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Those who say things say ideas are the currency of life. In that case, perhaps then, the poet John Keats should have made enough cheddar to buy back his life from tuberculosis when he developed the idea of negative capability, or what is often described as a sense of confusion and the freedom to live in uncertainty. In other words, holding two opposing thoughts without declaring one as the truth with a capital T. The two truths are contranyms; they cannot both exist and both be facts. And yet somehow the work supports them both, refusing to let either idea be diminished in favour of the other. Life is both meaningful and meaningless. A great artist can be a terrible human being. Every revolution ends the instant it begins. President Ruto’s two conflicting truths are these: that he both is and is not a hustler. A beauty of contrast, of failure even. 

When John Keats died some 200 years ago on 23 February 1821, he was just 25 years old. In other words, he was at the apogee of his youth, a proper Gen Z in today’s modern-day Kenya. Keats’s negative capability was about the ability to resist explaining away what we do not understand – to sit in that doubt, instead of using, say, Occam’s razor to get to the simplest answer. It is to probe the issue and understand it more. Like, how can Ruto, the son of a nobody, which rendered him a nobody, work hard to become a somebody and now having reached the zenith of everybody’s dream, not give a damn about anybody? Mr Ruto, a certain kind of man who likes certain kinds of things, is now a big boy; he was not invited to the table by the “dynasties” – the Odingas and Kenyattas and Mois – so he “made” enough money to buy a seat, but even then, it feels fake, like that office employee who joins your table at lunch and suddenly everybody hana stori. Not that that bothers Ruto. If you listen to what he is not saying, he seems to say, I don’t care what you think of me; I don’t think about you at all. But the subtext – and often the text – is that he, himself, is not a particularly trustworthy person.

Except Ruto’s presidency looks less like a dynasty than a castle built on sand. He appears a man more imprisoned by past glory than inspired by it; the substance of his hustler revolution has quickly gained defectors. When his dream came true, he adopted the look of an ideologically conscious intelligent man who went to prison and had a reverse Damascene conversion, turning from Paul to Saul. His hustlers became his hustle. Because it is on the back of the nobodies that Ruto became a somebody. The story, is, of course, writ trite and banal: the pauper who became a president, the hustler who won against the house, the chicken seller who became cock of the walk. He was born without a silver spoon in his mouth, in that part of Kenya where people put a silver tooth, a mwananchi who became a mwenyenchi, a testimony to hustlers worldwide that even if you don’t make it into the bourgeois, you can, at the very least make it out of the ghetto. After all, he made a name with nothing to his name. So, to make his doctrine easier to swallow, Ruto bedded the church, castrating it, a rocky marriage in which the only sensible solution is a nice murder-suicide. Critics should be transparent about their biases, so let me confess to one: I am sceptical about those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their desires. I don’t use the word “guilt” when I try to put my finger on what has kept the church and Ruto together; but I am not using the word “love”. 

A former Christian Union leader, Ruto is known for his devotion to the bible, at one time even telling the hustlers that “nitawashtaki kwa Mungu”, the subtext being that he and God are tight, ni ma-boyz, besties. Ruto has put the church right where the devil wants it – ameleta siasa kanisani; no one knows where the politician ends and where the pastor begins. It’s the same church that has recently been at odds with its heavenly and earthly masters, the former offering eternal life, the latter building heaven on earth. Is it a wonder then why young people are defecting from religious institutions? Ruto is Caesar and the Church has chosen Caesar over God. But is Ruto a good man who does bad things or a bad man who (occasionally) knows the right thing to do – and still doesn’t do it? This is after all the same man who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2011 on charges of stoking violence in the December 2007 general election that left more than 1,000 people dead and forced 600,000 from their homes in Kenya. The case collapsed in 2016 but rather than acquittal, the ICC vacated the charges and discharged the accused. 

It is possible to see where Mr Ruto got the pompous personality, the hoodwinking, the intolerance. His governing aesthetic is what I’d term “Cheki, ni me nakushow.” He, after all, got his political mis/education from the late President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, a dictator who said Kanu would rule for 100 years (it’s been 61 now). Moi was president when the parents of Gen Zs were in their 20s, when Ruto was in his 20s, and when Ruto was a Gen Z. Moi himself was said to be hyper-religious, an AIC faithful, waking up at 5 a.m. to pray and read the Bible. Ruto, falling at the base of the apple tree, is presumably a devout man of God, a teetotaller, waking up at 4 a.m. to pray, a behaviour that became a habit from his days as the Christian Union leader at the University of Nairobi sometime between 1986 and 1990. Moi used the church, Ruto weaponised it. The devil here was not in the detail but in the design.

Here’s the problem though: Ruto has completely misjudged his shrewdness. What is it Bob Marley said? You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Ruto, whose appetite for taxes only rivals his hunger for travel is finally meeting the resistance that has been brewing. It is only fair that as the first baddie president, on account of all his domestic and international trips, that this revolution would be led by actual baddies and Gen Zs. He has ended the soft girl era and ushered baddies into their #maandamanz era.

Mr Ruto, whose speeches smack of delulu and populism, and “kuja tu hatuezi kosana”, doesn’t seem to know what he wants. It sometimes seems like he doesn’t believe he is president; it sounds like what kids do when they’re trying to figure it out before they get a real job. He doesn’t have a stand – he runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds. He is a pan-Africanist who is the West’s buddy. He is the king of doublespeak, the prince of alternative facts, a proper Don Juan, who says what you want to hear. He wants to tighten the belt, while wearing one worth over 425K. This is nothing new, of course; it’s the code of the oppressed: when you can’t enjoy true freedom, you surround yourself with the symbols of that freedom. Luxury SUVs. Bvlgari watches. Italian shoes. This is the reason the cars and the watch and the shoes are important. They are the status symbols. It’s not the shoe, it’s what it represents. That he made it. His hustler shtick is the stick Ruto has used to beat everybody into line. Sometimes it feels like he became president to live his wildest dreams. “We elected hustlers, only we are the hustle,” someone’s daughter says to me. But if indeed he is a Christian, perhaps it is important to turn to the scriptures and point Mr Ruto to the little-known Prophet Nehemiah who said that, “Because of the fear of God”, he even refused to tax the people to pay for his personal expenses, unlike his predecessors (Neh. 5:14-16).

Ruto’s pledge was a bottom-up government, and in that, he wasn’t lying. Things are currently, topsy-turvy, upside down. His advisors can’t read the room, his hound dogs donate (buy?) millions to the church every weekend, yet he inherited a “dilapidated government and empty coffers”. If Moi was Solomon, then Ruto is Rehoboam, Solomon’s son: “My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions!” Tax the poor so the rich can spend. Don’t stop there, borrow more to fund the office of the president. And the deputy president. And the office of the spouse of the deputy president, and the office of the spouse of the president, and the office of the spouse of the Prime Cabinet Secretary – whom no one voted for. (If that doesn’t convince you that marriage works, nothing will.) Welcome to your new cheap communist world. Your Kenyan Chinese experience. We are saddled with debt but what do we do? We borrow more money to pay it off. We dig holes to cover other holes. We are robbing Xi to pay Li. Hustlernomics. 

Thus, in a bid to feng shui the country, the people revolted à la the French Revolution and the Arab Spring. Revolutions are, however, watered with blood, and this one is no different. As at the time of writing, two people had died in the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protest: Rex Kanyike, 29, was shot dead by the police Evans Kiratu, allegedly struck by a teargas canister in his groin during the protests, passed away on Friday, 21 June. Many more have been injured, while others have been abducted, in a case of killing the chickens to scare the monkeys. Still, the baddies persist. More protests planned. #OccupyTheChurch #OccupyTheStreets #OccupyParliament

“Ametuzoea Ruto,” chants ring in the air. Punda amechoka. The people have refused to be the understanding girlfriend. “He ignored the whispers; now he has to hear the screams,” the placards accuse. Shrewd is a word that is frequently associated with Ruto; empathy is not.

Like Moi, Ruto has hardened his heart. In 1982, Moi amended the constitution and made Kenya a one-party state. That year, protests were supporting an attempted coup against Moi. In 1990, the nation descended into further protests, forcing Moi’s hand to acquiesce to multiparty politics in 1991 following pressure from the public, civil society, religious groups, and of course, western donors. In 1992, mothers of political prisoners held an 11-month hunger strike in Nairobi to demand the release of their sons. The mothers set up camp in the Uhuru (Freedom) Park which is located across from the infamous “Nyayo House Torture Chambers”, a stone’s throw away from Parliament. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, on 3 March 1992, the Moi government decided to forcibly disperse the demonstrators. Government police forces beat protesters with batons, fired gunshots in the air, and hurled teargas into the tent where protesters were gathered. To ward off the police, two of the protesting mothers stripped naked and dared the police to kill them. They shouted, “What kind of government is this that beats women! Kill us! Kill us now! We shall die with our children!”

In a Rumor of War, Phillip Caputo writes, “Every generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”

And if the first lesson of history is that history repeats itself, the second is that each generation ends up living the life of the one before. So it has proved. Thrity-two years later, the children and grandchildren of that generation are fighting their own war. Now, as then, the stakes are high.

Ruto, meanwhile, sits pretty in churches, oblivious. The church can’t (won’t?) speak, not with all that meat in its mouth. Like Emperor Nero, President Ruto fiddles while Kenya burns, and he says, well, at least the sky is not on fire. And in this instance, he becomes the very thing he has worked all his life to escape, the realisation that a president is still a normal person, or maybe worse, merely ordinary.

What feels certain is that something will break here, something will end here, one way or the other. The pressure is simply too high, the stakes too irredeemable, the margins of error too fine. After helping Ruto build his dynasty, the hustlers now want to be the ones to tear it down. It is the Latin who famously said, vox populi, vox dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God. If indeed he is a Christian, why then, wouldn’t Ruto, a devout believer, listen to God?