William Ruto pledged to work for all Kenyans after he was sworn in as president at a pomp-filled ceremony on Tuesday, five weeks after his narrow victory in a bitterly-fought but largely peaceful election.
Tens of thousands of people joined regional heads of state at a packed stadium in Nairobi to watch him take the oath of office, with many spectators clad in the bright yellow of Ruto’s party, cheering loudly and waving Kenyan flags.
“I will work with all Kenyans irrespective of who they voted for,” the 55-year-old said in his inauguration speech, announcing a series of measures to tackle the country’s economic woes.
“In this process we have demonstrated the maturity of our democracy, the robustness of our institutions and the resilience of the Kenyan people.”
He described his swearing-in as Kenya’s fifth post-independence president as a “moment like no other,” adding: “Today, I want to thank God, because a village boy has become the president of Kenya.”
A notoriously ambitious politician who has been deputy president since 2013, Ruto beat his rival Raila Odinga — who had the backing of now former president Uhuru Kenyatta — by less than two percentage points in the August 9 poll.
But the Supreme Court on September 5 unanimously upheld his victory, dismissing his opponents’ claims of fraud and mismanagement.
The rags-to-riches businessman, who once sold chickens on the roadside, faces a daunting task ahead with the country hit by a deep cost-of-living crisis, youth unemployment and a punishing drought.
– ‘Dawn of Ruto era’ –
African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, who was at the ceremony, hailed the peaceful transfer of power in a post on Twitter, saying it was “an enduring feature of the country’s political maturity”.
The rise of the self-proclaimed “hustler-in-chief” has been closely watched by the international community, which looks to Kenya as a reliable and stable democracy in a turbulent region.
“Dawn of Ruto era,” trumpeted the front-page headline in The Standard newspaper, while The Star said: “Time for Ruto.”
Several people were injured earlier as crowds tried to force their way into the stadium. Television footage showed dozens of people falling on top of one other in a crush at one entrance gate.
Foreign allies and independent observers praised the conduct of the vote, which was mostly peaceful and free of the violence that has marred past elections in the country of 50 million people.
Kenyatta, who in a stunning turn of events reached a pact with his longtime rival Odinga in 2018 and banished his deputy Ruto to the sidelines, had promised a smooth transfer of power.
The 60-year-old had pointedly failed to publicly congratulate his successor for several weeks, finally shaking Ruto’s hand at a meeting at the presidential residence on Monday.
And Ruto’s new deputy Rigathi Gachagua took potshots at Kenyatta during the inauguration ceremony, saying the new administration had inherited a “dilapidated economy”.
Odinga, meanwhile, turned down an invitation to attend the event, charging that the election commission did not conduct a “free and fair” poll.
– ‘Forge united front’ –
Observers say Ruto faces a tough assignment building goodwill after the divisive political campaign that lasted well over a year and was peppered with acrimony and personal slander.
“This is the time to close ranks, embrace opponents and help forge a united front devoid of cheap political competition,” The Standard wrote in an editorial.
Many Kenyans had stayed away from the ballot box, with disillusionment and economic hardship blamed for the low turnout.
“Given sky-high popular expectations and an economy in dire straits, governing may well prove tougher than campaigning,” the International Crisis Group think tank warned.
Ruto, whose new presidential coat of arms bears his party symbol, the humble wheelbarrow, will get a salary of about $144,000 a year as well as all the trappings of presidential office.
His inauguration marks the end of Kenyatta’s near decade in power, and one of the rare occasions his powerful family has not been at the apex of Kenyan politics.
Already one of Kenya’s wealthiest citizens, he is entitled to a generous send-off under the constitution as he leaves office having served the maximum two terms allowed — a tax-free lump sum of $324,000 and more than $600,000 in allowances each year.