On an unusually hot January morning in 2008, a group of political negotiators met for yet another stormy session of intense lobbying at the Serena Hotel, Nairobi. The country was aflame following the disputed 2007 General Elections, and its future lay in the hands of this hurriedly assembled panel. Before the start of the session, one participant volunteered to say prayers and, as the rest bowed their heads in supplication, the middle-aged man asked God to restore peace in the country and grant them a fertile debate.
He prayed for calm, sobriety and God’s counsel to help the team reach a compromise and save the country from the scary jaws of self-destruction.
“He prayed with the solemnity of a monk and the propriety and sincerity of a vicar,” says a diplomat who attended some of the sessions.
Regularly offered to pray
The Serena Talks, which brought together teams from the Orange Democratic Movement and the Party of National Unity, were mediated by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
“Annan was always keen to ensure that individuals from both groups said prayers and, at the start of many sessions, the gentleman offered opening or closing prayers for his ODM colleagues,” says the diplomat, who requested anonymity for the purposes of this article.
That prayerful ODM ‘monk’ was William Samoei arap Ruto, the former Higher Education minister who met his Waterloo last week.
Probably unknown to many Kenyans is the fact that, hidden somewhere beneath the thin veneer of his plain talk and a ready-to-smile face, Ruto is a deeply religious man.
An aide of the Eldoret Ruto MP says his boss has a strict prayer routine and work ethic. “He wakes up at 4am every morning to pray before he goes to the gym, then he heads to work,” the aide says, adding that Ruto is usually in the office by 7am, and can stay there well beyond 10pm. Occasionally, he releases his driver and drives himself home.
And while in the office, the suspended Higher Education minister prefers to play the waiter to his guests. A parastatal head who has worked under him describes Mr Ruto as a highly effective, hardworking, down-to-earth and unassuming minister.
“Whenever you visit him, he calls for a cup and personally serves you tea, then ensures your problem is fixed promptly,” says Ms Anne Kinyua of the Nyayo Tea Zones.
Journalists who have had the pleasure to interview this genial man are awed by his warm candour, cleverly calculated to “disarm” them ahead of the impending ‘war of words’.
You step into his office and, with a smiling face, he welcomes you with a warm handshake — or a hug, if you are female. Then he ushers you to a sofa lined against a wall and serves you tea or soda even as he makes it clear to you that journalists have not only “misrepresented” him, but are also a complete waste of his time.
“You guys.... What are you up to this time round?” is his familiar line before he settles for an interview, often without a jacket.
A friendly teetotaller
There is no denying this; away from charged public rallies, Mr Ruto cuts the image of a friendly, humble, warm individual, a teetotaller and staunch Christian who dreads missing his regular Sunday service.
His Christian behaviour is rooted in his upbringing. His mother, Ms Sarah Cheruiyot, says she ensured her children never missed a service at the African Inland Church, where Ruto was a member of the choir.
One of his classmates at Kapsabet High School — and later at the University of Nairobi — Dr Barnabas Cheison, says Ruto has always been a prayerful man. Little surprise, then, that the born-again chap was elected chairman of the university’s Christian Union choir.
At the time, Ruto had no signs of ever nose-diving into the murky waters of politics, leave alone becoming a deputy leader of the country’s biggest political party, and a Kalenjin chieftain.
“He was a very quiet fellow who seemed only interested in his academics and service to the Christian Union,” recollects Dr Cheison.
Yet it is this same man who, after the Serena sessions, was accused of sponsoring the violence he was praying to stop. After the damaging claims surfaced, Mr Ruto moved to court seeking to expunge his name from a report accusing him of having sponsored the ethno-political violence that claimed an estimated 1,300 Kenyans.
In the eye of a tempest
And now the Eldoret North MP has been caught in the eye of another tempest which threatens to dent his presidential ambition. The man is under siege. Besides the International Criminal Court ghost stalking him for two years now, the ODM deputy leader faces a criminal case, which led to his suspension from the Cabinet last week. And he is unlikely to sit in that Cabinet until the case is determined.
As a result, observers say, his political fate lies in the hands of the International Criminal Court as well as local courts. But the man disagrees.
“My political fate cannot be depended on any one issue,” he retorts with the assuredness of a battle-hardened warrior.
While handing over to acting Higher Education minister Hellen Sambili last week, Ruto’s Press statement was nuanced by Christian overtones.
“I will carry my cross,” he said. “I will take more time in the gym, then hit the road. I now have more time to re-engineer the game.”
Paradoxically, it was his association with the Church that brought him to the other end of the ideological chasm. While leading the CU choir at the University of Nairobi, he used to get a lot of invitations to perform at State House, and it is during these meetings that he started making in-roads into the good books of Kenya’s most influential and political elite.
Within no time, an otherwise ordinary boy from a peasant family thrust himself into party politics.
We say ‘ordinary’ because Ruto is a carbon copy of the average Kenyan boy. Born to the peasant family of the late Mzee Daniel Cheruiyot and Sarah on 21 December 1966 in Kamagut, Uasin Gishu, the charismatic lad whose most colourful days lay ahead was, at one time, forced to do some part-time business to raise schools fees while at Wareng’ Secondary School.
The young Ruto, who lived with his grandparents in Ziwa Location, trekked to Kerotet Primary School, barefoot, for most of his primary school life, and, like his peers, would herd cows on weekends and during holidays. Later, he would buy chicken from the villages and sell them at Kamagut Market on the Kenya-Uganda highway. And on days when he could not afford chicken, he would sell peanuts.
The one thing that Ruto hardly forgets to remind those around him is that he owes his political success — or, now, lack thereof —to his strong spirit and acumen. “I am a self-made politician. A serious politician must have a game plan. For, if you don’t have a game plan, you play other people’s game, and when you play other people’s game, you have no control.”
However, his critics argue that he owes his political career and vast resources to former President Moi.
After leaving the university and teaching for two years, Cyrus Jirongo, the then Lugari MP, recruited the politically green Ruto to the infamous Youth for Kanu ’92 political grouping that campaigned for Moi.
The group would, in the years to follow, be associated with mass bribery, violence and the printing of tonnes of money, an economically daft strategy that ended up injuring the country’s struggling economy.
But, the accusations notwithstanding, Mr Ruto went on to win the Eldoret North Parliamentary seat in the 1997 elections on a Kanu ticket, a feat that he accomplished against the wish of Mr Moi, who favoured party stalwart Reuben Chesire.
A domineering party hawk
It was, perhaps, after flooring the moneyed and experienced Chesire that Ruto’s political character began to form. And it took the shape of an ambitious, domineering party hawk; a ruthless operator and a die-hard defender of his beliefs.
“You know that I don’t follow anybody,” he told journalists last week.
In the run-up to the 2002 General Elections, he dismissed a section of Kanu, then led by Mr Raila Odinga, that called for ‘fair’ party presidential nominations, and asserted that President Moi’s pick, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, would be nominated as the candidate because “there was no other candidate.”
By then, Ruto had climbed the political ladder to become the Director of Elections in the New Kanu, and the Minister for Home Affairs.
“We are going to Kasarani to endorse Mr Kenyatta, and those criss-crossing the country under the umbrella of the Rainbow Alliance are wasting their time. There will be nobody to vote for or against,” he dismissed the Raila crusade, explaining that he supported Mr Kenyatta to succeed Moi because the former President needed someone to protect him as well as his community.
“Kalenjins need protection after Moi’s retirement, and that is why we have chosen Kenyatta, who will protect us.”
Uhuru lost the game, and now his defender risks losing his. Will he?