NAIROBI, Kenya — William Ruta was sworn in as Kenya’s president on Tuesday after narrowly winning an August 9 election in East Africa’s most stable democracy and quickly made it clear that his leadership would be firmly Christian.
The Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal, voiding the official results of candidate and longtime opposition figure Raila Odinga, ending a remarkably peaceful election in a country with a troubled history.
Ruta, 55, was outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s deputy but had an acrimonious rift with Kenyatta that saw them not speak for months at a time. On Tuesday, the audience cheered when the two shook hands and again when Kenyatta handed over the instruments of power.
Ruto, who fell to his knees in tears and prayers as the court upheld his victory, knelt on stage moments after being sworn in during a lengthy sermon. “Chicken seller to the president,” the pastor said, emphasizing Ruto’s humble youth.
Ruth’s first tweet quoted the Psalms: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let’s rejoice and be happy in it.” In his speech, he praised both the church and the Islamic leadership and promised that “we will strengthen our partnership, build our cooperation and increase our support for them.”
The event began with some chaos. Scores of people were crushed and injured as they stormed the packed stadium. A medic said the fence collapsed after people pushed it, and about 60 people were injured, though the number could rise.
“We had to treat some with minor injuries. Most of them were rushed to the main hospital in Nairobi,” said medic Peter Muiruri.
People tried to evade the batons of the security forces. Some did not succeed. “I was beaten by the police after I tried to get inside,” said witness Benson Kimutai.
Ruta takes power in a debt-ridden country that will challenge his efforts to deliver on sweeping campaign promises to Kenya’s poor, which he described as dealing with “stubborn hope”. In his speech, he admitted that “it is obvious that we live beyond our means.”
He promised cheaper fertilizer as food prices rise and more affordable credit. He also promised more money for the judiciary, financial independence of the national police from the presidency and efforts to combat drought in northern Kenya, which threatens famine.
Ruto also asked Kenyatta to continue to “chair the discussions” on regional crises in neighboring Ethiopia, where the government is battling forces in Tigray, and in eastern Congo, where there are tensions with Rwanda. Kenyatta accepted, the new president said.
Syed Abdul Azim / AP
With the transition, Kenya’s presidency goes from one leader indicted by the International Criminal Court to another. Both Kenyatta and Ruta were charged over their roles in the deadly 2007 post-election violence, but the cases were later dropped amid allegations of witness intimidation.
The August election was peaceful in a country with a history of political violence. Chaos only erupted in the final minutes, when the electoral commission publicly split and prominent Odinga supporters tried to physically stop Ruto from being declared the winner.
Ruto’s election campaign portrayed him as a “fraudster” with a modest background of walking barefoot and selling chicks on the side of the road, a counterpoint to the political dynasties represented by Kenyatta and Odinga. His presidential flag features a wheelbarrow, the symbol of his campaign.
“A village boy became the president of Kenya,” he said on Tuesday.
But in his youth, Ruto received strong political mentoring from former president Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled a one-party state for years before Kenyans successfully pushed for multi-party elections.
Ruto is now talking about democracy and has vowed that there will be no retaliation against dissenting voices. “I will work with all Kenyans regardless of who they voted for,” he said in his speech.
But in a warning to the media, local broadcasters accused by Ruto of bias in the past were restricted from covering the inauguration and forced to use a feed from a South African broadcaster in which Kenya’s national broadcaster has a stake.
The losing candidate, Odinga, 77, is set to once again be a prominent voice of the opposition after being endorsed in the election by former rival Kenyatta. In a statement on Monday, he said he would skip the inauguration and later “announce the next steps as we seek to deepen and strengthen our democracy.”
Although Odinga also said the “outcome of the election remains uncertain,” 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.