SAMBUT, Kenya – William Ruto spent his childhood on a plot of family land down a narrow, unpaved road in a quiet Rift Valley village, where he tended cows and helped cultivate the field of maize and cabbage.
But these days Mr Ruto, Kenya’s vice president for nearly a decade, is waking up in a giant mansion in a leafy suburb of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where he is holding meetings before flying away, as he did one recent morning, on a helicopter parked near an indoor swimming pool.
On Monday, the head of the electoral commission declared Mr Ruto, 55, Kenya’s next president, but a majority of commissioners refused to sign off on the tally, citing a lack of transparency. Mr Ruto’s opponent Raila Odinga’s campaign alleged the tally had been ‘hacked’, signaling they would challenge the result in court.
Mr Ruto’s campaign has been a repeated appeal to Kenya’s ‘scammers’ – young activists who find themselves underemployed or unemployed and eager to improve.
His political rise nearly came to a halt after the bloody and disputed elections of 2007. The International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity, accusing him of stoking violence that left more than 1,200 people dead and 600,000 others displaced. The charges included murder, persecution, and forcing people to leave their homes.
But the case against him collapsed in 2016, when the government he occupied as vice-president obstructed the collection of evidence and engaged in what the court said was “witness interference and political interference”.
Mr Ruto was born in the village of Sambut, a lush backwater about 20 km northwest of Eldoret town in Uasin Gishu county. He raised sheep and cows, hunted rabbits with friends and went to school barefoot.
His parents, strict Protestants who were local church leaders from the African interior, shaped his faith, pushing him to attend church activities regularly and sing in the choir. From the start, Mr. Ruto showed his ambition, classmates, neighbors and friends said in interviews. He also defended them against bullies from other villages, they said.
“The group he was in always won the class debate,” said Esther Cherobon, who was his teammate for four years. When a teacher threatened to hit students for not knowing the answer to a math problem, “William almost always saved us,” she said.
Growing up, Mr Ruto begged his parents to give him a small plot of land to plant corn, his friends said. He sold chickens to make money long after his friends stopped doing so after he graduated from high school. During his presidential run, Mr Ruto tapped into this back story, portraying himself as one of the “scammer” Kenyans born into poverty.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Ruto left to study botany and zoology at the University of Nairobi. Friends said they began to notice his focus on politics.
In 1997 he challenged Reuben Chesire for the Eldoret North constituency parliamentary seat. Mr. Chesire had been a lawmaker, a powerful leader of the ruling party and a political pillar of the then president. Daniel arap Me. But Mr Ruto took a gamble and rallied his friends to criss-cross the constituency on his behalf – and won.
Despite all of Mr. Ruto’s political successes, his native village remains underdeveloped more than a quarter of a century after he entered government. Many struggle to make ends meet, selling livestock or working as motorbike taxi drivers.
Although Mr. Ruto has made contributions to a school here or a fundraiser for a church there, villagers said, roads in the area are largely unpaved and many residents live in slums. mud houses without proper toilets.
Mr. Ruto, on the other hand, built a brick house with a lush garden on his family’s land and installed a solar panel on the roof.
Lots of Mr. Ruto classmates hope his victory will bring change.
“He sold chicken and lived like us,” said his close childhood friend and classmate, Clement Kipkoech Kosgei. “Maybe he will bring the change now.”