William Ruto promised to work for all Kenyans after he was sworn in as president in a pompous ceremony on Tuesday, five weeks after his narrow victory in a hard-fought but largely peaceful election.
Tens of thousands of people joined regional heads of state in a packed stadium in Nairobi to watch him take the oath, with many spectators dressed in the bright yellow of Ruto’s party, cheering loudly and waving Kenyan flags.
“I will work with all Kenyans, regardless of who they voted for,” the 55-year-old said in his inaugural speech, announcing a series of measures to address the country’s economic woes.
“In the process, we have demonstrated the maturity of our democracy, the strength of our institutions and the resilience of the Kenyan people.”
He described being sworn 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, backed by former president Uhuru Kenyatta, by less than two percentage points in the August 9 poll.
But on September 5, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld his victory, rejecting his opponents’ claims of fraud and mismanagement.
The wealthy businessman, who once sold chickens on the side of the road, faced a difficult task as the country was hit by a deep cost of living crisis, youth unemployment and a severe drought.
– “The Dawn of the Ruto Era” –
African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat, who attended the ceremony, hailed the peaceful transfer of power in a message on Twitter, saying it was “a strong sign of the country’s political maturity”.
The international community has closely watched the rise of the self-proclaimed “crook-in-chief” who sees Kenya as a robust and stable democracy in the restive region.
“Dawn of the Root era,” blared the front-page headline in the Standard, while the Star said: “Time for Root.”
Several people were injured earlier when the crowd tried to break into the stadium. Television footage showed dozens of people falling on top of each other in a stampede at one entrance gate.
Foreign allies and independent observers praised the vote, which was largely 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 struck a deal with his long-time rival Odinga in 2018 and sidelined his deputy Ruto, has promised a smooth transition.
The 60-year-old has been unable to publicly congratulate his successor for weeks, finally shaking Ruto’s hand at a meeting at the presidential residence on Monday.
And Ruto’s new deputy Rigati Gachagua blasted Kenyatta during the inauguration ceremony, saying the new administration had inherited a “broken economy”.
Meanwhile, Odinga declined an invitation to attend the event, accusing the Electoral Commission of failing to conduct a “free and fair” poll.
– “Forge a united front” –
Observers say Ruto faces an uphill task to build goodwill after a divisive political campaign that has lasted more than a year and has been filled with acrimony and personal vilification.
“It is time to close ranks, embrace opponents and help create a united front free from cheap political competition,” The Standard wrote in an editorial.
Many Kenyans stayed away from the ballot box, citing frustration and economic hardship as the reason for the low turnout.
“Given the sky-high expectations of the population and the economy in a difficult situation, governance may well turn out to be tougher than campaigning,” the International Crisis Group think tank warns.
Ruto, whose new presidential coat of arms features the party’s symbol, a humble wheelbarrow, will receive a salary of about $144,000 a year and all the trappings of the presidency.
His inauguration marks the end of Kenyatta’s nearly decade in power, and one of the rare times his powerful family has not been at the top of Kenyan politics.
Already one of Kenya’s richest citizens, he is entitled to a generous severance package under the constitution when he leaves office after serving the maximum two terms allowed — a tax-free lump sum of $324,000 and more than $600,000 in bonuses each year .