Kenya: The 12 Labours of President William Ruto

By Jeff Otieno, Son Gatitu
Posted on Friday, 30 September 2022 16:35

William Ruto now begins the difficult part (image: Glez)

On 13 September, William Samoei Ruto became Kenya’s fifth president since independence, having seen off veteran oppositionist Raila Odinga. In his new role, Ruto inherits an overflowing inbox of unresolved points.

How will ‘hustler’ Ruto navigate these waters to ensure he keeps his political base satisfied? Here are 12  thorny issues that will influence his first year in office.

1 – Debt

The national debt currently stands at KSh8.4trn ($69.8bn). Ruto has ruled out restructuring, arguing that it will put the country into further financial distress. Instead, he plans to pause borrowing, especially for unbudgeted projects, which he argues has gobbled up more than KSh100bn.

Ruto wants to raise revenue by expanding the tax base and avoiding borrowing locally, saying 80% of Kenya’s debt is owed to local banks, affecting their ability to give credit.

2 – Subsidies

Subsidies on staples are a huge budget burden, argues Ruto. The previous government ended the subsidy on petrol, while reducing subsidies on diesel and kerosene. Ruto has also ruled out extending the KSh7bn maize subsidy, saying he will focus on reducing the cost of farm inputs like fertiliser and seeds. The move has already elicited a backlash from his supporters, many of whom were looking forward to a huge price reduction in the cost of essential goods and services.

3 – Drought

President Ruto’s grand plan of boosting agricultural production to help reduce the cost of living is facing major headwinds due to climate change. Kenya is experiencing one of its worst droughts in 40 years. According to the UN, more than 4 million people are “food insecure” and 3.3 million cannot get enough drinking water. The country’s National Drought Management Authority says seven counties (Isiolo, Mandera, Samburu, Turkana, Wajir, Marsabit and Laikipia) are now at an alarming stage.

4 – Diversification

The penny is dropping: Given climate change, the economy, which is rooted in agriculture, will face challenges. Focus also needs to be on services and manufacturing. Self-sufficiency has remained a mirage despite successive governments’ efforts to increase food production. Kenya, for example, spends about KSh360bn annually to import food products, and this amount is expected to increase.

Though President Ruto has pledged to invest at least KSh250bn in agriculture over the next five years, some economists argue it is time the country shifted focus to other sectors like manufacturing and services saying the rain-fed agriculture sector will continue to underperform due to climate change. The president, for example, has pledged to increase the contribution of manufacturing to GDP from the current 8% to more than 10%, though details remain scarce. Kenya’s noted advantage in finance and technology is also something to build on.

5 – Jobs

According to the World Bank, an additional nine million people aged between 18 and 35 are expected to join the Kenyan labour force between 2015 and 2025. Ruto has pledged that the economy will create four million jobs in his first year in office. His administration plans to invest KSh500bn over the next five years in agriculture and services to create more opportunities for women and youth. However, questions abound as to where the funds will come from.

6 – Corruption

In 2021, then President Uhuru Kenyatta said the country lost more than KSh2bn daily to corruption. It will be a mammoth task for his successor to fight the vice effectively. Ruto says he is going to give more money to the judiciary to enhance the fight against corruption.

However, critics say the judiciary and the police risk being an appendage of the executive, arguing that the president is using ‘soft diplomacy’ in a bid to influence the two agencies that are critical in fighting the vice in any administration.

7 – IEBC

Ruto has consistently hailed the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) for “the courage to do the right thing”. His main rival in the election 2022, Raila Odinga, says the vote was stolen and now threatens to “cause reforms” at the IEBC and at the judiciary.

Ruto allies have petitioned parliament for the removal of four commissioners who opposed the IEBC chair in declaring the final presidential results in favour of Ruto. Ruto has the numbers in parliament that could hand him the authority to start a removal process.

8 – China

Will Nairobi be able to pay back its loans to China or will it need to renegotiate? Ruto ran a campaign that heavily criticised his predecessor’s debt accumulation. Close to 20% of foreign debt is money borrowed from China.

Ruto will find it difficult to deliver on his election promises within what analysts term a broke government. His move to revert port operations to the Mombasa port could lead to reduced traffic on the Chinese-funded standard gauge railway, thus losing revenues necessary to payback the SGR debt that cost $3.6bn. Will China re-negotiate?

9 – The West

The relationship with the West seems very strong. Although human rights organisations point to the fact that Ruto was not acquitted by the International Criminal Court, this is no longer a talking point for Washington DC or London. Ruto has been vocal in his support for the defence of Ukraine against Russia.

Some analysts point to a growing similarity to the Cold War era, with African allies lining up behind the West and a new Russia/China axis. US Senator Chris Coons, close to Biden, went to meet Ruto a day after the victory announcement. The EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrel on 10 September went to visit Ruto in person, calling for a deepening of ties between Brussels and Nairobi.

10 – Co-opting rivals

Ruto won the presidency with the lowest margin since the 2013 election. With a near 50-50 split between him and Odinga, Ruto has been busy fishing for executives from the former PM’s Azimio movement. Odinga’s long-time ally Kalonzo Musyoka could be the next one out of the door, with Ruto having likely convinced enough members to assure him dominance in parliament, county assemblies and even among the county governors.

He must however ready himself to face Odinga who appears beaten, but not yet out. The latter has launched a scathing attack on Ruto’s dealings with the judiciary and the IEBC. The president now faces a man who has been the source of trouble for the past three regimes. In a separate move, Ruto has posted Kenyatta as mediator for the Tigray and DRC/Uganda/Rwanda conflicts… Not a bad way of keeping his predecessor occupied.

11 – Coalition

Ruto is quite aware of the importance of the Mount Kenya region. Since being declared winner, he has spent a series of Sundays in the voter-rich region at thanksgiving meetings. He is focused on keeping the region, which provided him with 3 million votes and is home to former President Kenyatta, on his side. Ruto’s deputy, Rigathi Gachagua, has been vocal about the problems of the Kenyatta regime that the new one must avoid.

Ruto is also keen on growing new alliances, as seen in his announcement on port services resumption in Mombasa, with its attendant patronage opportunities. Can he keep the business community onside too?

12 – Populism

In a single election, Ruto took on Kenya’s three most influential political families that he had christened dynasties – the Kenyattas, Mois and Odingas, who all had rallied behind Raila. The election focused on economic policies and Ruto was successful in building a coalition of people who were largely disappointed by the Kenyatta regime, or disillusioned by economic hardships. His populist rhetoric was politically powerful and introduced a non-ethnic ideological element to the body politic. It is, perhaps, a tiger from whose back Ruto will struggle to descend.

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