Rotich: Hero or villain of Kenya's economic struggle?

Briefcase for government budget. [Moses Omusula/Standard]

When he served as Finance Minister in 2009, President Uhuru Kenyatta was summoned by Parliament to explain a Sh9.2 billion error in the Supplementary Budget.

Challenged by hawk-eyed MPs on the discrepancy which affected over 200 items, the President blamed the mishap on a ‘computer error.’

Years later, when he became President, and he appointed Henry Rotich as his Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Kenyans on the streets, unable to figure out who the trusted technocrat was, claimed that he could have been one of the bureaucrats who helped him wriggle out of the Sh9.2 billion error.

The authenticity of the story cannot be confirmed, but it is a clear pointer that the man, now questioned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations on the Kimwarer and Arror dam scandal, is close to the President.

The career technocrat had worked with the President at Treasury.

His choice as the keeper of the country’s purse gave the first indication that Uhuru wanted to work with someone he knew well.

And young enough to fit into the ‘digital’ narrative that had been woven into the jubilee campaign.

And so, at 44, and with the gift of youth and experience on his side, Rotich became the second youngest Treasury boss after Mwai Kibaki who was aged 38 in 1969.

Harvard degree

Armed with a Harvard Master’s degree, Rotich walked into Treasury promising to deliver the jubilee manifesto, tame the ballooning public debt and raise investor confidence.

The country had just emerged from a turbulent election, and a steady hand was needed at the money decks.

Prior to his appointment, Rotich was the Head of Macroeconomics at the Treasury and was a key architect of macroeconomic policies that ensured sustainable public spending.

He was also a key player in the preparation of policy documents such as the Budget Statements, as well as providing strategic coordination of structural reforms in the fiscal and financial sector.

In 2004, he had served as an economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Nairobi.

On his first budget, eager to win public trust, Rotich splashed billions on ambitious projects such as the Galana Kulalu irrigation scheme, the Standard Gauge Railway and affordable housing project. 

He promised to double cash transfer programmes from 155,000 to 310,000 households and vowed to lift 10 million Kenyans out of poverty.

Eurobond issue

As Jubilee’s basket of promises expanded, so did its appetite for debt. And Rotich went into a borrowing spree, which culminated into issuing the Eurobond - a word that became more famous at political rallies than for its true value to Kenyans.

Opposition politicians claimed Rotich had presided over the loss of billions drawn from the bond.

Under his tenure, the country’s Gross domestic Product (GDP) has grown, and he has presided over key Jubilee social programmes such as free maternal health care.  

But analyst say he has failed to tame high interest rates, and the county’s debt has become unsustainable.

When he welcomed the Eurobond, the CS promised that interest rates would significantly come down. They never did.

Under his watch, Kenya’s credit rating internationally was compromised.

Some of the promises Jubilee promised have since stalled and it was just a matter of time before investigators begun following the money trail.

Economist Robert Shaw yesterday told The Standard that Rotich has struggled to tread the thin line between satisfying the Government’s appetite for money, and putting resources into more productive sectors of the economy.

“Running the Treasury is an exceedingly difficult job, and I would say that he has tried to do it with a fairly steady hand," said Mr Shaw.

"But the big question is whether he has succeeded in cutting down on recurrent expenditure in areas such as civil servant salaries.  He has not had much success there. But in terms of overall management, he has performed well. He was innovative in terms of the sovereign bond, but the fact of the matter is that the country has sunk deeper into debt.”