The recent exchanges between Deputy President William Ruto and former Lugari MP Cyrus Jirongo mark the first public spat between the two once close allies in the shadowy Youth for Kanu ’92 (YK’92) organisation of the early 1990s.
Mr Jirongo’s accusing fingers pointed at Mr Ruto over the murder of controversial businessman Jacob Juma served to escalate the fallout from the mystery.
The two have endured a love-hate relationship since those early years, but have often been brought together by shared political and commercial interests.
They are both alumni of the Kanu pressure group formed to counter the march towards democratisation and which became notorious for upping the levels of corruption in Kenyan politics and misappropriation of public resources.
Yet in many ways, Mr Ruto and Mr Jirongo were polar opposites.
While many assume that the two were birds of a feather from early on, not many know that when Mr Jirongo launched YK ’92 ahead of the first multi-party elections set for later that year, Mr Ruto was hardly in the picture.
Mr Jirongo was fronting what was supposed to be an elitist group composed of suave young businessmen and political activists with close ties to then President Daniel arap Moi’s sons, who were the hidden hands behind the outfit.
The idea was partly to counter the perception that Kanu had lost the hearts and minds of young middle and upper-class Kenyans to the emergent opposition.
It therefore embarked on a deliberate strategy of ostentatious displays, characterised by wild binges in the most exclusive clubs, company of beautiful bevies, showing-off the latest limousines, and the loud public demonstrations of the latest toys in town – mobile phones that in those days cost a bomb and were the exclusive preserve of the nouveau riche.
Mandatory with all the show was a steady supply of designer suits from what was then the most exclusive Men’s outfitter in town, Little Red, which certainly expanded its business with the clientele of young men with money to burn.
William Ruto was nowhere in that league. While the rest were already rising businessmen with good political links and well-versed on the Nairobi Yuppy scene, Mr Ruto was a callow, out-of-pocket fellow not far removed from the village. He had just completed his Bachelors degree at the University of Nairobi, and was struggling to make headway with his Masters degree programme which was proving challenging with all the distraction of politics.
The Christian Union student and teetotaller could hardly fit in with the hard-drinking, hard-driving Jirongo crowd, who in their conversations over riotous drinking sessions would dismiss him as the broke fellow with threadbare suits aspiring to operate in their circles.
They, however, recognised that while Mr Ruto could not fit in socially, he was hard-working, efficient and committed to the cause, and very useful for running errands and doing much of the donkey work at the YK ’92 Secretariat.
It turned out that much of YK activities included not so much campaigning for Kanu, but using strategic positioning to grab public land and loot state institutions — such as the National Social Security Fund, Postbank Credit, Agricultural Development Corporation, National Bank of Kenya and Agricultural Finance Corporation — under the guise of raising funds for President Moi’s re-election.
Mr Jirongo gained infamy for liberally dishing out political slush funds to the extent that even senior cabinet ministers used to line up outside his office for their share of handouts.
With his close proximity even though he was not a senior YK official, Mr Ruto no doubt benefited from the dregs and in time came to afford his own passable suits.
YK’92 was revelling in power and wealth in the run-up to the December 1992 General Election. The newly-minted Sh500 note came to be nicknamed the ‘Jirongo’, a backhanded recognition of the spiralling inflation wrought by the reckless looting of the national purse and conspicuous consumption by the Kanu youth hordes.
But Mr Jirongo’s world came crashing down soon after the elections. Suffering the illusion that he had singlehandedly ensured President Moi’s re-election, the YK boss was growing too big for his breeches as he attempted to carve out his own centre of power.
Complaining that the youth had not been adequately rewarded with government jobs after the elections, Mr Ruto launched campaigns against President Moi’s Kanu stalwarts, such as then Vice-President George Saitoti and powerful cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott.
Ironically, considering YK‘92’s own contribution, Mr Jirongo launched an assault against Prof Saitoti over the Goldenberg scandal, demanding a crackdown on corruption. He also started pointing fingers at Mr Biwott over alleged dumping of toxic nuclear, chemical and biological waste in North Eastern Kenya.
In short order, President Moi cracked the whip on YK’92, ejecting Mr Jirongo from his inner circle, while other officials such as Mr Sam Nyamweya, Mr Gerald Bomet, and Mr Jimmy Choge scrambled to distance themselves from the fallen chairman.
As a low-level operative, Mr Ruto was spared much of the fallout as YK splintered, but he had also astutely managed to build his own political links with the Kalenjin establishment independent of Mr Jirongo’s patronage.
With figures such as President Moi’s shadowy and immensely wealthy private secretary Joshua Kulei and State House and Lonrho wheeler-dealer and fixer Mark Too by his side, Mr Ruto started making his own way up the political totem pole.
As a relatively unknown youth, he had already caused ripples in Eldoret North with his loud and rambunctious campaign against veteran Reuben Chesire. Though President Moi at the time dismissed him as an immature noisemaker, he looked on with keen interest because Mr Chesire represented the old-money Kalenjin elite that he instinctively distrusted.
With Mr Jirongo shut out of the power equation after 1993, Mr Ruto busied himself cultivating his own networks. He played an interesting game where he built close links to powerful figures in the Moi inner circles, but yet in Eldoret North played up his role as a rebel and fierce critic of the establishment.
Despite their rebel reputations, both Mr Ruto and Mr Jirongo made it to Parliament on Kanu tickets in 1997, representing Eldoret North and Lugari respectively.
Mr Ruto had by then been rehabilitated enough to earn appointment as an assistant minister in 1998, but it was events a few years down the line that saw him propelled to new heights as President Moi served out his last term by crafting a Kanu succession plan.
One phase involved bringing opposition stalwart Raila Odinga into the fold in order to isolate the populous Kikuyu voting bloc led by Mwai Kibaki. The other involved handing over the reins to a younger generation of Kanu leaders, and placing at the helm a political novice Uhuru Kenyatta who, apart from being the son of Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, was also supposed to further eat into the Kibaki voting bloc.
A key designer of this strategy was President Moi’s youngest son, Gideon, a hitherto politically-insignificant figure who roped in Mr Ruto into the scheme.
As the formal merger of Moi’s Kanu and Mr Odinga’s then National Development Party swung into gear ahead of the 2002 General Election, Mr Ruto was elevated to Minister for Home Affairs, signalling his increasingly powerful role in politics.
President Moi also left his new young brigade, Gideon and Ruto, to work out the new-look Kanu line-up after the merger and elevation of Uhuru Kenyatta as chosen heir, relegating to the sidelines veteran stalwarts such as Vice-President Saitoti, Mr Biwott, and Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho.
An interesting episode occurred around that time when President Moi hosted Kalenjin Kanu leaders at State House to plot the new line-up ahead of the delegates conference that would seal the merger with Mr Odinga’s outfit.
Mr Moi chaired the meeting, but left the young brigade to run the agenda. When it became clear that the old guard were being ditched, Mr Biwott stood up to protest. Moi then turned to Mr Ruto and asked him whether consideration would be given to the party stalwart. Mr Ruto replied that they could accommodate him as organising secretary.
The import was not that the young brigade had to incorporate Mr Biwott against their wishes, but that it was clear who was now calling the shots. However, there were still a few imponderables. One was that Mr Odinga was not buying into the idea of Mr Kenyatta being the chosen successor. He was going into Kanu not as supporting cast, but with his own designs on the ticket.
The other was that although pushing Uhuru Kenyatta’s candidacy, President Moi was still vacillating on the choice, and giving serious consideration to a longer-established youngster, Finance minister Musalia Mudavadi.
That was a prospect both Gideon and Ruto were determined to scupper, so they brought in Mr Jirongo from the wilderness and into the Cabinet. The former boss of YK’92 came in as minister for Rural Development with an express assignment: Neutralise Mr Mudavadi in western Kenya, the rationale being that a candidate who does not control his backyard cannot be in the succession line-up.
Mr Ruto and Mr Jirongo thus re-grouped under the ‘Project Uhuru’ banner, but this time roles had reversed and there was no doubt who the senior partner was in the ex-YK constellation.
The project, however, imploded dramatically when Mr Odinga threw a big spanner in the works after Mr Kenyatta’s coronation.
He walked out of Kanu, taking along with him key party stalwarts such as Prof Saitoti, to back Mr Kibaki’s victorious bid.
Mr Ruto was re-elected in Eldoret North on the Kanu ticket, but Mr Jirongo lost in Lugari.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, with Mr Ruto an increasingly pivotal figure in Kenyan politics while Mr Jirongo has been struggling to find his footing.
The Deputy President played key roles in evolving events after the 2002 polls, including the 2005 referendum, collapse of the Narc coalition, Mr Odinga’s ejection from the Kibaki government, formation of the Odinga-Ruto-Mudavadi ODM, and Kanu’s virtual collapse.
There was also the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections, Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta on opposite sides of the post-election violence, onto the rapprochement and victorious march to State House on the Jubilee alliance ticket in 2013.
Although Mr Jirongo regained his parliamentary seat for one term on his own KADDU ticket in 2007, he has since been a peripheral figure while Mr Ruto has occupied centre-stage.
The former YK boss has occupied himself more with trying to preserve a role in western Kenya politics. When Mr Ruto bounced back as Deputy President in 2013, there were indications that the old YK’92 brigade was raring to re-group around, him but save for a few trusted acolytes and business fronts, the rest, including Mr Jirongo, have been kept at arms-length.
After the fall of Kanu, Mr Jirongo tried hard in the courts and through political pressure to regain some of the properties under the Sololo Outlets and Cyperr Enterprises companies that were seized once he fell foul of the system.
This included the NSSF projects in Embakasi and South B, as well as the Kemri housing along Mbagathi Road.
There were areas where he might have had common interest with Mr Ruto, including claims on land housing the strategic Kenya military base near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi where the Deputy President’s business proxy, Mr Patrick Osero, featured prominently.
There was no speedy resolution of the claims even after the Jubilee regime came to power, with Mr Ruto keen to distance himself from the murky past of YK infamy.
Maybe, therefore, this explains a lingering resentment that led Mr Jirongo to seize on the killing of businessman Jacob Juma to launch frontal assaults on Mr Ruto.
The DP’s threats to sue for being linked to the murder will probably come to nought, for that is just the sort of confrontation Mr Jirongo would relish to buttress a comeback to the headlines.
[email protected] @MachariaGaitho