NAIROBI — Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto was declared the winner of last week’s presidential election on Monday. But a majority of the commission said they could not stand by the result, leaving voters confused and on edge in a country with a history of post-election violence.
His opponent, former prime minister Raila Odinga, 77, had not issued a statement late Monday night. His running mate, Martha Karua, tweeted: “It is not over till it is over.”
The electoral commission’s chair, Wafula Chebukati, said Ruto narrowly defeated Odinga in the Aug. 9 vote. But just before his announcement, four of the seven commissioners held a separate news conference saying the “opaque nature” of the process prevented them from accepting the decision.
“We are not able to take ownership of the results that will be announced,” said Juliana Cherera, the commission’s deputy chair.
Odinga’s campaign could challenge the results in the Supreme Court, as it did successfully in 2017. The court declared the 2017 vote invalid, setting up a do-over that was won by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta. That period was marred by violent street protests and human rights violations.
It is not over till it is over …..— Martha Karua SC (@MarthaKarua) August 15, 2022
What happens next — and, in particular, the reaction of Odinga and his supporters — will be closely watched here and abroad, including in Washington. The United States views Kenya as a key counterterrorism ally and anchor of stability in the region.
“Under the leadership of Chair Wafula Chebukati, the IEBC declared William Ruto as the winner of the presidential election,” the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi said in a statement. “This is an important milestone in the electoral process. Going forward, we urge all parties to work together to peacefully resolve any remaining concerns about this election through existing dispute resolution mechanisms.”
The embassy asked political party leaders “to continue to urge their supporters to remain peaceful and refrain from violence during the electoral process.”
In Kisumu, Odinga’s hometown, his supporters burned tires and lit bonfires on the streets, blocking roads. Police used tear gas to clear crowds.
“We are done,” said Charles Olongo, 40, a taxi driver. “We are sick. We are tired.”
“This is devastating,” he added.
The election pitted two of Kenya’s most powerful politicians in a sometimes bitterly contested race.
Ruto, who frequently mentioned being a chicken seller in his youth, argued that he was best positioned to represent Kenya’s youth and poorest citizens. He promised a “bottom-up” economic model geared toward developing small business and employment.
He framed the competition as one between “hustlers” such as himself and “dynasties” such as the Kenyattas and Odingas. Kenyatta’s father was the country’s first president, and Odinga’s was its first vice president.
Odinga, making a fifth bid for the nation’s highest office, dismissed Ruto’s rhetoric as an attempt at “class warfare.” He argued that Ruto was not the champion of the poor that he claimed. Ruto, who built his career as a businessman, travels frequently in helicopters and owns several properties, including a mansion, a luxury hotel and a massive chicken plant.
Ruto has dismissed claims by critics that his wealth was acquired through corruption. His running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, was ordered by a court last month to pay back about $1.7 million that it determined was linked to corruption. Gachagua said the decision was meant to undermine his candidacy.
This year, in a twist, Odinga had the support of Kenyatta, a longtime adversary. Kenyatta has served for nearly a decade with Ruto as his deputy, but they have had a public falling out during their second term. Kenyatta was prevented by term limits from running again.
Ruto praised Kenyans for moving beyond the “ethnic configurations” that had shaped past elections, but tribe still played an important factor. Ruto owed his success in part to his support among the Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest tribe, initial results indicated. Three of Kenya’s four presidents, including Kenyatta, have been Kikuyus (the late Daniel arap Moi was from the Kalenjin tribe). Ruto is from the Kalenjin tribe, and Odinga is from the Luo tribe, which historically has had a tense relationship with the Kikuyus.
Anne Mugure, 61, said she voted for Ruto because she thought he would do the best job — and also because, as a Kikuyu, she had reservations about Odinga.
The grandmother, who said she works multiple jobs to get by, said Ruto’s description of himself as a “hustler” resonated.
The next president will be expected to tackle the country’s massive debt, soaring inflation, a drought in the north that has left millions hungry and increasing youth unemployment.
Although voting unfolded largely peacefully Tuesday, tension grew in the days after the polls closed. Disinformation, fueled by both campaigns, has proliferated online.
The electoral commission said one of its officials had gone missing. Media organizations, which started tallying the results on their own, paused and then resumed their counts, giving a variety of explanations that left Kenyans with more questions than answers. Election officials urged patience.
As anxiety increased, families in parts of the country that had seen violence erupt in past elections packed their bags and fled. Others did not have that option.
“I don’t have money, but if I did, I would move,” 89-year-old Monica Waithera said. Her daughter was killed when violence erupted in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, in 2008.
Waithera had been having trouble sleeping since the polls closed, worried about what could happen — but she was hopeful there would be peace.
“I’m praying that things will not get bad again,” she said, “and that God will send us a leader … a leader who can help me buy milk.”