Kenya: President Kenyatta’s reshuffle weakens Ruto’s men in cabinet

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Friday, 8 October 2021 19:15

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks during a joint statement with Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan at the State House, in Nairobi
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta at the State House, in Nairobi, Kenya, May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

With only 10 months until the end of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency, his final days are mired in mystery. This is a man who has left no doubt of his derision for his deputy William Ruto. But what kind of statement was he making through his recent changes to the cabinet?

It’s a common tradition for the president to put his most trusted persons in ministries that he considers crucial for his legacy.

There are currently 21 ministries in the Kenyan government, each headed by a cabinet secretary (CS). Within these ministries are different state departments led by principal secretaries (PSs), who are accounting officers charged with tracking implementation of funds allocated to their dockets. Each state department is allocated an annual budget based on the cost of programmes under it.

Over the years, ministries have built their reputation based on the size of their budget and the importance of state agencies under them. For the current financial year ending June 2022, the Kenyan government has set out to spend KSh3.6tn ($33m).

Lost bromance

Had this been any year between 2013 and 2018, the president would have only made the changes upon consulting Ruto, perhaps even read out the changes beside him. The naming of the first cabinet in 2013 was so choreographed, to the point that Kenyatta and Ruto appeared in matching ties and shirts to address the nation, with a list of their vision bearers in the name of a cabinet. That image is no longer visible.

This time round, the president assigned the statehouse spokesperson, Kanze Dena, to make the announcement to the media.

“The presidential action […] introduces functional changes…changes that shall make the relevant ministries and state departments more efficient and better able to deliver superlative services to the public,” said Dena.

Government changes

On 29 September, Kenyatta made changes to the cabinet, moving some members to other ministries, while stripping others of their portfolio sizes. Charles Keter, who has been the energy minister since December 2015, was moved alongside his PS Joseph Njoroge. The latter had served in that capacity since May 2013 when Kenyatta took over the presidency.

The Energy Ministry has been a critical pillar of Kenyatta’s presidency. It was responsible for expansion of electricity connectivity across the country, a programme that in 2017, Kenyatta and Ruto took pride in while defending their bid for a second term.

The president is showing where his interest lies, the people he can trust to deliver on his legacy projects.

Before his appointment to the cabinet in 2015, Keter had served as Senator of Kericho, a county in the Rift valley region, Ruto’s political backyard. The deputy president is believed to have had a hand in Keter’s appointment to the cabinet.

Energy sector woes

Keter and Njoroge were transferred on a day that the president had received a damning report concerning power purchase contracts signed by the country’s power distributor, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company, KPLC. Even though the government is yet to release the entire report to the public, a task force – appointed by Kenyatta in early 2021 to investigate the high cost of power in the country – has recommended a “forensic audit” on the dealings of KPLC. Through this process, all beneficiaries of independent power producers contracted by the company will be revealed.

Keter was transferred to the Devolution Ministry, the department responsible for coordinating the country’s 47 regional governments – the counties. However, the president stripped this ministry of a critical department that is responsible for addressing the needs of arid and semi-arid lands (ASALS). These regions often experience severe dry weather conditions, a situation that affects pastoralism, their economic mainstay.

Sam Atandi, an MP from Siaya county in Western Kenya, says Keter’s political interests could have cost him his tenure at the energy docket. “Keter is a politician who may be going back to political contests. This is not a person you want to entrust with reforms at the ministry of energy.”

Rewarding loyalists?

Keter was moved from a ministry whose current annual budget is KSh74bn, to one that was allocated just over KSh3bn.

“The president is showing where his interest lies, the people he can trust to deliver on his legacy projects,” says Nairobi-based lawyer Steve Ogolla.

Keter has been replaced at the Energy Ministry by Kenyatta’s long-time loyal servant, Monica Juma, who has been moved from the Defence Ministry. Kenyatta recently recommended Juma for Commonwealth Secretary General.

  • She previously served as minister at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, a department she once held as principal secretary during Kenyatta’s first term when he faced the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.
  • An experienced diplomat, she was critical in pushing Kenya’s agenda at the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC.

Kenyatta has instructed the new officials at the Energy Ministry to work towards reducing the cost of power by one-third by Christmas 2021.

Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua, who served as government spokesperson under President Mwai Kibaki, says the cabinet changes are simply aimed at efficiency.

“She [Monica Juma] is going there to fix [the] energy sector… It can only mean that Keter, who is associated with DP Ruto, was not doing things properly,” he says.

Kenyatta named Eugene Wamalwa as the new defence minister who will take over from Juma. The Ministry of Defence has an annual budget of KSh119bn, much of which is controlled by the military.

Lost clout

Kenyatta also made changes to the less influential Labour Ministry. Since January 2020, Simon Chelugui – a Ruto ally – has been serving in the Labour and Social Protection docket. This is a ministry that has had two departments with a total budget of just over KSh39bn.

Chelugui had been appointed to the cabinet in February 2018, in what was seen as a reward for a man who unsuccessfully ran against KANU leader Gideon Moi in Baringo County during the Senate election. Baringo is also in Ruto’s political backyard of Rift Valley.

The president has now stripped the ministry. He moved the social protection docket, which had a budget of KSh34bn, to the Public Service Ministry. This now leaves Chelugui with just over KSh5bn of a budget to implement.

The president “…has left those two ministries [Devolution and Labour] mere shells, and the cabinet secretaries will have little staff, resources or power to wield,” says Javas Bigambo, a lawyer at Interthoughts Consulting in Nairobi.

Ogolla adds: “This is like constructive dismissal, where you are working but not working. You have been dismissed without being formally terminated. [This is] because he [Kenyatta] fears the political consequences of firing Chelugui and ministers close to Ruto would be far-reaching.”

Ring-fencing legacy?

The president left little room for guessing as all the split departments from the Devolution and Labour ministries were carted away to the Public Service Ministry, which is headed by Kenyatta’s loyalist Margaret Kobia.

The president’s disdain for Ruto is now burning like the sun… Ruto is left desolate and vanquished within […] the Jubilee administration. He [Ruto] has run out of options.

Kobia is now in charge of four state departments that control a combined budget of over KSh66bn. She will now oversee programmes at the Gender Affairs, Public Service, ASAL and Special Protection departments. Until these changes, her ministry only had a budget of KSh22bn.

“CS Kobia’s ministry is now the giant of ministries… Power coalesced, more staff and financial resources, and a signal of the president’s trust in her,” says Bigambo.

“The president could be pre-positioning the CSs that he wants to manage his transition, which may include finalising his legacy projects,” says Ogolla.

While cabinet changes are commonplace, and would ordinarily pass for a mere desire of the president to make service delivery more efficient, the timing and the political environment do raise questions. Bigambo finds the changes by the president to be just another weapon against his deputy.

“The president’s disdain for Ruto is now burning like the sun… Ruto is left desolate and vanquished within […] the Jubilee administration. He [Ruto] has run out of options.”

Cabinet departures

By 9 February 2022, all civil servants – including members of the cabinet who are interested in running for political office – are required by law to resign. This will be six months before the general election and just weeks before the party primaries.

The changes “could also mean that he [Kenyatta] is trying to release those who have declared interest to run in the elections,” says Ogolla.

While none of the cabinet ministers have confirmed intentions to run for election, nearly 50% percent of the cabinet is believed to be interested in playing a part in the 2022 polls. The next general election will be a transitional one as the president will be retiring. This means that many of the political appointees currently in government are looking to find a way into the next administration.

Kenyatta could easily find himself with a lean cabinet once the CSs begin to hand in their resignations. Kenyan law requires that the president appoints new cabinet members only upon approval by Parliament. Only time will tell whether Kenyatta will take pains to replace officials who quit his cabinet on account of political contests.

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