After a difficult 2020 in which he and his supporters were severely tested, a resurgent William Samoei Ruto remains the strongest candidate to win Kenya's 2022 presidential election. He has the full support of the Kalenjin Rift Valley (and will win even Baringo County), solid backing in the eight counties of central Kenya, less clear but still strong support in the northern and southern pastoralists (though the Somali remain aloof at the moment) and growing presence on the Coast. He has no support amongst the Luo (who remain completely committed to Raila Odinga) and only footholds in the Luhya and Kamba.
Retiring incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta's recent strategy has mimicked that of his old patron Daniel arap Moi. To avoid Kenya becoming ungovernable, he reached out in March 2018 to agree a "handshake" with his bitter opponent, which brought Odinga, his allies and the Luo community into a loose alliance, designed to ensure stability and with promises of future benefits (just as Moi did with Raila in 1998). He did not expect that the result would be a catastrophic rupture in the governing Jubilee alliance as his powerful, driven, manipulative Deputy President Ruto refused to accept that Kenyatta would no longer deliver on their deal of "Kumi yangu, Kumi ya Ruto" (10 years for Uhuru, 10 for Ruto) and sought the kingdom on his own terms. What Uhuru promised Raila in return for his support in 2018 has never been revealed, but it seems Uhuru has followed in Moi's footsteps in more ways than one, since for the last three years he has refused to offer clear direction on future leadership, neither endorsing Raila as his successor, nor preferring another, promising all things to all people and delaying any commitment to the last minute. Enmeshed in legal disputes over the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and many other constitutional issues, he appears unable to offer a clear way forward, preferring instead to prop up an uneasy alliance of his old opponents while denigrating and administratively harassing his own Deputy President Ruto and his supporters. Meanwhile, without a strong number two in the central region, able to bring the community into a new 2022 alliance as a Vice-President, much of his original bedrock of support in the Kikuyu Embu and Meru has leached away to Ruto, feeling abandoned both economically and politically by their once-loved President.
But while Uhuru is a "lame duck" and a political liability in much of his home region, nationwide everything still depends on the elite "dance" under way. Nothing is settled. At least a dozen of Kenya's counties remain impossible to predict, and politicians everywhere are declaring their candidatures for elected seats while avoiding any admission of the political party under whose brand they plan to contest. As in 2007, pro-government candidates are uncertain whether the governing Jubilee will even compete under that name, merge with ODM or jump to another newly-minted party entirely. And Ruto has only recently settled on the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) as his political vehicle and UDA is a political party on paper only, its sole purpose being to elect its leader and founded on the extraordinary (and unexplained) wealth of its 54-year old, "hustler" creator.
b Source: analysis of the behaviour and alliances of individual Kenyan politicians since 2019, leavened with byelection results and historical precedent.
A united Raila/Kikuyu establishment/Musalia Mudavadi/Kalonzo Musyoka/Gideon Moi alliance would beat Ruto decisively, but that is near-impossible. Both Musyoka and Mudavadi have backed Raila before, without success. And Raila seems determined on one more try, though he is weaker going into this election season than in any of the last three contests. A three- or four-way split with Raila, Mudavadi and Musyoka all standing would guarantee a victory for Ruto, who has a solid 30% of the nationwide vote today, and would sweep up many undecided voters. This is assuming that the elections were free and fair, which cannot be taken for granted. And if Ruto were rigged out (hard to do, but not impossible), I believe parts of the Rift Valley would burn.
As long as Raila is determined to stand for the fifth time, Ruto's chances are good, since it is extremely unlikely that Musyoka and Mudavadi would both back Raila again. Ruto's core support base is now bigger than Raila's and a Raila presidency is anathema in central Kenya and will force the Kikuyu en masse into Ruto's arms, re-establishing under new leadership the Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance which won victory in 2013 and 2017 (see first figure).
It is also too late to build up a fresh, compromise candidate with a nationwide support base. Cabinet secretary Fred Matiang'i appeared an option a couple of years ago, but while effective in government he remains a technocrat not a politician, and that idea seems to have faded. It would be hard to "pump up" Matiang'i or an alternative candidate now, unless all the other players immediately backed them against Ruto.
As a Ruto-beater, Mudavadi is the best compromise candidate, with a reasonable ethnic base and a broader nationwide brand than Musyoka. A presidentially plausible figure without too many skeletons in the closet, he could be backed by Odinga, Kenyatta and Musyoka (see second figure). Indeed, it is often forgotten that Uhuru backed Mudavadi for the presidency for a few short days in December 2012, before denouncing the deal he himself had signed because "the devil made me do it".
The truth however is that in 2012, Uhuru couldn't deliver central Kenya to western Kenya, and it far from certain he can do so in 2022 either, unless all Ruto's opponents unite. Although not loved, Ruto's harder-edged grassroots focused narrative and clear, decisive leadership is appealing to many Kenyans and unless his opponents can "pull a rabbit from a hat" by reactivating and then delivering constitutional change via the stalled BBI (which would roll the dice once more in unpredictable ways), Ruto's chances look good.
Note: as always, this short vignette is unsponsored and unrewarded in any way. I write purely to observe and my predictions should never be interpreted as endorsement, only observation.