What you need to know:
- The president-elect congratulated the IEBC and Kenyans for raising the bar before promising an open and democratic government.
The light was fading rapidly outside by the time William Samoei Ruto was declared Kenya’s president-elect yesterday evening. It capped a dramatic day that threatened to cloud an election that had, until then, shone bright with the hopes of a nation and the region.
Patience was already in low supply after what many criticised as the slow count of about 14 million votes cast last Tuesday – an agonising count in which Mr Ruto and his main rival, Raila Odinga, constantly exchanged the lead in the tally.
Patience thinned further when the clock struck three in the afternoon – the appointed hour at which the final declaration had been scheduled – without the ceremony getting underway at the Bomas of Kenya, a popular events venue.
A choir dutifully belted out patriotic and heart-warming songs, to which diplomats and other invited guests, including politicians from the two main opposing camps, swayed to, to stay awake and while away the hours.
Then after a week in which it felt as if nothing had happened, weeks happened in minutes. First, word trickled out that the last-minute delay had been caused by internal disagreements within the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) over the final results.
Then four of the seven IEBC commissioners, led by deputy chairperson Juliana Cherera, called an impromptu press conference at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi City centre to disown the long-awaited official results.
“We are not at Bomas because we cannot take ownership of the results that are going to be announced,” Ms Cherera told journalists at the press conference. She promised to give details at a later time, but refused to answer questions at the end of the brief press conference.
Within no time, news of the press conference had travelled to the Bomas, 10 kilometres outside Nairobi, sparking a brief but violent reaction from attendees believed to be supporters of Mr Odinga.
The candidate was not in attendance but his rivals, Mr Ruto, and Mr George Wajackoyah, as well as diplomats were briefly evacuated while the disturbance was managed.
On resumption, things moved much faster than over the past week. Mr Wafula Chebukati, the chairperson of the IEBC, took to the podium to kick-start proceedings.
Bereft of his four colleagues, Mr Chebukati looked exhausted and eager to put the election behind him. The two other fellow commissioners who weren’t at Serena or at the Bomas with him, he announced, had been injured, but he did not say how, when, where, why or by whom.
But his staff, he revealed, had braved insults and harassment during the campaigns and the counting of the votes.
“I took an oath of office to serve this country and I have done my duty in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the land,” he said, noting with discernible relief, that this was the last election he was managing.
“For those who will come, we have created for you what the Constitution envisaged; an independent electoral commission.”
He did not directly respond to the claims of his colleagues at the Serena that the tallying had been conducted in an “opaque manner” but in his defence, he added: “These results are in the public portal, the same results which I am reading here are the ones that are in the public portal.”
Those results, which he proceeded to read, put Mr Ruto across the line with 7,176,141 votes, or 50.49 percent of the valid votes cast.
The president-elect, when he spoke later, unsurprisingly threw his weight behind the official result and Mr Chebukati.
“The hero of this election is the IEBC led by Wafula Chebukati,” Mr Ruto said. “I say this with conviction that the IEBC amazed all of us. With the results in the public portal, all the servers were open. Everybody, all you needed was a simple calculator and you’d have the results.
“That became the game-changer in this election,” he said.
“I want to congratulate the IEBC for raising the bar and I want to say, without fear of any contradiction, that one Wafula Chebukati is our hero. Soft spoken but firm.”
More work ahead
Yesterday’s announcement of the official result should answer the question of who Kenya’s fifth president will be, but it also leaves President-elect Ruto with work to do before and after he takes power.
First is the matter of the streets. The official announcement sparked protests in heavily pro-Odinga areas in Kisumu, western Kenya, and in Kibra, a Nairobi suburb that includes the sprawling Kibera slum.
The initial protests seemed small and spontaneous and will probably fizzle out but after the post-election violence in 2007/2008 in which thousands were killed or displaced, this is a tinderbox that needs to be carefully managed.
Second is the possibility of a legal challenge against the official election result. It isn’t clear what evidence of malpractice, if any, the four IEBC commissioners have and whether it is enough to be argued in court.
But after Kenyan courts struck down the result of the 2017 presidential election and ordered a re-run, this remains a legal threat for Mr Ruto to overcome.
By press time, Mr Odinga’s camp was yet to speak out on the official announcement and whether they would be challenging it.
Notably, his running mate, Ms Martha Karua, said, in a tweet after the announcement, “it is not over till it is over”.
Should he successfully jump through these two hoops and get sworn in, Mr Ruto will face at least two other challenges once in office.
The first is that he will have to govern with a hung Parliament. Of the 349 seats, his Kenya Kwanza alliance has 159 seats compared with Odinga’s Azimio coalition with 162.
He could boost his numbers with the 12 nominated MP positions and by courting the 12 independent MPs but that would still leave him with a thin majority and would require him to spend considerable political capital in Parliament to get his agenda passed and funded.
While the margin in the 47-seat Senate is similarly razor-thin, with 24 for Mr Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza and 23 for Mr Odinga’s Azimio, that simple majority would be enough to get Bills passed, but would raise the premium for senators who wish to hold out to demand concessions from the Executive.
The second obstacle relates to the thin margin of victory but has potentially broader and deeper implications for the Ruto presidency.
Only 233,211 votes separated the two winning candidates and Mr Ruto will have to govern a country in which roughly one in two voters did not choose him.
In addition, almost as many voters chose to stay at home, perhaps uninspired by any of the four candidates on the ballot, as voted for the winning candidate.
He used his remarks last evening to build bridges. “We have raised the bar in this election. Jointly, we have raised the bar. This election was more about the issues than the ethnic configurations that have always informed our elections,” he said.
“In this election, there are no losers. The people of Kenya have won because we have raised the political bar.”
He also thanked his “worthy competitor” Mr Odinga and his “boss” President Uhuru Kenyatta who were both in alliance against him, and promised to “work with all elected leaders, all leaders in Kenya, so that we can fashion a country that leaves no one behind”.
He added: “I want to promise the people of Kenya that I will run a transparent, open, democratic government. And I will work with the Opposition to the extent that they provide oversight over my administration.
“I will build on the foundation that President Kenyatta and I put together and take this country to the next level. I want to promise the people of Kenya that, whichever way they voted, this will be their government.”
Many will welcome the reconciliatory nature of Mr Ruto’s remarks after a campaign in which both camps often exchanged sharp words, including between the deputy president and his running mate on one hand, and the out-going president on the other.
President Kenyatta was yet to speak out on the result by press time. But after a campaign in which he accused his boss of throwing the weight of the state against him, and in which he repeatedly railed against dynastic rule (Mr Kenyatta’s father was the first president of independent Kenya and Mr Odinga’s father his deputy for a few years) Ruto sounded conciliatory and magnanimous in victory.
“I know many are wondering, especially those who have done many things against us. I want to tell them that they have nothing to fear. There’s no room for vengeance, there’s no room for looking back; we are looking into the future.
“Acutely aware that our country is at a stage where we need all hands on deck to move it forward. We do not have the luxury to look back; we do not have the luxury to point fingers; we do not have the luxury to apportion blame; we must close ranks and work together for a functioning democratic prosperous Kenya.
The functioning of that democracy will be tested in the coming days as Mr Odinga and his supporters, including Mr Kenyatta, come to terms with the official announcement.
Managed properly, this new test will shine a spotlight on the strength and resilience of Kenya’s institutions and Constitution. Mismanaged, it could return the dark clouds from Kenya’s past and dim the light of its progress. After a week of waiting patiently, there is yet more wait-and-see for Kenyans to endure – but thankfully, no choir.