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Ruto to be sworn in as Kenya's president after divisive poll

Crowds gathered before dawn at the Nairobi stadium for the swearing-in of William Ruto. ©AFP

Nairobi (AFP) - Tens of thousands of spectators packed a Nairobi stadium on Tuesday to watch William Ruto being sworn in as Kenya's president after his narrow victory in a bitterly fought but largely peaceful election.

Several people were injured as crowds tried to force their way into the site, with television footage showing dozens of people falling on top of each other in a crush at one entrance gate.

Police have told Kenyans to watch proceedings from home after the 60,000-seat stadium was filled before dawn, with many spectators clad in the bright yellow of Ruto's party and waving Kenyan flags.

About 20 heads of state and government are expected to attend the ceremony, with Ruto by law obligated to take the oath of office by 2:00 pm (1100 GMT), five weeks to the day since the August 9 election.

"Dawn of Ruto era," trumpeted the frontpage headline in The Standard newspaper, while the Star said: "Time for Ruto." 

A notoriously ambitious politician who has been deputy president since 2013, Ruto beat his rival Raila Odinga -- who had been backed by outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta -- by less than two percentage points.

He now faces a daunting task to steer a polarised country gripped by a cost-of-living crisis and punishing drought, say analysts.

The 55-year-old rags-to-riches businessman who once sold chickens on the roadside will become the fifth president in Kenya's post-independence history.

His rise to State House has been closely watched by the international community, which depends on Kenya as a reliable and stable democratic partner in a turbulent region.

'Hand of brotherhood'

Foreign allies and independent observers praised the conduct of the vote, which was largely peaceful and free of the violence that has marred past elections in the country of 50 million people.

Ruto won by only around 200,000 votes out of 14 million but the Supreme Court on September 5 upheld his victory, dismissing his opponents' claims of fraud and mismanagement.

Outgoing head of state Kenyatta, who in a stunning turn of events had backed his longtime arch-rival Odinga in the election race, has promised a smooth transfer of power.

Kenyatta finally shook hands with Ruto at a meeting at the presidential residence on Monday after pointedly failing to publicly congratulate his deputy for several weeks.

Ruto has struck a conciliatory tone, extending a "hand of brotherhood" to his rivals and their supporters.

"We are not enemies.We are Kenyans," Ruto said after the court's decision.

But observers say he faces a tough assignment building goodwill after a divisive and expensive political campaign that lasted well over a year and was peppered with acrimony and personal slander.

"This is the time to close ranks, embrace opponents and help forge a united front devoid of cheap political competition," The Standard wrote in an editorial.

Many ordinary Kenyans stayed away from the ballot box, with disillusionment particularly among the youth and economic hardship blamed for the low turnout.

The East African political and economic powerhouse is reeling from a once-in-a-generation drought and inflation is at five-year highs. 

Generous send-off

Ruto said Sunday that Kenya was "in a deep economic hole" and repeated his pledge to lower the cost of living as a priority upon taking office.

From humble beginnings, the multi-millionaire cast himself as a champion for the downtrodden during his campaign, vowing to create jobs and tackle a cost-of-living crisis.

Among his ambitious promises was the creation of a 50-billion shilling ($415 million) "hustler fund" to provide loans to small businesses, and a commitment to bring down prices for fuel, grain and fertiliser.

The task to turn around the economic fortunes of the country may not be easy, the International Crisis Group think tank said, urging Ruto to quickly address the challenges.

"Given sky-high popular expectations and an economy in dire straits, governing may well prove tougher than campaigning," it said.

Ruto's inauguration marks the end of Kenyatta's nearly decade in power, and one of the rare occasions his powerful family has not been at the apex of Kenyan politics.

Already one of Kenya's wealthiest citizens, the outgoing president will receive a generous send-off under Kenya's constitution as he leaves office having served two terms, the maximum allowed by law. 

The 60-year-old will receive a tax-free lump sum of $324,000 and more than $600,000 in allowances every year.

Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta, will also have access to fully furnished offices, dozens of aides, VIP security and new cars of his choice, replaced every three years. 

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