Late July, legislator Alice Wahome made a mockery of herself when she tried to explain an economic model that has become a campaign slogan for William Ruto, Kenya’s deputy president, ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Asked by a television show host to distinguish, in simple terms, between bottom up and trickle down, Wahome – a staunch supporter of Ruto – appeared dumbfounded and clueless. “Eerr… working from the bottom down… from up to, eerr, you know … from top to bottom,” she said.
Her response elicited sharp reactions from Kenyans who criticised politicians for taking them for a ride by championing economic models that they themselves do not understand.
In the recent past, the battle to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta has been narrowed down to economic matters, with top politicians trying to outdo each other by unveiling unique economic models, which they hope will resonate with disillusioned Kenyans.
Aside from the deputy president, other politicians who have come up with their own economic models include Raila Odinga (Orange Democratic Movement party leader); Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Democratic Movement party leader); and Musalia Mudavadi (Amani National Congress party leader).
‘Slip of the tongue’
Not wanting to put Ruto in a bad light, Wahome tweeted about the goof, terming it “a slip of the tongue” and dismissing the deputy president’s competitors as “empty talkers” who have nothing to offer Kenyans. However, the damage had already been done.
Raphael Tuju, the Jubilee Party secretary general and an ally of Kenyatta, made a tongue-in-cheek remark, questioning whether the term ‘bottom-up’ refers to a person’s backside or the economy, inferring that Wahome’s goof was proof of a dearth in knowledge about economic matters in the deputy president’s corner.
Mudavadi went further, equating Ruto’s bottom-up economic model to a greedy person who gulps the whole content of a bottle, leaving nothing for those in need. “The bottom side of the bottle goes up as one clears the content inside. It means if given a chance they will clear everything and the public will be left with nothing.”
He challenged the deputy president and his allies not to confuse Kenyans with what he terms as semantics that lack practical solutions to problems facing the economy.
In a swift rejoinder,the deputy president said the bottom-up economic model is confusing his opponents because they do not understand the needs of the poor.
“Bottom-up is focused on deliberately creating jobs; liberating enterprises from shylock-credit exploitation and unfair regulation; and empowering our resource-poor farmers to produce and free them from the slavery/indignity of relief food aid,” Ruto said.
Mudavadi, however, urges Kenyans to support his model that is known as ‘uchumi bora (better economy)’. According to the ANC party leader, ‘uchumi bora’ will focus on agriculture, entrepreneurship, public-private partnership initiatives, youth employment, industrialisation, manufacturing and innovation.
The bottom-up economic model being propagated is nothing more than a populist slogan based on voodoo economics…”
“I would love [to] have an economy where we do not use such a huge chunk of money to repay our debts. [We] must […] reorganise government programs and those which were too ambitious [should be] rearranged so that we get our priorities right,” says Mudavadi.
He has pledged to reduce value-added-tax from 16% to 12% to allow more Kenyans to have money in their pockets.
‘Made in Kenya’
Raila, on the other hand, has been pushing for the ‘made in Kenya’ initiative, which he says will focus on rural transformation by improving skills to enable the country to produce products that are competitive, both locally and internationally.
To achieve competitiveness, the former prime minister promises to establish a human resources development body that will identify skilled youth, both in urban and rural areas, organise domestic-skills competition and facilitate the best brains to compete globally.
“The end result of this deliberate policy of rural transformation that makes rural life more livable and migration to cities unnecessary […] will be the creation of functional and rich villages where people have money in their pockets and lead dignified and decent rural life in Kenya. It has been done in other countries. I believe it can be done in Kenya,” says Raila, in a document posted on his social media page.
Musyoka, Raila’s running mate in the 2017 presidential election, is not convinced with the economic models unveiled by his competitors. According to him, a 24-hour economy is what Kenya needs to prosper.
“We work 24 hours. Let us have the first group reporting at 8am and work for 8 hours then another takes over from them who will work throughout the night. This will help our economy, which has deteriorated, [to] thrive,” he says.
As a citizen, ask this question: which one of these politicians will unshackle me from huge taxes, allow me to keep most of what I make?”
Why are economic matters so important to the extent that top politicians in the country see it fit to come up with economic models? Kenya’s economic decline, which began when the first Covid-19 case was reported in the country in March 2020, has been stomach-churning.
According to a recent report released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the economy slumped into recession for the first time in almost two decades after the gross domestic product (GDP) contracted in the second and third quarters of 2020.
The contraction was caused by a severe decline in the hospitality and education sectors, and a major slowdown in manufacturing output, retail and services.
Last year, KNBS says, 1.72 million workers lost their jobs in the three months to June, when the country imposed coronavirus-induced lockdowns, prompting layoffs and the collapse of some medium and small businesses. As a result, the number of people in employment fell to 15.87 million between April and the end of June, compared to 17.59 million the previous quarter.
To finance its ballooning public expenditure, in the middle of a pandemic, the government went on a borrowing spree – both locally and internationally – pushing the public debt to a staggering KSh7tn ($63.6bn).
Recent opinion polls conducted by research organisations cite the deteriorating state of the economy as the top issue of concern for the majority of Kenyans.
Kwame Owino, CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs, cautions Kenyans not to accept everything politicians say as the gospel truth. “Before these politicians come up with whatever economic model, we should ask what […] they [see] as the problem. Two, where do they place the Constitution in this?” Owino told Citizen TV.
According to him, there are no shortcuts for any model, adding that what Kenyans are looking for is the opportunity to do business and make sure they can keep much of the money they earn. “As a citizen, ask this question: which one of these politicians will unshackle me from huge taxes, allow me to keep most of what I make?”
Populist political slogans
Dismus Mokua, a political risk analyst, argues that some of the economic models touted by politicians are nothing more than populist political slogans. He cites Venezuela as one of the countries that has been in an economic crisis for years due to populist economic policies implemented by the late President Hugo Chavez.
“For example, the bottom-up economic model being propagated is nothing more than a populist slogan based on voodoo economics because it neither addresses the country’s economic problem from the demand side nor from the supply side.”
John Charo, another political analyst, urges Kenyans to look for a candidate who is ready to tackle grand corruption head-on, tighten recurrent expenditure – both at national and county levels – and free up more money for development projects and programmes.
“We already know what is ailing us. The million-dollar question is, who has the guts to tackle them?”
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