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Kenya's President William Ruto stands as the Kenyan national anthem is played during his swearing-in ceremony at Moi International Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sept. 13.BAZ RATNER/Reuters

Even as huge crowds cheered for William Ruto in his victorious campaign for Kenya’s presidency, his name was still quietly haunting the hallways of a more solemn place: the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Mr. Ruto, who was sworn into office as Kenya’s president on Tuesday, is vowing to launch a crackdown on corruption within his first 100 days in office. But his own history of murky transactions, including bribery allegations that emerged at The Hague this year, has raised questions about his promises of reform.

Widespread corruption has plagued Kenya, the economic hub of East Africa, for decades. It costs the country about $8-billion in lost state revenue annually, according to former president Uhuru Kenyatta, whose term ended on Tuesday. Despite Mr. Ruto’s pledges of action, the perception of corruption is one of the clouds that have followed him for years, leaving many Kenyans worried about his rule.

Mr. Ruto, a 55-year-old former deputy president, campaigned as a charismatic populist who would help Kenya’s poor and unemployed – the “Hustler Nation,” as he called them. In recent years, however, he has become one of Kenya’s wealthiest men, with vast land and business holdings.

Kenyan court rejects vote-rigging claims, upholds Ruto victory in presidential election

At the International Criminal Court, in a trial that began in February, a Kenyan lawyer named Paul Gicheru was accused of corruptly influencing witnesses to ensure that Mr. Ruto and a co-defendant would escape conviction for alleged crimes against humanity. Witnesses testified that Mr. Gicheru and others had offered them cash and other gifts, to be provided by Mr. Ruto and his associates, if they abandoned their testimony against Mr. Ruto.

The new president was one of six Kenyans, including Mr. Kenyatta, who were charged at The Hague in 2010 for their alleged role in inciting violence after the disputed 2007 election. An estimated 1,500 people were killed in the postelection violence, and up to 600,000 were forced to flee their homes. But the charges at the international court were eventually suspended or withdrawn when witnesses mysteriously changed their stories. The reversals led to the witness-tampering charges against Mr. Gicheru.

Several witnesses testified that they were offered bribes if they declined to give evidence against Mr. Ruto. One said he was told that the bribe money was provided by the “Big Man” – whom he understood to be Mr. Ruto. Others made similar statements.

Defence lawyers argued that the evidence against Mr. Gicheru was merely “lies, hearsay and unsubstantiated claims by grifters, opportunists, con-artists and confabulators.” The court has not yet rendered its verdict in the Gicheru case, and Mr. Ruto himself has not been charged in the case – although the original indictment against him for inciting violence was never completely dropped and can be revived in the future.

The testimony in The Hague is just one example of the corruption allegations that have often swirled around Mr. Ruto. Dozens of his political allies have faced corruption accusations. His running mate, the new deputy president Rigathi Gachagua, was ordered by a Kenyan court in July to repay the equivalent of $2.2-million to the state after the court determined that the money was the proceeds of corruption. He is appealing the conviction.

Mr. Ruto became one of Kenya’s richest men during his long political career, including his nine years as deputy president, and the sources of his wealth are still unclear. Last month, the Kenyan government published a partial list of Mr. Ruto’s assets: cattle and poultry farms, a natural gas company, a helicopter company, several private residences, thousands of hectares of land, and two luxury hotels in Nairobi and Mombasa – all guarded by government-paid security officers.

Despite his wealth, Mr. Ruto boasts of his childhood on a village farm, where he raised cattle and sheep and sold chickens on the roadside. “A village boy has become the president of Kenya,” he told a celebrating crowd of more than 60,000 people at his inauguration ceremony in a sports stadium on Tuesday.

On the campaign trail, he portrayed himself as a “hustler” – an underdog who made good. His campaign vehicle carried the slogan “Every Hustle Matters.” His campaign emblem was a wheelbarrow, a symbol of low-income farmers and workers. He criticized Kenya’s “dynasties” – a reference to Mr. Kenyatta and rival candidate Raila Odinga, both of whom are the sons of prominent Kenyan leaders.

In reality, however, Mr. Ruto is himself a long-standing member of the Kenyan political elite, accustomed to power and ruthless tactics. He began his career in the early 1990s as an ally of Daniel arap Moi, the long-ruling president who was notorious for jailing dissidents.

In 2010, Mr. Ruto worked with Christian evangelical leaders to oppose Kenya’s new constitution. During the latest election campaign, he threatened to deport Chinese migrants. On Tuesday, he sparked controversy by restricting Kenyan television access to his inauguration ceremony, raising concern about his frequent feuding with the media.

Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah says there is a danger that Kenya could slide into authoritarianism under Mr. Ruto.

“He is an extremely ambitious person,” she told a panel discussion this month. “He’ll hold on to power, no matter what.”

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