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Anxiety as the nation awaits 'real' William Ruto in newlook regime

President William Ruto displays the ceremonial sword during his swearing-in at Kasarani Stadium on September 13, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

It is now the turn of President William Ruto to steer Project Kenya forward.

Yet it is striking that commentary has been tentative since his victory was announced by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission on August 15, and affirmed in highly colourful language by the Supreme Court on September 5. 

Indeed, despite being an elected leader since the late 1990s, and Deputy President for most of the last decade, Dr Ruto comes across as an unknown quantity in what Kenyans should expect of his presidency. The standard refrain is he must unify Kenyans and fix our current economic woes.

This is not to say that Kenyans were not listening to what he had to say over a campaign that lasted years. Following the 2018 “handshake” between his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta and his recent electoral rival Raila Odinga, he quickly elevated the “hustler” narrative to the core of his populist messaging in a country of stark inequality; while it seems nobody quite mustered a coherent riposte to his subsequent “bottom-up” platform targeting Kenyans at the base of the economic pyramid.

One particular irony here is that the Kenya Kwanza manifesto he later championed centres on five pillars (agriculture, MSMEs, housing, healthcare plus digital & creative) that essentially mirror, at least in overall structure, Uhuru’s own Big Four and digital agendas, and his support for creatives.

There is definitely something to the idea that Kenya’s transformation imperative is less about the “what”, and much more about the “why” (before the “what”) and the “how” (after the “what”).

That is done and dusted. The election is over. Issues were more prominent this time around, but identity was still a vital part of the election-winning calculus.  Now that the time for “campaigns in poetry” is over, Kenyans are watching expectantly for signs of how President Ruto “governs in prose”. Let’s pursue a thought experiment as we consider his “theory of government”. 

By theory of government, we mean the way to organise government to advance Project Kenya. 

Before we go there, President Ruto is already confronted with the realities of our first-past-the-post, winner-takes-it-all electoral system. It is a challenging framework that probably works in more settled circumstances than Kenya’s multi-national (ethnic) diversity. It is a zero-sum game with no safety net for the loser. 

Welcome to our “we want to be in government” moment! 

Not, “we wish to help you govern”, or “we will offer you support as you lead”.

It is a moment that reflects the nine most dangerous words in Kenyan political lexicon – “I’m in politics, so I must be in government”.  After all, it is necessary to be in government, because, as is said “it is too cold out there (on the streets)". For those unfamiliar with the language, the conventional wisdom is one is either “in government, or on the streets”, with nothing in-between.

State vs markets

Consider this to be the “inclusion” baseline Dr Ruto faces as he crafts his own theory of government, while noting his visceral reaction to any suggestions concerning a “handshake”.

President William Ruto. PSCU]

At a macro-level, the thing to look for in this theory of government is how our new President perceives the role of the state as against the role of markets on one hand, and religion on the other. State vs religion could be an interesting, if not dominant, new issue for Kenya’s secular state, even before inter-faith/inter-religious questions. Enter a moral crusade against our social ills?

State vs markets will be just as interesting. If state-led development is still the way to go, will there be an effort to make it more effective and efficient than is currently the case? Does “bottom-up” bring market approaches back to the development table, under more-targeted state support?

How do we get MSMEs to the high-table (a pro-markets approach) without shoving corporates (pro-business) off it? What is the fresh state toolkit that boosts access to affordable finance in a competitive capital market? What options are on the table to better deliver on basic needs like food, education, health and shelter; or enablers such as infrastructure; or real jobs in the real economy? Answers to these questions will tell us about Dr Ruto’s “macro-theory of government”.

This macro-side represents a demand-side focused on the citizenry. In the ideal world, this is the working basis on which our President must organise to deliver with focus. In this place of nirvana, he has by now already prepared, with his core team, his first organisation of government circular – commonly referred to as Circular No 1 – that maps out the structure to drive organised delivery. 

Now, in the real world, there is a supply-side earlier described as “we must be in government”.  Start with our legislative representatives.  On the face of it, the President and his team have employed smart strategy in first securing working coalition majorities, and then speakerships in both Houses of Parliament. This has naturally raised credible fears about a return 30 years back, when in 1992, the opposition benches were quietly silenced by the then ruling party Kanu.

On the other hand, the President knows that he needs numbers to push through the legislative part of his transformation agenda. And while he has called for the official opposition to take its seat in the House and provide oversight over his Executive actions, he is equally aware that our US-style presidential system offers less teeth than a parliamentary system with an official opposition leader. 

House Minority Leader doesn’t rhyme with a House Majority Leader who is de facto Prime Minister as Leader of Government Business. As we say; “don’t hate the players, hate the game”.

Not that we should ignore the lack of principle among our legislators. It always boils down to four Ps: personal and private, then the party, then the people – in that order. The party is not the people, and the person is personal and private, then the party. That’s our democratic learning curve.

President William Ruto (left) takes over from Uhuru Kenyatta during his swearing-in ceremony at Kasarani, Nairobi. [PSCU]

A final one on legislators. With a cushy pay package and potpourri of allowances and travel junkets, why would you still want to be on the “correct” side of the aisle? Might it be that being “in government” offers you easier AGPO - access to government procurement opportunities? Now that’s a leadership theory of government that makes sense, in the name of “reaching out”, right?

Executive appointments

The real place for this theory of government lies in the design of executive arrangements, including appointments. It is fair to observe that, as the first full-term national leader elected under our 2010 constitutional dispensation, President Uhuru milked this theory to its absolute limits.   

He started off on a positive note with a well-designed organisation of government circular, and a comprehensive review of our state corporations.  Very soon, ministries, departments and agencies were infested with all manner of consultants and advisors in lieu of long-serving civil servants.

By the time we got to his second term, we had the unusual innovation of chief administrative secretaries, and eventually use of the military to run civilian functions, even with a seat in the Cabinet. We had specialists such as the President’s Delivery Unit, and super-committees for development. It seemed to matter little that several of these actions, including a host of parastatal appointments, were struck down by the courts. Clearly, they didn’t like his fast-changing theory of government.

Notwithstanding these lessons, it will be interesting to see which of these arrangements President Ruto chooses to retain, or reform. Add to this new pressures from various ethnic delegations paying him homage to remind him that “we all want to be in government”, plus demands from his own people. Do these delegations represent “we, the people?” Here are two final thoughts.

First, Kenyans deserve a government that delivers. While a legislative majority is key to getting this done, getting the Executive to work is the greater task.  There’s no point in passing the laws if implementation, execution and delivery continues to be a challenge that must still be outsourced.   

What lesson could he take from Mwai Kibaki’s success in transforming the public service inherited from President Moi? Empowerment is the word – set out goals, incentivize people, leave them to work and keep constant track of progress. 

What lesson might he take from Uhuru’s tougher experience? Recognition is the word – involve and don’t ignore public servants, or replace them with outsiders.

Second, Kenyans deserve a country that works. This flows from the idea that government delivers and more. It works backwards from the needs of the people to the design of his government - what some call Government 2.0 – not as an inward-looking entity of the faceless and the forms, but as an outward-facing platform that engages and empowers the people as the ones “in government”.

President Ruto’s theory of government for Project Kenya begins tomorrow. It will start with the order and machinery of government in Circular No 1. Might it also be different? We are watching.