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Honeymoon is over for Kenya Kwanza and tempers are flaring

President William Ruto admires farm produce during the commissioning of the Mweru Umoja Irrigation Project in South Imenti, Meru County, on January 27. [PCS]

In the second week of January 2024, a video of President William Ruto addressing a handful of Kenyans in Nyahururu town started doing rounds on social media, with netizens noticing that most of the residents appeared to be unbothered with the high-profile speaker and were hobbling about on their usual errands.

The razzmatazz that defined his political campaigns in the lead-up to the August 2022 elections, with his charisma rattling opponents wherever he went, was conspicuously missing. As the town strolled by, only pausing to listen once in a while, someone could be heard saying, in one of the clips, almost in disbelief; “Imagine that that man, there, is the president.”

Nyahururu was one of Dr Ruto’s strongholds in 2022. In the two counties that may claim the town and its environs, Nyandarua and Laikipia, he garnered comfortably over 70 per cent of the total votes cast.

Nyandarua gave him 189,519 votes, 78.76 per cent of their total, while Laikipia was responsible for 119,142 votes, which is 70.46 per cent of the total votes there. Apathy would be the last thing expected after such a powerful backing, barely a year and a half ago.

He had goodies for the counties on this visit. Ruto said that the government will be spending Sh5 billion to modernise the New Kenya Co-operative Creameries (KCC), and also directed the parastatal to begin paying milk farmers Sh50 a litre effective next month (March).

Milk hawking

The farmers would be paid twice a year starting July 1, he said, and that would “eliminate milk hawking which arises when farmers are not paid for two to three months”.

A portrayal of discontentment within his party did not come with the new year, however. Starting early last year, Githunguri MP Gathoni Wamuchomba has consistently opposed government plans that she deems destructive, beginning with a tirade against the Finance Bill, which contained in it the controversial Housing Levy.

“The reason why I have been criticizing this housing levy is because somebody is using the name ‘housing levy’ to collect tax but the said tax is not going to the housing programme,” she recently said.

“When I said this is scandalous I meant that there are schemes of taking over prime land and handing over that land to other players unconstitutionally, unprocedurally, and irregularly and some of us will pay for what we are doing in future."

In November, amid constant power blackouts, an outcry over incompetence in the energy sector and widespread claims of corruption, Energy Cabinet Secretary Davis Chirchir, one of Dr Ruto’s most trusted lieutenants, was heckled during a church service in Sotik, Bomet County.

National power grid

It was said the disenchantment came from locals who were still unconnected to the national power grid, despite the government’s insistence on reaching the last mile.

"I have heard you complaining that my CS Chirchir has not done enough in terms of connecting this region with electricity. I want to assure you that we have heard you," the President said to the residents as he tried to quell the uproar.

And that same month, as the cost of fuel skyrocketed, the shilling continued to lose ground against the greenback and the cost of living spiralled almost without reach for many, a Kenya Kwanza parliamentary group meeting in State House featured angry members who told the President that the tough economic conditions, exacerbated by high taxation, were making them unpopular among the electorate.

The year 2024 started with complaints that life was getting more and more difficult, especially for the many Kenyans who live from hand to mouth.

A January 2024 Infotrak VOP Poll found that a majority of Kenyans (73 per cent) are either in severe financial distress or struggling to make ends meet.

The poll, which interviewed 1,500 adult respondents, showed that 48 per cent of Kenyans have had increased stress and anxiety due to these financial struggles, and 32 per cent have had a strain on personal relationships. 21 per cent have had physical health issues with 18 per cent struggling with mental health effects.

The most affected regions where citizens were either struggling or were in severe financial distress were North Eastern (78 per cent), Coast (76 per cent), Central (74 per cent), and Rift Valley (73 per cent).

A few government-affiliated leaders dismissed these polls, but there is a perception of an economic downturn that has seriously fractured people’s lives and livelihoods. As of late 2023, a Tifa Research poll also indicated similar disheartening figures.

In that Tifa one, 87 per cent of the interviewed Kenyans said that the cost of living was worse in 2023 than it had been the previous year, and 81 per cent felt the economy had fared significantly worse.

Infotrak also found that among the areas the citizenry would need more support to cope with the economic hardships were in reduction of the high cost of living (26 per cent), creation of employment opportunities (13 per cent), reduction of fuel prices (13 per cent), reduction of education costs (12 per cent), and reduction of the high taxation (12 per cent).

Another sign of forming rifts in the government was the recent endorsement, by a faction of Kenya Kwanza leaders, of Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro as the preferred successor of Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua in the 2027 poll in the running-mate position.

Led by Murang’a Senator Joe Nyutu, the Murang’a leaders said the youthful MP was best suited for the role.

"We love the president and because we don't want him to encounter any problem in the mountain then I think the best (thing) would be to come with the most popular running mate," said Mr Nyutu.

He added: "I think he could be more popular, we are on the ground, we listen to people, we hear what people think about each one of us. Ndindi has shown some very good social skills, a very good relationship with people and generally, he has favour."

Fifteen MPs met and even suggested that Nyoro should be considered for the top seat as Dr Ruto’s successor in 2032.

Qualified enough

"The women of Murang’a also give birth to leaders, and Ndindi Nyoro is qualified enough to deputize Ruto and become a leader," said Gatanga MP Edward Muriu.

But this has faced tough resistance from leaders allied to Mr Gachagua, who hails from Mathira in Nyeri County.

“Rigathi Gachagua, because of his position, is the leader of the mountain. Any other thought is far-fetched,” said Nyeri governor Mutahi Kahiga, in a recent rejoinder.

Mr Kahiga tore into the party for what he felt was an unfair allocation of roles and privileges, especially targeting UDA Secretary General Cleophas Malala.

“I am very uncomfortable with the position of UDA SG, Cleo Malala. I want to know what votes he brings to the table. Western, and this is a fact, belongs to two parties, Ford Kenya for Bungoma and ODM for the rest of Vihiga and Kakamega, the total combined was 600, 000 votes. While we thank them for the 600,000 votes, they were only pouring into the six million that we brought and the 1.5 million that came from Rift Valley.”

Nyeri County, which now seems to be entangled in a multifaceted battle with Murang’a County and a section of Western over succession and party leadership respectively, gave 272,507 votes to the president, an 83.37 per cent of their total.

When Dr Ruto visited embattled Meru governor Kawira Mwangaza’s background on January 26, he had to call for quiet as a heckling crowd threatened to sour the rally.

However, with a lot of the jeering coming when the governor was making her address, many of the president’s supporters claimed the anger was directed solely at her. It did not help, however, that it was in the president’s presence.

"I want every leader to be respected. This heckling behaviour is a preserve of the Azimio and is a thing by ODM. We don't want ODM issues here in UDA and Kenya Kwanza rallies," he said, visibly upset.

On January 11, Tongaren MP John Chikati and Mbeere North MP Geoffrey Ruku, both of the Kenya Kwanza faction, called on the Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung’u to resign from office, threatening him with impeachment.

This comes at a time when the public debt is at a new all-time high, with the faltering shilling worsening the situation. As of the end of June 2023, the public debt increased to Sh10.28 trillion (70.8 per cent of GDP), from Sh8.63 trillion in June 2022, the National Treasury and Planning’s Annual Public Debt Management Report for Financial Year 2022/2023 noted.

“This comprised Sh5,446,561 million (Sh of external debt and Sh4,832,113 million (Sh4.83 trillion) of domestic debt. Secondary market trading for government securities reduced by Sh207,823 million (Sh207.82 billion) to Sh665,151 million (Sh665.15 billion) in June 2023 from Sh872,975 million (Sh872.98 billion) in June 2022.

Projections indicate a rise in total public debt by the end of June 2027, reaching Sh14.19 trillion. Meanwhile, the debt service is anticipated to increase to  Sh1.9 trillion by FY 2026/27.”

The President has been embroiled in a tussle with the judiciary, often claiming there are rogue elements therein that need wedding out. These attacks, which he has defended as his strong stance against corrupt officials frustrating his development projects, have pitted him against the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and other advocates for judicial independence, as the arms of government seem unable to work harmoniously.

Largely unwarranted

Some members of the public feel that bashing the institution that confirmed his win in 2022 is largely unwarranted. He has, however, been urged by his key henchmen, including the leader of the majority in the national assembly Kimani Ichungwa, not to heed some of the orders of the Judiciary.

But the public hard hit by economic difficulties has rallied behind Senator Okiya Omtatah, one of the key opponents of one of the most contentious topics, the housing levy.

Mr Omtatah, who led a brigade to court to seek outlawing of the levy, filed a statement accusing the President of threatening him and others. Recently, after the President declared war on those who were bribing judicial officers and those who received such bribes, Omtatah wrote;  “Directly, I challenge him to provide concrete evidence of any judge taking bribes or any litigant offering bribes. Let the truth come to light. It appears that the President lacks concrete evidence against those he has accused of bribery. If he did, he would have handed the matter over to law enforcement for action instead of addressing it publicly.”

Gone are the early days of his rule when the President was daily thwarting accusations of wanting to buy out opposition, with new members keen to join Kenya Kwanza lining up at the steps of State House every other day.

With a tumultuous past many months, the excitement seemed to have faded and as Ruto tries to steer the ship through troubled waters, disquiet looms within. It will take great stewardship to prevent internal fallouts.

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