NAIROBI, Kenya – William Ruto was sworn as Kenya’s fifth president on Tuesday, taking the helm a week after the country’s top court threw out petitions challenging his victory.
Ruto replaces Uhuru Kenyatta, whom he served as deputy since 2013, and will have to tackle a surge in food and fuel prices, high unemployment and rising public debt used to finance development over the past 10 years under his predecessor.
The 55-year-old Ruto had been the deputy to outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta but had a bitter split 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. “A village boy has become the president of Kenya,” Ruto said in his speech.
In his first tweet as president, the evangelical Christian quoted Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” His speech praised both the church and Islamic leadership, and he vowed that “we will enhance our partnership, build on our collaboration and enhance our support to them.”
The event began with some chaos. Scores of people were crushed and injured as they forced their way into the packed stadium. Medic Peter Muiruri said a fence fell as people pushed it and about 60 were injured, though the number may rise.
People tried to dodge baton-wielding security forces. Some failed. “I was beaten by the police after trying to get inside,” said a witness, Benson Kimutai.
Ruto takes power in a country heavily burdened by debt that will challenge his efforts to fulfill sweeping campaign promises made to Kenya’s poor, whom he has described as getting by on “stubborn hope.” In his speech, he acknowledged that “clearly, we are living beyond our means.”
He promised cheaper fertilizer as food prices rise and more affordable credit. He also vowed more money for the judiciary, financial independence for the national police from the presidency and efforts to fight a drought in Kenya’s north that brings the threat of famine.
Ruto’s campaign 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. “I will work with all Kenyans irrespective of who they voted for,” he said in his speech.