007-2008 killings but the cases eventually collapsed because of what the prosecution said was a relentless campaign of witness intimidation.


Kenyatta's 2017 re-election bid plunged the country into turmoil, as police cracked down on opposition protests to deadly effect. His victory was annulled by the Supreme Court, but he won a re-run after his then opponent Odinga boycotted the process. But in March 2018, the two men stunned the nation by shaking hands and declaring a truce -- known simply as "the handshake" -- that consigned Ruto to the sidelines. Kenyatta's pet political project, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) which aimed to expand the executive, hit a roadblock after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal. Many saw the constitutional proposals, which included the creation of a new prime ministerial post allegedly earmarked for Kenyatta, as a final bid to stay in power after his last term as president.


- 'Party animal' - Kenya's global profile rose under his watch. He welcomed foreign investors and a succession of visiting dignitaries including former US president Barack Obama and Pope Francis. Some diplomatic sources characterize him as "a party animal who didn't want the job" while others describe him as an astute politician with a common touch "who knows how to talk to people".


A regular churchgoer, he easily mixes with ordinary Kenyans, eagerly gets down on the dance floor, and joshes in the local youth slang. His shy brother Muhoho manages the family finances, while Kenyatta reportedly enjoys driving around Nairobi late at night, incognito and protected by a handful of bodyguards.


Despite many Kenyans suspecting Kenyatta will keep his hand in the game, he himself has dismissed the speculation. "I don't want to remain in power as they allege. This is a difficult job," he told a prayer service last month. "Ten years for me is enough."


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