Hustler Jet: Ruto's conflicting claims about US trip funding

President William Ruto, and First Lady Rachel Ruto when they arrived at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Washington, D.C in United States of America. [PCS]

President William Ruto now claims "friends" helped him foot the bill for the private jet he flew to the United States, further deepening the controversy surrounding the trip.

The president says taxpayers only  paid Sh10 million for the luxurious jet that would ordinarily cost more than Sh200 million for a round trip to the US.

Ruto said he had weighed the options of chartering a flight to the US and established that the cheapest would cost Sh70 million.

"Let me disclose here that it cost the Republic of Kenya less than Sh10 million. I am not a madman," Ruto said during yesterday's national prayer breakfast at the Safari Park Hotel.

"When I was told the cheapest plane was Sh70 million, I told my office, go book Kenya Airways (KQ). When some friends of mine heard that I was going to travel on Kenya Airways and they asked how much I wanted to pay. I told them I did not want to pay more than Sh20 million. They told me, 'Bring Sh10 million, we will give you the plane'," Ruto said.

The Head of State's remarks came days after he had said flying the national carrier would have attracted higher charges. Ruto's statement on Thursday contradicts the initial one, as he had implied that he would have flown commercially, which could have been more costly compared to charter prices.

"He told us that he had paid for the private jet because it was cheaper than KQ. Where have the friends come from now?" posed university lecturer Gitile Naituli.

The Standard exclusively accessed a quotation showing that a one-way trip from Nairobi to Atlanta aboard Ruto's private jet costs $748,600 (Sh98 million). That eclipses the Sh123,000 to Sh234,000 it would have cost to fly business class on KQ for a one-way journey to New York.

Kenyans would have, therefore, spent between Sh8 million and Sh16 million for a round trip accommodating 34 passengers, the number his luxurious flight to the US took.

Additional fees incurred during the eight days the private jet was in Ruto's hands, undoubtedly, pushed that amount higher.

The stately Boeing Business Jet that the Head of State hired from Abu Dhabi-based firm Royal Jet Group landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on May 18, and  departed for the United Arab Emirates last Sunday, a day after Ruto returned to Kenya.

"The President is obviously lying after being cornered by hawk-eyed journalism by Emmanuel Too of KTN," Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna said of Ruto's fresh claims.

Ruto did not name the friends that he claimed facilitated his US trip. The US embassy in Nairobi denied funding the tour, leaving the identity of Ruto's unnamed friends to speculation.

Equally important, they risk raising questions about the concessions incurred by the nation in exchange for such favours or whether they meet ethical standards.

Ruto has recently been big on the trip's gains, describing his State visit, the first by an African head in 16 years, among other global engagements, as speaking "volumes to the favour of God upon our nation."

Indeed, the president secured the commitment of investments worth Sh1 trillion and highlighted some of the wins he secured during the prayer meeting.

"One of the big announcements that was made during my trip to America was an investment by Microsoft, an American company, G42, a UAE company, EcoCloud of Kenya and the Government of Kenya on the first-ever data centre that will use renewable energy and it is an investment of $1 billion," said Ruto.

While the president has succeeded in trumpeting the wins, he has shied from revealing what the nation could be ceding. In an open letter to president letter published by The Standard yesterday, literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong'o argued that Kenya had ceded its freedom in its engagements with the West.

"I saw you seated on a chair, grinning, while Biden stood behind you, his face beaming with satisfaction.  Why not? He had just announced that you had signed off our beloved Kenya to make it a non-member ally of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).  In other words, you had agreed to become NATO’s errand boy in America’s struggle with Russia and China for access to resources of the continent," Prof Thiong'o, who lives and works in USA, wrote.

Prof Naituli said it was "very bad" for Kenya that foreign nations would pay for the president's flight, "if true".

"It speaks to the bigger concern that there could be foreign powers controlling the president. If they are funding his travels, what more are they doing, because nothing comes for free? How sure are we that he is not returning the favour by making policies that are friendly to them and hurt us?" Prof Naituli posed.

"The main reason why we even limit campaign funding is that we don't want our leaders to be beholden to the donors," he added.

Businessman and Safina party leader Jimi Wanjigi argued it was unethical for the Head of State to receive gifts from unnamed sources, even as he  doubted Ruto's story.

"He must comply with Section 14 of the Leadership and Integrity Act," said Wanjigi.

The section is anchored on Article 76 of the Constitution, which speaks on the financial probity of State officers, that prohibits them from seeking or accepting "a personal loan or benefit in circumstances that compromise the integrity of the State officer."

Prof Natuli argued that all donations the president receives by virtue of his position must be fully disclosed to the public.

"He must disclose the friends and how much they paid. The law requires that all money received by the government, whether donations, must be deposited in the Consolidated Fund," added the professor of management and leadership.

Government heads receiving money or gifts from foreign entities have been a hot subject. In the US, Democrats are proposing to bar officials from receiving money, donations or gifts without congressional consent.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has some experience in the matter, having been spotlighted for receiving gifts from billionaires. Last year, he was compelled to return $270,000 (Sh35 million) to his late cousin's estate, which he received to fund legal fees. Israel's laws prohibit such gifts to public servants.