William Ruto, who once sold chickens on the roadside, now faces a daunting task to steer a polarised country gripped by a cost-of-living crisis and punishing drought.

Tens of thousands of people joined regional heads of state at a packed stadium in Nairobi to watch Ruto take the oath of office.
Tens of thousands of people joined regional heads of state at a packed stadium in Nairobi to watch Ruto take the oath of office. (Reuters)

William Ruto has been sworn in as Kenya's president after narrowly winning the August 9 election in East Africa’s most stable democracy. 

The Supreme Court last week rejected a challenge by losing candidate and longtime opposition figure Raila Odinga to the official results, completing a markedly peaceful election on Tuesday. 

The 55-year-old Ruto had been the deputy to outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta but had a bitter split with Kenyatta that left the two not speaking for months at a time. 

On Tuesday, the audience cheered as the two shook hands, and again as Kenyatta handed over the instruments of power.

Ruto, who had dropped to his knees in tears and prayer when the court upheld his win, knelt on the stage minutes after his swearing-in during an extended sermon. 

“A chicken seller to a president,” intoned the pastor, highlighting Ruto's humble youth.

Ruto's first tweet quoted Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

The event began with some chaos. Scores of people were crushed and injured as they forced their way into the packed stadium. A medic said a fence fell down after people pushed it and about 60 were injured, though the number may rise.

READ MORE: Kenya's Supreme Court upholds Ruto win in presidential vote

Economic challenges

Ruto is taking power in a country heavily burdened by debt that will challenge his efforts to fulfil sweeping campaign promises made to Kenya’s poor.

With the transition, Kenya’s presidency moves from one leader indicted by the International Criminal Court to another. 

Both Kenyatta and Ruto were indicted over their roles in deadly 2007 post-election violence, but the cases were later closed amid allegations of witness intimidation.

The August election was calm in a country with a history of political violence. Chaos erupted only in the final minutes when the electoral commission publicly split and prominent Odinga supporters tried to physically stop the declaration of Ruto as the winner.

Humble background

Ruto’s campaign had portrayed him as a “hustler” with a humble background of going barefoot and selling chickens by the roadside, a counterpoint to the political dynasties represented by Kenyatta and Odinga. His presidential flag features a wheelbarrow, the symbol of his campaign.

But Ruto received powerful political mentoring as a young man from former President Daniel arap Moi, who oversaw a one-party state for years before Kenyans successfully pushed for multiparty elections.

Ruto now speaks of democracy and has vowed there will be no retaliation against dissenting voices.

The losing candidate, the 77-year-old Odinga, is setting himself up to be a prominent one. In a statement on Monday, he said he would skip the inauguration and later will “announce next steps as we seek to deepen and strengthen our democracy.”

Though Odinga also asserted that “the outcome of the election remains indeterminate,” a spokesman said it was “highly unlikely” he would seek to declare himself the “people’s president” as he did after losing the 2017 election.

READ MORE: Ruto urges court to throw out rival's petition against Kenya poll results

Source: AP