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Ruto policies may conflict with nation's strategic interests

 President William Ruto is received by the President of the United States of America Joe Biden at The White House, Washington, D.C for a technology roundtable on May 23, 2024. [PCS]

One of the unexpected outcomes of President William Ruto’s State visit to the United States is serious discussion on perceptions of Kenya’s national interests. Two questions arise. First, how are those interests to be projected, defended, and advanced and who should do it? The citizens ordinarily delegate those functions to the legitimate government on condition it does it in trust and within the law. Since the delegation is not absolute, citizens reserve the right to demand accountability and even to reprimand those entrusted with the State. Ruto’s trip to the United States appeared to be one of those instances when citizens demand accountability and raise the question of whose interests were being catered for.

The general expectation is that leaders look after the well-being, and should not appear to be part of threat, whether internal or external, to the State’s “interests”. Interests, divided into core or primary and secondary or peripheral, have three essential attributes of sovereignty – security or survival of the state, and the way of life or identity and values of the people. The way of life is political and socio-economic, including the form of government and cultural identities. The ability to secure interests, however, depends on the State’s capacity to manage several attributes that drive human history which include the political economy, space or geography, resources, quality education system, independence of mind, and sense of pride or good reputation. The ability to defend the national image, as John Quincy Adams showed in 1823, is a critical aspect of a country’s national interest. Yet there are some leaders, due to real or contrived ignorance, who lack a sense of honour and capacity to notice threats to national image as threat to the national interest.

Ignorance perpetuates poverty, an instrument of power, and can create artificial scarcity in the midst of plenty. Scarcity creation is a political process of deciding who gets or is denied which strategic resource. It tends towards a process of resource monopolisation. One of the factors distinguishing strong countries from weak ones is the ability to access and deny resources to others and then to do something about it. Doing something requires preparation, intellectual as well as material and physical, which can be brutal. Kenya is a victim of scarcity creation.

Unlike big powers, Kenya’s response to forces that create poverty calls for the ability to play power games, using the weapon of the weak. Among its various strategies, when dealing with powerful States, is to adopt the power of reason and logic which requires advanced critical thinking. The capacity to out-reason the powerful is an important weapon of the weak when confronting international bullies. Sure of the difference between its core and secondary values, it should anticipate trends and potential threats and then design appropriate responses that would not sacrifice core values while receiving another State’s expendable interests. Of crucial importance to Kenya, therefore, is its intellectual and moral capacity to ward of impositions from powerful countries.

Diplomatic ‘nyapara’

Post-colonial Kenya owes its existence to the competition by Euro-powers for new empires in Africa, faced multiple challenges to its survival and, had to contend with four realities in the world arena. First, it had a “revolutionary” anti-colonial reputation to maintain. It lost that image and instead appears to play diplomatic nyapara. Second, it is a maritime country and an economic gateway to landlocked neighbours but it initially tended to ignore its maritime obligations and consequently suffered. Third, it is of geo-political interest to its close neighbours who tend to experience political volatility. Stability in Kenya translates to a sense of comfort for them because it is the place to run to when things go wrong elsewhere.

Fourth, extra-continental forces have interests in its geo-strategic location on the Equator and compete to control its policies. Some, like Britain, consider Kenya to be their backyard and succeeded in creating and reinforcing a culture of mental dependency and a sense of helplessness on the part of policymakers who wait for ‘advice’ on what to do. Those ‘advisors’, in promoting their own interests, can be rough and Kenya, on several occasions, has experienced that roughness. It is in Kenya’s interest to watch the long-lasting realities that continue to affect its well-being.

Questions as to whether Kenyan officialdom promotes or sacrifices Kenya’s core interests in exchange for premade peripheral ones have arisen. They intensified with Ruto’s expensive foreign trips, presence of ‘advisors’ in such critical offices as the Treasury, and imposition of policies and taxations that create poverty. Since Ruto’s trips in quick succession to various countries did not seem to add value or ease the burden on the citizens, questions were bound to increase. Ruto was not happy that Kenyans, questioning his motives and activities, had problems believing him and were demanding accountability.

Having had an absolutist view of delegated powers, the demands raised presidential ire probably because Ruto did not expect it. Using such threatening language as Mambo ni matatu or that the sword of State that he received on Inauguration Day was not for chopping cabbages, his threatening language spread across other institutions of State like the Judiciary and the Legislature, portraying them as obstacles to his mission. Since he has low regard for his appointees, dismissing them as incompetent, he seemingly does not consult them widely on critical issues.

It was odd hearing the President blurt out in an annual breakfast prayer meeting, “I am not a madman.” Similar to that of US President Richard M. Nixon in 1973 saying “I am not a crook”, the blurting got people wondering what would make a president so desperate as to make such a declaration. While Nixon was battling Watergate- and Vietnam-related tribulations, Ruto tried to explain the phenomenon of foreign ‘friends’ having so much access to his thinking and discussions that they can intervene to offer him luxurious travel facilities. Is the country safe when foreigners have access to Ruto’s thinking and discussions? Those ‘friends’ from the UAE are the same ones that fund Sudan’s Dagalo who visited Ruto in February 2024 and Ruto later regretted it.

It seemed as if Ruto had missed the point of being president, to look after and defend national interests rather than self-promotion and turning Kenya into a vassal State. Averse to history and humanities, he does not comprehend global dynamics and outsources thinking even from visiting Harvard students rather than accepting Kenyan ones. His frustration was that Kenyans questioned him and he chose the breakfast prayer to show his anger. To compound matters, Ruto appears inconsistent, shifting policy positions in ways that ridicule him and raise doubts about his grasp of national interests. This is at both international and domestic levels. While his desire to send Kenyan police to US-funded Haiti mission pleases US President Joe Biden, it also makes him appear as a US proxy. He had vowed never to go to ‘Summits’ organised for Africans by individual extra-continental powers and yet he lined up for Italy-Africa and South Korea-Africa summits. Although he became angry when the media asked him about the contradiction, the imagery of a man of doublespeak remained.

His absolutist attitude, as the Auditor General keeps exposing high-level misuse of public funds, which leads to questions about Ruto’s judgement on national interests. He, for instance, authorised the construction of high-rise buildings in a security zone near Moi Air Base in Eastleigh because he is KDF Commander-in-Chief. He changed his mind when addressing Kenya Air Force personnel.

High taxes

Despite the commitment never to demolish houses, slum demolitions took place. Instead of promised jobs, new high taxes that force businesses and factories to close and investors to move to more investor-friendly neighbouring countries ensure skyrocketing joblessness.

With his political house, UDA, crumbling, grumblings against ‘Zakayo’ arose. He and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua started pulling in different directions as the latter, in search of political bearing, complained about ‘equity’. Kimani Ichungwa, in dismissing the DP as having a village mindset, inadvertently boosted Gachagua whose supporters exploited the new tag of ‘villager’. It increases Gachagua’s political chances of acceptance as the leader of the Mountain that he craves.

Ruto’s policies and actions raise questions about perceptions on how to safeguard Kenya’s national interests. The impression that foreign ‘friends’ or the World Bank and the IMF run the country and that he is not concerned with citizen unhappiness as long as the Hustler Grandees get what they want implies national loss of direction. Being praised by extra-continental forces as citizens suffer reinforces the nyapara proxy image and loss of pride. Both damage Kenya’s national interest.

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