It’s more than a year since President William Ruto was sworn into office as Kenya’s fifth president. He assumed power at a time when Kenya was beset by rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment and a worrying debt burden.
During the election campaign, Ruto promised to fix an economy afflicted by corruption and ineptitude. He promised to entrench good governance and place the poor at the centre of economic policy. He pledged to address ethnicised politics and to uphold constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Ruto’s promises were significant. The rule of law and constitutionalism are key to economic planning and development, governance and equitable sharing of national resources. They are the guardrails against impunity, democratic backsliding, lawlessness and political instability. Throughout Kenya’s postcolonial period, the political elite have exploited ethnicity to obtain power at the expense of the collective well-being and social cohesion. Elite entitlement has also weakened state institutions, leading to corruption and impunity.
I have studied democratic transitions, conflict and state state-building and elections in Africa. My 2018 book examined how the political class had exploited ethnicity for political and economic advantage, resulting in weak and even dysfunctional state institutions in Kenya.
In his election campaign, Ruto identified the major issues that required urgent attention. He addressed issues that needed swift action without constitutional changes, such as thawing the tension between the executive and the judiciary, decoupling the police finances from the executive, and taking port operations back to the coastal city of Mombasa from the inland town of Naivasha. But resolving Kenya’s economic hardships has proved a hard nut to crack, as his 9th November 2023 State of the Nation address acknowledged. Just over a year since he was sworn in, Ruto is no nearer to turning the Kenyan ship around.
As a candidate, Ruto portrayed himself as an outsider to Kenya’s power matrix who was best placed to improve the living conditions of the poor and excluded. But the economy has not improved under his watch. If anything, living conditions have worsened.
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The cost of living is higher after a steep increase in the petrol price and the local currency’s loss of value. Ruto’s government has imposed new and increased taxes on Kenyans, ostensibly to reduce or remove the need for external borrowing. The government was quick to remove fuel and food subsidies, but has been slow to address government wastage. The government's key strategy was to subsidise fertiliser to boost harvests and achieve food security. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. More deliberate measures are required to turn around agriculture as the mainstay of the economy.
On the question of centring the poor and marginalised in governance, Ruto focused on the financial sector. The government rolled out the “Hustler Fund” to make credit more affordable.
But the fund’s impact on overall living standards through job creation, for instance, is likely to be cancelled out by a punitive tax regime and a struggling economy.
Ruto’s first public event as president was to approve the appointment of six judges left in limbo by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta. He also made good on his promise to allocate more funding to the judiciary.
However, to entrench the rule of law and constitutionalism calls for more than this. Judicial officers must act with utmost integrity. To affirm equality before the law, errant senior state officers and the political elite must face the law and if found guilty sanctioned decisively.
The Kenyan judiciary is still bedevilled by corruption that impedes access to justice. Disturbingly, it is seen as more inclined to punishing the poor while letting the rich and political elite act with impunity. Ruto himself has obeyed court rulings that went against him, unlike under Kenyatta, when disregard for the law was the norm. Critics, however, including the Law Society of Kenya, have accused his administration of disobeying court orders like his predecessor.
Ruto spoke out against extrajudicial and summary executions and enforced disappearances perfected by the police over the years. He sought to accord the police financial and operational autonomy. Thus he transferred accounting for the police budget to the police as he had promised.
Despite these changes, a culture of impunity and lack of transparency continues to undermine the Kenyan police. Extrajudicial executions continue. The police must be placed under civilian oversight as envisaged under the constitution. The failure to set up a commission of inquiry into state capture under his predecessor, as promised during campaigns, dented Ruto’s commitment to the fight against corruption. A year later, a commission of inquiry has not been formed and the issue seems to have been abandoned altogether.
It is unlikely that Ruto will fulfil his manifesto unless he reins in runaway corruption and the culprits are held to account. The rule of law demands that proceeds of crime be recovered and offenders charged for economic sabotage. This approach would obviate the need to burden Kenyans with taxes and more borrowing. Appointments to government positions have been undermined by the age-old problems of recycling appointees, patronage, nepotism and ethnicity. Just as worrying are senior government officials publicly advancing exclusionary ethnic politics with impunity. Ruto must rein them in.
It is also a setback that Ruto acceded to talks to assuage the opposition elite who had resorted to violent protests against his historic victory. These elitist self-serving talks could lead to constitutional amendments creating more political positions under a cynically flawed logic that this approach enhances national cohesion. This is an about-turn on Ruto’s part.
Ultimately national cohesion is Ruto’s pressing challenge. Kenya is divided on many fronts – economic, ethnic, regional and religious – a legacy of previous governments. Ruto needs to look beyond ethno-regional appointments. For legitimacy and transformation, he needs to ideologically reconnect with and dignify the “hustler nation”, the disenfranchised constituency that propelled him into power. Bar this, he could face an intensely contested reelection bid like his predecessors.
Westen K Shilaho is a Senior Research Fellow, Institute for PanAfrican Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg. This article was first published on theconversation.com