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Odinga and Ruto Face Off in Kenya

Rivals become allies as outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta backs his old nemesis in a closely fought election.

Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A man walks next to campaign posters ahead of Kenya's general election in Nairobi on Aug. 2.
A man walks next to campaign posters ahead of Kenya's general election in Nairobi on Aug. 2.
A man walks next to campaign posters ahead of Kenya's general election in Nairobi on Aug. 2. SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief. The highlights this week: Terrorists strike in Nigeria’s capital, Russia continues plundering Sudan’s gold, and South Africa turns to the private sector to avert blackouts.

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Old Rivals Unite as Kenya Votes

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief. The highlights this week: Terrorists strike in Nigeria’s capital, Russia continues plundering Sudan’s gold, and South Africa turns to the private sector to avert blackouts.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Old Rivals Unite as Kenya Votes

Kenyans will cast their ballots on Aug. 9 in what is expected to be a closely fought presidential election. Kenyan opposition leader and fifth-time contender Raila Odinga, 77, is running against Deputy President William Ruto, 55, who is vying for the presidency for the first time.

Odinga, a former prime minister, has a narrow lead according to one opinion poll by the Nairobi-based TIFA Research, with around 46.7 percent support compared with Ruto’s 44.4 percent. The top two finishers will proceed to a runoff if no one receives more than 50 percent of overall votes and at least 25 percent of the vote in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. To win, both candidates must woo as many voters as possible over the next few days. Two other candidates, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure Waihiga, polled 1.8 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively, according to TIFA.

Whoever succeeds President Uhuru Kenyatta will have to address acute drought in parts of the country, slow economic growth, and a global inflation crisis. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that inflation rose to 8.3 percent in July as food prices climbed 15.3 percent compared with last year, in large part due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Kenya’s economy has grown to be Africa’s sixth biggest, but debt has surged nearly fivefold to 67 percent of GDP since Kenyatta took office in 2013, with the International Monetary Fund having provided $2.34 billion last April in a 38-month program of arrangements that seeks to address the country’s debt vulnerabilities as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kenyatta has been at the center of the election drama. He broke a promise to back his deputy, Ruto, and has instead thrown his weight behind his onetime enemy and fiercest critic, Odinga, who ran against Kenyatta in the 2017 election.

Political observers consider Kenyatta and Ruto’s previous alliance as one of convenience. Both had been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity after being accused of fueling violence in the aftermath of the heavily disputed 2007 election, which Odinga lost to Mwai Kibaki and after which approximately 1,400 people were killed.

Odinga claimed victory as the “people’s president,” with his supporters urging election officials to recount the votes. Kenyatta—who was then a Kibaki supporter and a member of Kibaki’s incoming cabinet—was accused of having ordered an armed gang known as the Mungiki to target Luo communities, of which Odinga is a member. Charges against Kenyatta were dropped in 2014, and the case against Ruto was abandoned in 2016 due to a “troubling incidence of witness interference and intolerable political meddling.”

Today, the bitter rivalry between the two has left many Kenyans wondering how they manage to run their administration. Ruto insists he and the president are “not enemies” but “see politics differently.”

Odinga hails from one of Kenya’s wealthy political dynasties and in his campaign has positioned himself as “baba” (father) to the nation, pledging that if elected he’ll enact a monthly stipend of 6,000 Kenyan shillings ($50) for the poorest households as part of a social protection program. He has also promised affordable health care through what he termed “Baba Care.” A victory for Odinga may result in Kenya having its first female vice president. In a historic first, Odinga picked Martha Karua, a former cabinet minister and lawmaker, as his running mate.

Ruto’s campaign has been marred by corruption scandals. His running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, a career public servant, had his accounts frozen in 2020 following a request by the government’s Asset Recovery Agency. A Kenyan court last Thursday ordered Gachagua to repay 202 million shillings ($1.7 million) to the state, which the court determined were the proceeds of corruption. Gachagua’s lawyers had argued that the funds were payment for the supply of goods and services to the government, but the court ruled that explanation lacked evidence. Gachagua has said he will appeal.

Ruto, whose background is in farming, has pledged a bottom-up approach to the economy, promising to invest at least 500 billion shillings ($4.2 billion) in agriculture, which employs more than 40 percent of the country’s labor force. This would cushion some of the pain being felt by farmers as the price of fertilizer reaches record levels. Accusations of land-grabbing also follow him. In June 2013, Kenya’s High Court ordered Ruto to surrender a 100-acre farm and compensate a farmer who had accused him of seizing the land during the 2007 post-election violence. He has denied any wrongdoing.

This is an important election not just for Kenya but for all of East Africa. Lately, Kenyatta has led talks within the East African Community (EAC) to broker peace between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting a resurgent offensive by the M23 rebel movement in eastern Congo that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The EAC—a seven-nation regional bloc that includes both Congo and Rwanda—has announced a new peacekeeping force in the region, though Kinshasa is insistent that it cannot include Rwandans. Kenyatta handed over the bloc’s leadership to his Burundian counterpart, Evariste Ndayishimiye, in late July. However, a change of guard in Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa, could shape the outcome of these peacekeeping efforts.


The Week Ahead

Sunday, Aug. 7, to Tuesday, Aug. 9: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits South Africa.

Monday, Aug. 8: The U.N. Security Council holds an open debate on peace and security in Africa.

Tuesday, Aug. 9: Kenya holds elections.

Tuesday, Aug. 9, to Thursday, Aug. 11: Blinken visits the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.


What We’re Watching

Sudan protests. Thousands of protesters marched over the weekend in a continuation of weekly protests against military rule that have taken place since last year’s Oct. 25 coup. On Sunday, police fired tear gas to block protesters from reaching the road that leads to the presidential palace. At least 116 people have been killed in the ongoing protests.

Sudanese military authorities announced plans last week to appoint a new prime minister within two weeks. Meanwhile, in exchange for Russian support, Sudanese military authorities have been colluding with Moscow to smuggle gold out of the country to help fund Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to a CNN investigation.

The CNN report confirms previous reporting by the New York Times and a 2019 study by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a Washington-based nonprofit, which obtained Russian and Sudanese flight and customs records that revealed the extent of Russian profits from Sudanese gold.

Although Sudan’s government denies the Russian presence in the country, government licensing documents showed gold processing plants in Sudan’s River Nile state are owned by Meroe Gold, a company linked to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military firm.

Guinea democracy timeline. Guinea’s coup leaders have been “convinced” to accept a two-year timeline for transitioning to democracy, according to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Following a coup last September led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya, which overthrew President Alpha Condé, Guinea had proposed a three-year transition to civilian rule, which was rejected by ECOWAS.

Last week, protests organized by an opposition coalition against the junta’s three-year plan brought the capital of Conakry to a standstill, and at least one person was killed in clashes with security forces. Another protest organized by the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution—an alliance of political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations—scheduled to take place over the weekend, was called off following the violent clashes.

Terrorism reaches Nigeria’s capital. Opposition lawmakers are pushing to impeach Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari over spiraling insecurity. Attacks by armed gangs have spread from the country’s northern areas and reached the capital, Abuja. An attack by gunmen on July 22 killed eight soldiers of the elite Presidential Guards Brigade in the capital.

Last month, heavily armed men released more than 900 inmates, including more than 60 Boko Haram members, in an attack on a medium security prison on the outskirts of Abuja. Schools in Abuja have been told to close as a precaution against a booming kidnap-for-ransom business and based on intelligence reports that armed groups are planning attacks in several states.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to board his plane at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Aug. 2.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to board his plane at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Aug. 2.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to board his plane at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on Aug. 2. ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

New cold war. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda, the State Department announced Friday. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will also go to Ghana and Uganda in August.

The trips come in the wake of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s four-nation visit to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo and French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Cameroon, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau. There is ongoing backlash against French policies on the continent—which many Africans, especially in countries once ruled by France, view as neocolonial.

U.S. diplomacy is widely perceived by voters as driven by rivalry with China and Russia, which lessens the leverage Washington has over governments when it comes to human rights.

In Rwanda, Blinken is expected to bring up the detention of U.S. permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina, a critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the protagonist of the Hollywood hit Hotel Rwanda, who was sentenced to a 25-year prison term on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Blinken is also expected to mediate in the escalating dispute between Kigali and Kinshasa in eastern Congo.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Blinken to carry out a “comprehensive review” of the Rwandan government’s “continuing disregard for democratic and human rights.”


This Week in Tech

South African energy demand. The South African government is seeking private sector help in addressing the country’s rolling blackouts, thereby ending the monopoly of the state-run utility company Eskom, which supplies more than 90 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Companies will be allowed to generate and sell their own power. South Africa will also double its procurement of renewable energy this year to more than 5,000 megawatts and create incentives for owners of rooftop solar panels to sell their surplus electricity to the national grid. “The shortage of electricity is a huge constraint on economic growth and job creation,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

Eskom’s poorly maintained coal-fired plants have struggled to keep pace with demand for the past 14 years. South Africa’s National Treasury is also finalizing plans to take over a portion of Eskom’s nearly 400 billion rand ($24 billion) debt to place the firm on a sustainable path.


Chart of the Week

Surveys by Afrobarometer, a pan-African polling organization, show that 6 in 10 Kenyans experienced loss of income in their household due to the COVID-19 pandemic but far fewer reported receiving pandemic-related assistance from the government. Kenyans believe the aid was distributed unfairly.

As part of campaign promises to address the economic challenges felt by citizens, Kenya’s two main presidential contenders have pledged stipends to poor families and farm subsidies.


What We’re Reading

Nigeria-U.S. operations. An investigation by Nick Turse at the Intercept details how U.S. intelligence may have provided the information used in an airstrike carried out in 2017 by the Nigerian military that killed more than 160 civilians, the majority of whom were children, at a camp for internally displaced people in Rann, a town in Borno state in northern Nigeria.

U.S. Africa Command secretly commissioned a rare investigation into the airstrike, including how the United States shares information in supporting Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, according to documents obtained by Turse.

Russian manipulation. In Al Jazeera, Tafi Mhaka argues that countries must resist Russia’s charm offensive, following Lavrov’s four-nation tour of Africa. Russia has sought to use the West’s historic and current crimes across the continent as a tool to gain influence and obscure its own war crimes.

“Africans have every reason and right to be suspicious of the narratives pushed by the West. But this should not lead to the uncritical acceptance of Russian narratives,” he writes.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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