Street protests expose Ruto's blunder on budget making

Some of the youth who attended mass at Holy Family Basilica Church in Nairobi said they were against Finance Bill 2024. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

The most frightening observation about the ruling Kenya Kwanza regime is not that they may or may not be popular but that they actively seek to make themselves unpopular. 

We could probably say the same thing about their competence.  Nothing seems to move in a straight line. 

On the other hand, to be fair, reform is never a popularity contest.  As we are often reminded, “we must live within our means” and “we are making hard, not popular, decisions”. 

Yet, as mentioned before, there is something missing from this administration’s “art of the sell”.   Is it a general lack of emotional intelligence, or do we have an oversupply of hubris with these people? 

Is this why young Kenyans responded last week in an unprecedented sequence of protests against the 2024 Finance Bill? 

By one on-line report I came across, these protests spread from Nairobi on Tuesday to 17 counties across Kenya by Thursday. 

Social media was on fire, and it wasn’t just in Kenya.  The latest I am seeing is the next step from #RejectFinanceBill2024 is #TotalShutdown. 

Our leadership would be well advised to avoid dismissing these protest actions as a one-off.  This is the second unpopular Finance Bill in a row that they have foisted on angry Kenyans. 

They might also take note that our young people have developed an issue-based civic competence, and “wokeness” without necessarily undergoing a government, or donor, funded civic education. 

In today’s social media era, we have all been informed, educated and entertained through You Tube and Tik Tok clips and Twitter discourses not just on specific clauses of the Finance Bill and their cost of living impacts but questionable spending choices and the need for a debt register audit.  If this is what Kenya Kwanza meant by issue, not identity-based politics, we are here.  

This is probably a great time to also focus our attention on the matter of public spending.  This is the one area where we must challenge the administration further. 

Spending cuts are announced regularly but rarely followed through.  Indeed, public expenditure seems to be as profligate as ever. We need to make a stronger case that it’s expenditure, not revenue, that’s our problem. 

In its report on the 2024 Budget Policy Statement (BPS), the National Assembly’s Budget and Appropriations Committee hints at this by requiring the National Treasury to “prepare guidelines for proper costing of government policies, programs and projects to minimize discrepancies between planned and actual resource requirements by BPS 2025. 

 But it’s more.  In our program-based budget system we need to better link what we spend (resources) with what we get in outputs (goods or services) and outcomes (what we achieved using these goods or services).  

This drive for transparency and accountability relates closely with a systematic attack on corruption all the way from state/policy capture, uncontrolled project creation, budgeted corruption, theft and fake supplies in procurement/spending, and speed money/basic services bribery. 

The war on graft needs to move beyond occasional foot shuffling and sound bites.

Away from the noise, we also faced with confusion and clumsiness in the 2024/25 budget process itself. 

In March, the National Assembly that makes the budget passed the 2024 BPS with a Sh4.2 trillion spending ceiling. This was presumably aligned to a revenue indication as well as the 2024 Medium-Term Debt Management Strategy.

Then somewhere along the line, the Executive who do not make the budget, and probably with foreign (IMF?) help, reduced this ceiling to Sh3.9 trillion. Then it came back to the National Assembly who pushed it back up to Sh4 trillion. 

Except that it now seems that the National Treasury has come back with an “advisory” that recent concessions made in the 2024 Finance Bill would reduce this down by at least Sh200 billion. Which concessions, you ask? 

Well, let’s take a step back again.  The original version of the bill aimed to raise Sh302 billion. Then we had a process of public participation, after which the regime leadership were quick to inform us through a presser that concessions had been made.  

This was even before the report of the National Assembly’s Finance Committee had been tabled in Parliament.  Except that the bill is still not done, given next Tuesday’s Committee stage of the whole house where it will be examined and approved clause by clause.

Oh! By the way, even after the Finance Committee’s report was tabled, MPs were still allowed to propose amendments to the bill up until right before they went into that second reading vote that has animated Kenyans. 

That it is only the public participation report, and not the actual schedule of amendments (or the amended Finance Bill) we have seen is always a cause for suspicion in our low-trust environment. If we recall correctly, some quiet fiddling was done to the 2023 Finance Act that was signed off. 

So do we have available an amended version of the original Finance Bill with more amendments? When the general public mood is geared towards rejecting the entire bill, not amending it – meaning even deeper budget cuts?  These are not idle questions for our legislators and leaders.  

What would this mean for the Appropriations Bill to support spending if revenue is still unclear?  What about the Division of Revenue Act which has already been signed off?  

What about the Debt Management Strategy?  What about continued IMF support given their recent applause regarding “decisive steps towards fiscal consolidation by introducing several measures in the context of the draft 2024/25 budget and the 2024 Finance Bill”? 

Again, this is not straightforward. But the real concern is we have made what should be a smooth budget process a scene of chaos. 

I like to view this administration’s current term in three 18 month semesters.  The first semester (September 2022 to March 2024) ended on a mixed note – bullish in their own terms, but far below expectation to Kenyans living on their promises. 

They did, however, give us the 4th Medium Term Plan under Vision 2030 at the end of the semester (why it took 18 months is another question).  This second semester (March 2024 to September 2025) has started less bullishly for them, and more angrily for Kenyans. 

What the fracas around the 2024 Finance Bill tells us is this is a good time for reflection and recalibration.  Before their third and final semester.