Kenya protests expose jet-setting Ruto's neglect of discontent at home

By David Lewis

NAIROBI (Reuters) -In the two years since he was elected, Kenya's President William Ruto has wowed global climate activists under the Eiffel Tower, brushed shoulders with global tech titans in Silicon Valley and was toasted as a global peacekeeper at the White House.

As he notched up dozens of foreign trips, however, citizens back home endured gruelling economic hardship.

Already hammered by a cost-of-living crisis and watching those in government enjoy the largesse derived from their positions, Kenyans forced Ruto to ditch plans to introduce eye-watering tax hikes after days of protests.

The U-turn has exposed the gulf between the image of Ruto as the jet-setting global voice not just of Kenya but the wider continent, and the grinding realities his nation faces - weighed down by debt, corruption and security threats.

It has left him severely weakened domestically with his administration divided in its response and his opponents rejuvenated, seeking to harness the wave of discontent ahead of elections in 2027, analysts and politicians said.

"Enslaved and supported by foreign interests, and never pro-people in its outlook and interests, (Ruto's administration) was bound to face the consequences of its priorities," Willy Mutunga, Kenya's former chief justice, told Reuters.

"As long as the material interests of the youth are not addressed, the chasm grows bigger and bigger," he said.

A spokesperson for Ruto did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenya - already one of Africa's biggest economies and strongest democracies – has in recent years expanded its global role.

On the eve of the climax of the protests, Ruto flagged off 400 policemen to lead a stabilisation force in Haiti.

The U.S. has designated Kenya as a major non-NATO ally, the first in sub-Saharan Africa, which gives it access to training and equipment but does not oblige it to join NATO operations.

Earlier this month, Ruto spoke at the G7 summit about the need to reform the global financial system to help the poor and has emerged as a powerful advocate for Africa in calls for action on climate change.

However, with protests erupting countrywide, including in Ruto's hometown, Eldoret, and louder calls for his departure, some analysts say his administration is fighting for survival.

Should Ruto dedicate more time and energy to addressing domestic concerns, Western powers risk losing the focus of one of their strongest allies in the battle for influence in Africa, where they seek to counter the growing power of Russia and China, diplomats and analysts said.

Ruto has offered dialogue to allay the fears of protesters but it is not clear if that will be accepted or who talks would be with.

He must also come up with a new plan to tackle Kenya's economic challenges, likely a hard sell due to the deficit cuts he will need to make to meet the conditions of international lenders for future funding.

"Even if nationwide demonstrations dissipate, this civil disobedience is a generation-defining moment," said Declan Galvin, managing director of Nairobi-based Exigent Risk Advisory, a consultancy.

"The next election is still several years away but Ruto clearly needs to shift his political position to address public needs for his own political survival."


Ruto's has earned a reputation for a fierce work ethic but has struggled to shake an indictment by the International Criminal Court for his role in post-election violence in 2007-8 even after the court dropped the case.

Gabrielle Lynch, a Kenya expert at the University of Warwick in the UK, said that Ruto was "an incredible performer", able to roll out facts and figures for donors and then adapt his body language and tone for a local rally later the same day.

"It is as if presenting himself as a world leader would help legitimise him at home and remove tag of parochial instigator of violence," Lynch said.

Underscoring the scale of his globe-trotting, Ruto went on a total of 62 trips to 38 countries in his first 20 months in power, according to a tally by Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper.

But when home, Ruto has appeared tone deaf to complaints over the direction the country was taking, according to two sources in regular contact with his office.

Having campaigned as a champion of low-income "hustlers", Ruto's opponents have since given him the nickname "Zakayo", the Swahili name for a greedy tax collector in the Bible.

As protests mushroomed, videos of politicians flaunting their wealth circulated widely. Homes and businesses of parliamentarians who supported the tax hikes have been targeted.

Mutula Kilonzo Jr, a member of the opposition and governor of Makueni County, said the "brazen arrogance" of government officials fuelled discontent.

Anger has also been directed at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), seen as the drivers of Ruto's fiscal policies. Since his climb-down on tax rises, Ruto must now find another path to make his nation's debt pile of some $80 billion, around 70% of GDP, more manageable.


Kenya's relationship with the United States has deepened under Ruto's presidency but critics complain the mutual admiration has clouded Washington's view on Kenya's challenges.

U.S. support has been crucial in the fight against Islamist militants in Somalia and in May, Ruto enjoyed the first state visit to the U.S. by an African leader in over 15 years.

Ruto is seen as close to Meg Whitman, a former CEO at eBay and Hewlett Packard who is currently the U.S. ambassador to Kenya and the relationship has helped attract foreign investors, particularly U.S.-based tech firms, Nairobi-based diplomats say.

Boniface Mwangi, a prominent Kenyan social activist, said diplomatic statements of concern and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling Ruto after the violence was "too little too late" and Washington must now take a tougher line.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the the embassy in Nairobi had consistently called for restraint and the respect for constitutional rights.

Mwangi said that he advised the U.S. embassy last week to leverage their influence over the president to urge him to engage the protesters as the movement was swelling.

"People had to die for them say something," he said. "They have bought this all shine and charming personality. They don't see the iron first behind the velvet glove."

(Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Ros Russell)