From Barefoot Student to Power Broker: William Ruto Is Declared Kenya’s President

SAMBUT, Kenya — William Ruto spent his childhood on a plot of family land down an unpaved, narrow road in a quiet village in the Rift Valley, where he tended cows and helped till the field for maize and cabbage.

But these days, Mr. Ruto, vice president of Kenya for close to a decade, wakes up in a giant mansion in a leafy suburb in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where he holds meetings before flying, as he did on a recent morning, on a helicopter parked close to a covered pool.

On Monday, the head of the electoral commission declared Mr. Ruto, 55, Kenya’s next president, but a majority of the commissioners refused to sign off on the count, citing a lack of transparency. The campaign of Mr. Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, alleged that the count had been “hacked,” signaling that they would challenge the result in court.

Mr. Ruto’s campaign was a repeated appeal to Kenya’s “hustlers” — the youthful strivers who find themselves underemployed or unemployed and are itching to better themselves.

His political rise almost came to an end followingthe bloody and contested 2007 elections. The International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity, accusing him of whipping up violence that left more than 1,200 dead and 600,000 others displaced. The charges included murder, persecution and forcing people to leave their homes.

But the case against him collapsed in 2016, as the government he served as vice president hampered evidence collection and engaged in what the court said was “witness interference and political meddling.”

Mr. Ruto on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2013.Credit…Michael Kooren/Reuters

Mr. Ruto was born in Sambut village, a lush backwater about 12 miles northwest of Eldoret town in Uasin Gishu County. He raised sheep and cows, hunted rabbits with friends and attended school barefoot.

His parents, strict Protestants who were leaders in the local African Inland Church, shaped his faith, pushing him to regularly participate in church activities and sing in the choir. From early on, Mr. Ruto showed his ambition, classmates, neighbors and friends said in interviews. He also stood up for them against bullies from other villages, they said.

A Ruto campaign billboard in Eldoret, near his hometown, featured an appeal to Kenya’s “hustlers.”Credit…Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The group that he was in always won the classroom debate,” said Esther Cherobon, who was his deskmate for four years. When a teacher threatened to cane the students for not knowing the answer to a math problem, “William almost always saved us,” she said.

Growing up, Mr. Ruto pleaded with his parents to give him a small patch of their land to plant maize, his friends said. He sold chickens to make money long after his friends stopped doing so, after finishing high school. During his presidential run, Mr. Ruto tapped into this back story, presenting himself as one of the “hustler” Kenyans born into poverty.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Ruto left to study botany and zoology at the University of Nairobi. Friends said they began noticing his focus on politics.

In 1997, he challenged Reuben Chesire for the parliamentary seat of the Eldoret North constituency. Mr. Chesire had been a lawmaker, a powerful leader in the ruling party and a political stalwart of then-president Daniel arap Moi. But Mr. Ruto took a gamble and rallied his friends to crisscross the constituency on his behalf — and won.

For all of Mr. Ruto’s political success, his home village remains underdeveloped more than a quarter century after he joined the government. Many there struggle to make ends meet, trading livestock or working as motorcycle taxi drivers.

While Mr. Ruto has made some contributions to a school here or a church fund-raiser there, villagers said, the roads in the area are largely unpaved and many residents live in mud houses with no proper toilets.

Mr. Ruto, by contrast, has constructed a brick house with a lush garden on his family’s compound and mounted a solar panel on the roof.

Many of Mr. Ruto’sclassmates hope his win will bring change.

“He sold chicken and lived like us,” said his close childhood friend and classmate, Clement Kipkoech Kosgei. “Maybe he will bring change now.”

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