Kenya’s new president promises to deepen democracy, uplift poor

After a fraught, narrowly won election, William Ruto has become Kenya’s new president. Mr. Ruto, whose campaign highlighted his humble origins selling chickens by the roadside, is promising to deepen his country’s democracy and uplift its most impoverished.

Brian Inganga/AP
Kenya's new president William Ruto (right) shakes hands with outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, during a swearing in ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya on Sept. 13, 2022. The handshake highlighted a peaceful transfer of power in a nation with a history of political violence.

William Ruto was sworn in as Kenya’s president on Tuesday after narrowly winning the Aug. 9 election in East Africa’s most stable democracy, and quickly signaled that his leadership would be a strongly Christian one.

The Supreme Court last week rejected a challenge by losing candidate and longtime opposition figure Raila Odinga to the official results, completing a markedly peaceful election.

The 55-year-old Mr. Ruto had been the deputy to outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta but had a bitter split with Mr. Kenyatta that left the two not speaking for months at a time. On Tuesday, the audience cheered as the men shook hands, and again as Mr. Kenyatta handed over the instruments of power.

“There should be no revenge,” Bishop Mark Kariuki thundered at Tuesday’s ceremony, wearing a deep purple stole embroidered “PEACE.”

Mr. Ruto, who had dropped to his knees in tears and prayer when the court upheld his win, knelt on the stage minutes after his swearing-in during an extended sermon. “A chicken seller to a president,” intoned the pastor, highlighting Mr. Ruto’s humble youth.

Mr. Ruto’s first tweet quoted Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

The peaceful transfer of authority will burnish Kenya’s democratic credentials in a region where some leaders have held power for decades.

Mr. Ruto is taking power in a country heavily burdened by debt that will challenge his efforts to fulfill sweeping campaign promises made to Kenya’s poor.

Nairobi’s 60,000-seat Kasarani Sports Center was packed with Ruto supporters wearing his party’s colors of yellow and green. They danced and waved miniature national flags to the strains of a band.

“He is our fellow youth! I know he will bring us more opportunity,” said dancer Juma Dominic as he and his troupe warmed up.

The event began with some chaos. Scores of people were injured as they forced their way into the packed stadium. A medic said a fence fell down after people pushed it and about 60 were injured, though the number may rise. There were no reports of deaths.

With the transition, Kenya’s presidency moves from one leader indicted by the International Criminal Court to another. Both Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto were indicted over their roles in deadly 2007 post-election violence, but the cases were later closed amid allegations of witness intimidation.

The August election was calm in a country with a history of political violence. Chaos erupted only in the final minutes when the electoral commission publicly split and prominent Odinga supporters tried to physically stop the declaration of Mr. Ruto as the winner.

Mr. Ruto’s campaign had portrayed him as a “hustler” with a humble background of going barefoot and selling chickens by the roadside, a counterpoint to the political dynasties represented by Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga. His presidential flag features a wheelbarrow, the symbol of his campaign.

But Mr. Ruto received powerful political mentoring as a young man from former President Daniel arap Moi, who oversaw a one-party state for years before Kenyans successfully pushed for multiparty elections.

Mr. Ruto now speaks of democracy and has vowed there will be no retaliation against dissenting voices.

The losing candidate, Mr. Odinga, is setting himself up to be a prominent one. In a statement on Monday, he said he would skip the inauguration and later will “announce next steps as we seek to deepen and strengthen our democracy.”

Though Mr. Odinga also asserted that “the outcome of the election remains indeterminate,” a spokesman told The Associated Press it was “highly unlikely” he would seek to declare himself the “people’s president” as he did after losing the 2017 election.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Moses Ndungu contributed to this report. Material from Reuters was also included in this report with reporting by George Obulutsa. 

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