Deputy President William Ruto thrives in contests. He was in the winning team that rejected the draft Constitution in 2005, used the No movement to build his influence and political mobilization in 2010 and has revelled in taking on rivals at the General Elections in 2013 and 2017.
But he has shied away from becoming the political leader of the group opposed to the referendum proposed by the Building Bridges Initiative.
He had initially appeared to be shy about his opposition but used a well-crafted opportunity to explain himself to Kenyans in an interview on Citizen TV this week.
From the media’s coverage of the interview with Joe Ageyo, he came away having delivered several messages:
- we can have a multiple-choice referendum;
- he does not want a divisive referendum;
- he has no conditions, no irreducible minimums; and
- the country cannot afford a referendum.
He was right on a number of these points. First, four of the five recent political seasons have come with slowed economic growth and a bad environment to do business. Second, Kenya does not handle political divisions well. Third, Kenya is currently going through a precarious financial situation and having an expensive political process might not be a very good way to spend money. Whether it is possible to have a multiple choice referendum is yet to be determined, but there are doubts that would be possible in a General Election where electing six candidates has already proven difficult.
Whether it will be possible for the consensus Ruto is pushing for, will be determined by the law – some say a Bill to amend the Constitution cannot be changed midway – and political goodwill – some are happy to have Ruto on the other side in a debate.
On the same day Ruto spoke at length, the backers of the Building Bridges Initiative reported that they had secured 4.7 million signatures, more than four times the number they need to initiate an amendment of the Constitution by popular initiative.
Some political observers have cast doubt on the veracity of the signature collection with several outcries from members of the public on social media intimating forced and forged signatures appended to the BBI forms. Criticisms include public outcry of undelivered sanitizers, PPEs and other COVID related interventions at location and sublocation level versus the presence of BBI support forms within such a short time at Chief offices across the country. Several posts on social media highlight youth in the kazi mtaani program being forced to sign BBI forms in order to receive payment for work done. All these cast doubt on the veracity of the signatures collected in support of BBI but the BBI’s backers have already adequately displayed their capacity for political mobilization.
For them, one of the problematic issues remains popularizing the BBI and creating the sort of emotional connection that helped sell the draft in 2010 that became the Constitution.
Even with a rudderless opposition, and Ruto’s refusal to head them, it remains a hard sell, and the questions the Deputy President is asking expose the base he is speaking for.