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New president and Uhuru have different economic philosophies

President William Ruto walks past Uhuru Kenyatta to make his remarks during National Prayer Day in Nairobi on May 26, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

When former President Uhuru Kenyatta teamed up with the current President William Ruto in 2013, the two looked like siamese twins.

However, it didn’t take long in their second term in 2017 before their differences emerged. While the fallout between the two 'brothers', who used to wear white shirts and red ties, has been seen through the political lens, evidence shows that there is a fundamental difference in their economic philosophy.

Politically, there isn’t much difference since President Ruto inherited President Uhuru’s red zones, which he then turned yellow in order to occupy the house on the hill. But buying into his predecessors’ economic philosophy - he didn’t.

As Kenya’s history reveals, having two politicians with different ideologies coming together to achieve a common political outcome is nothing new. The founding father of the nation Jomo Kenyatta, came together with Jaramogi Oginga and formed the first Kenyan government despite their different economic ideologies.

While Mzee Kenyatta subscribed to the capitalist school of thought, his deputy was more inclined towards socialist if not communist economic ideologies. When Jaramogi realised that he was reading from a different script from his boss, he did the most honourable thing: He resigned from his position as the vice president, something that President Ruto vehemently refused to do.

In Zambia, President Fredrick Chiluba handed over power to Levi Mwanawasa with whom he had worked closely and shared leadership ideologies. However, no sooner had Mwanawasa been sworn into office than he jailed Chiluba on corruption claims.

And in the US, President Joe Biden who was President Obama’s running mate and vice president for eight years revealed that when he took over the presidency that, as a vice president, he had confidentially advised President Obama to make some decisions differently. He accepted to embrace their differences. However, as soon as he was sworn into office, he reversed some of President Obama’s decisions through executive orders. In that regard, President Ruto is not the first to pull out a surprise.

Taking their inauguration and first national celebration speeches as the point of reference, President Ruto’s economic policy is pessimistic as opposed to President Kenyatta’s. From Uhuru’s inauguration speech, it was clear that Kenya was full of promise and destined to be great, building on the strong foundation laid by our founding fathers. President Ruto’s speech, on the other hand, was more on ‘state capture’ and claims of having inherited a dilapidated economy. A week later, his deputy went on to talk of lack of foreign reserve in the Treasury, a position that was corrected immediately by the Central Bank Governor due to its sensitivity.

President Kenyatta’s speeches during his last Madaraka Day and Mashujaa Day celebrations were also significant, but differed like night and day from President Ruto’s first Mashujaa Day speech. Uhuru, who chose to celebrate his last Mashujaa Day in Kirinyaga County emphasised the significance of Mt Kenya as 'God’s resting place', a place of hope and plenty.

Happier days; Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto at State House, Nairobi,  April 2013. [PCS]

He reported that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Kenya had grown by 0.3 per cent as the global economy contracted by 3 per cent and projected that due to his stimulus packages, among other economic interventions, the Kenyan economy would grow by 6 per cent.

And on his last Madaraka Day celebration, Uhuru said that borrowing is not bad if the money is used in the right manner, and encouraged whoever his predecessor would be not to shy away from borrowing. With this, he handed over an economy of Sh11.7 trillion, with a budget of Sh3.31 trillion.

Despite this reality, President Ruto and those in the inner circle of his government have been shouting that they inherited too much foreign debt and a dilapidated economy. They claim that only Sh93 million was left in the Treasury, an amount less than the declared net worth of the poorest of Dr Ruto’s Cabinet secretaries, and also less than the revenue that Nairobi County collects in a day. Against the claim that President Kenyatta left a messed up economy that will take ages to fix, they have announced a Sh300 billion cut in the budget. Contrary to Uhuru who preached stimulus, Ruto preaches austerity as he blames his predecessor.

And blame-game has not been seen with former presidents. Though Moi only left an economy worth Sh2.2 trillion after 24 years in power, Kibaki never wasted a day lamenting on how bad Moi had left the economy. Instead, he started fixing it, eventually handing over Sh6.6 trillion economy to Uhuru and Ruto.

I am not suggesting that on matters economy President Kenyatta was better than President Ruto. Rather, since an optimistic outlook of an economy by those in power usually spurs growth and attracts investment, it would be helpful to point out the difference. That is why the debate as to whether austerity as an economic tool is better than stimulus remains key. Nevertheless, examples abound where stimulus has worked more than austerity measures.

-Dr Ogola is Academic Director MBA programmes and Director of the Institute of Strategy and Competitiveness at Strathmore University